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What Should You Expect When Your Child is in Therapy

You’ve made the decision to get your child help. You’ve also discussed their mental health with them and have found a mental health professional. Now, as their first appointment gets closer, you may be curious or anxious on what to expect. You may even be second-guessing your decision.

To help put your mind at ease, let’s quickly go over what you should know about taking your child to therapy.

For starters, let’s debunk some common misconceptions about therapy and children’s mental health;

  • If treated, a child can manage or overcome a psychiatric disorder.

  • Psychiatric disorders are not a sign of weakness.

  • Psychiatric disorders are not a result of bad parenting.

  • Willpower alone will not help a child manage a psychiatric disorder.

  • Therapy is not a waste of time for you and your child.

  • Your child will not be hospitalized or medicated if they go to therapy.

  • Children do not grow out of mental health problems.

With that out of the way, let’s go over what to expect when taking your child to therapy.

Preparing for your first meeting.

“Just like an initial doctor’s appointment, there will be a good amount of paperwork to complete prior to the first session. It is helpful to ask if you can get the paperwork ahead of time to allow you to arrive with everything filled out,” suggests Dr. Carlos Konishi Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at CHOC Children’s.

“Documents like IEP’s, grades, special testing results, teacher or coach feedback, any information that will help the therapist get a more complete picture of your child is extremely helpful,” adds Dr. Konishi.

You may also want to be prepared to share your child’s background, mention anything that may have impacted their mental health, and what strategies you’ve already tried. It would also be helpful to think about the goals are for treatment and prepare a list of questions you want to ask the therapist. Some examples would be:

  • How often will you meet?

  • Who will be included in the therapy sessions?

  • How will progress be tracked?

  • What’s the best way to communicate with you?

  • How do I explain therapy to my child?

How does therapy work?

"In therapy, kids learn by doing. With younger kids, this means working with the whole family, drawing, playing, and talking. For older kids and teens, therapists share activities and ideas that focus on learning the skills they need. They talk through feelings and solve problems.

Therapists give praise and support as kids learn. They help kids believe in themselves and find their strengths. Therapy builds helpful thinking patterns and healthy behavioral habits.

A therapist might meet with the child and parent together or meet with the child alone. It depends on the child's age. A therapist might also meet with a parent to give tips and ideas for how to help their child at home.

However, depending on the mental health issue, there are different types of childhood therapy. These are, as explained by Everyday Health:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy. In this form of counseling, children are taught how their own thoughts can affect their mood and behavior. Kids are shown how to identify negative or distorted thought patterns and deal with them. This type of therapy is helpful in addressing mood disorders like anxiety and depression.

  • Play therapy. Kids are given toys to play with, and a psychotherapist watches their play to better understand their emotional or mental health issues. Different types of play help the child figure out feelings and express them. Play therapy can help kids who have depression or anxiety because they are having trouble dealing with life issues like divorce or the death of a loved one.

  • Psychodynamic psychotherapy. This is the children's version of the classic "talking cure," by which a psychotherapist helps figure out the issues that are influencing how a child thinks or acts. The therapy operates on the theory that a child's behavior will improve once his inner struggles are brought out in the open. This can help a child who has anxiety or depression, is dealing with an eating disorder, or is lashing out due to a conduct disorder.

  • Behavior therapy. This sort of therapy for kids differs from cognitive-behavioral therapy in that it focuses on behavior modification. Behaviors are identified that need to be discouraged or encouraged, and then parents work to change the environmental factors that contribute to those behaviors and also provide consequences for desired or undesired behavior. It is helpful for treating children who have ADHD, as well as other conditions for which behavior modification is desired.

What happens in therapy?

For the first session, it’s not uncommon for you and your child to meet with the therapist. They will ask questions in order learn more about your child and build rapport.

After that, your child might spend visits just talking to the therapists to express their feelings and discuss healthy ways to solve problems. They may also do activities to help with your child’s coping skills or play games to develop skills like how to use self-control.

How long will it take for therapy to work?

“It is really important for parents to exercise patience when assessing the effectiveness of therapy. The first 2 – 3 sessions are generally spent building rapport with the child and making them feel comfortable,” says Dr. Konishi. He recommends your child go to 5 sessions before making a decision.

Ultimately, how long therapy will last depends on the goals that you and the therapists have agreed upon. Usually, this is once a week for a few months.

How you can help.

The best thing that you can do is to be patient and don’t expect progress overnight, along with showing them warmth. You can also make sure that you’re working with a therapist that you and your child feel comfortable with, are getting your child to their appointments on-time, and spending quality time with your child. And, keep in touch with the therapist so that you can ask them questions and notify them of any other changes you’ve noticed in your child.

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