New to Therapy? Helping Your Child Adapt
by Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S
Children don’t face the exact same stressors as adults – “grown-up” challenges such as managing credit card debt, raising a family, working through marital issues, and navigating job challenges haven’t yet become part of their life experience. But the feelings those stressors cause – fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty about the future – have no age limit. Growing up is not easy and, no matter the age, life is full of challenges that bring along a myriad of emotions to sort through.
Because of this, children may need extra support in overcoming their challenges and working through their emotions. And sometimes the way to provide this support is through play therapy. Play therapy isn’t just for a child whose family has had a loss or divorce. It isn’t just for a child struggling in school, with peers, with impulse control, or self-esteem issues. Play therapy is really for all children because it is an opportunity for any child to learn about themselves- their emotions, their thoughts, their behaviors. Play therapy is a way to help children discover who they are – who can’t benefit from that?
As a parent, you may have decided that you want your child to have a play therapy experience, but maybe you aren’t sure how to talk to your child about it. You may be on board thinking, “let’s go to therapy”; yet they think, “let’s go to the toy store.” So, how do you encourage your child to warm to the idea? The following tips will get you started:
Be positive: Giving your child the opportunity to explore themselves, discover themselves, and be themselves is a gift. As a parent, if you can hold this perspective around therapy rather than painting it as punishment or even a medicine to cure something that is implied to be broken, your child will inadvertently feel the privilege and be more open to the decision.
Be truthful: There are a few factors making truthfulness highly important. First, children know when you’re hiding something and signs of incongruence in the environment register as a threat to our body’s nervous system. Insincerity stokes the fires of the imagination – they’re going to therapy, but the secrecy makes them assume they’re going somewhere awful. Secondly, openness invites security and helps your child understand that the therapist is on their side. Honesty and authenticity are the best policies for a reason. It is often helpful to tell your child that they will be spending their own special time with someone who loves to help kids and loves to play with them.
Don’t minimize your child’s concerns: Therapy elicits a variety of emotions – some kids may be scared, some may be hesitant, some may be resistant, some may be indifferent, and some may be excited. Whatever emotion your child is experiencing, acknowledge it. Even if you know therapy isn’t scary, your child may not be as convinced: the fear or apprehension they feel is very real and it needs to be seen, heard, and accepted.
Give your children control: Most things in life are out of a child’s control (heck, most things are out of a parent’s control!), but providing your kid with a sense of power also provides them with a sense of safety. Helping your child understand that during the session they are in charge is very helpful (you will have to make sure that this is in line with the style of play therapy you are seeking out before you tell them this). They get to decide what to play with and how they would like to spend their time while in the session. This provides them with a choice and allows them to feel less trapped.
Tell them what therapy involves: The brain is an extraordinarily complex organ that, ironically, wants things to be simple. It likes to know what lies ahead – this is true for the young and the old. Our nervous systems perceive the unknown as a threat, therefore predictability is key. Kids who aren’t sure what therapy involves are more likely to resist the playroom. Their brains are designed to resist, essentially saying, “I don’t know what to expect. No thanks, I’ll pass.” Explain the process and help them acclimate. Asking your child’s therapist how they would like you to explain the therapy to your child is a very important part of the intake process.
Remind them of the endgame: Many parents seek professional help because their child is unhappy or exhibiting behaviors suggestive of a struggle. Reminding your kid of the endgame helps them see why therapy is necessary. And this doesn’t mean finding your child’s happily ever after. Rather, it’s helping the child learn acceptance, learn to self-soothe in times of pain and challenge, and grow as an individual. It’s about introducing the child to their authentic self and allowing them to know and love who they are.