How to Prepare Your Child for Therapy

The first session with a therapist can cause confusion, anxiety, and more. Help put your child at ease with this expert advice.

If you and your child or tween have decided they might benefit from therapy, you’ve already taken a big (and important) step. You’re making their mental health a priority. The next step? Helping your child get ready for the experience.

“Kids at any age can benefit from being told by their parents what to expect at their first appointment,” says Nicole Beurkens, PhD. Beurkens is a psychologist based in Caledonia, Michigan. “Just like adults, they usually experience less anxiety when they know what will happen — and why.” Here’s an age-by-age guide to prepping your child for a successful first visit with a therapist.

If Your Child Is Age 4-7

Children this age are typically concerned about 2 main things: being separated from their parents and having to visit a health professional, says Anjani Amladi, MD. Dr. Amladi is a child psychiatrist based in Sacramento, California.

“It’s important to make it clear to them that they’re going to a safe space to talk about their feelings, not to the type of doctor who is going to give them shots,” she explains. Reassure them that you’ll be with them at least part of the time. And if the therapist wants to talk to them alone, let them know you’ll be just outside in the waiting area.

It’s also best to keep the explanation of why they’re going simple. “If they have a lot of anxiety, just say, ‘I know you are nervous. So we are going to meet Dr. X to learn how we can help you and how you can manage this better,” says Beurkens.

If Your Child Is Age 8-10

At this age, kids like to know what to expect if it’s something new. “The anticipatory anxiety can be a lot worse than the actual event,” says Dr. Amladi. About a week in advance, begin to talk to them about what the session may be like, she advises. Encourage them to ask questions.

“Your child may want to know what they should bring with them, how long they’ll be there, and what their therapist will be like,” says Dr. Amladi. If you don’t know the answers, tell your child to write their questions down. Then they can ask the therapist their questions at the first visit, adds Beurkens.

If Your Child Is Age 11-13

It’s important that tweens and teens be involved in the planning process. “I always recommend that when looking for a provider, the parent narrow it down to 2 to 3 choices. And then let their child pick,” says Dr. Amladi. “This way, they feel like they have some autonomy and some say in the process.”

If you need help finding therapists in your network, a digital health management app such as Wellframe is a great tool. This smartphone app can connect you with your care advocate, who can help you find in-network providers and schedule appointments.

Once you’ve chosen a therapist, reassure your child that nothing is set in stone. If they don’t feel comfortable with the therapist, they can switch after a couple of sessions. “It can help soothe anxiety if they know that they can keep looking until they find someone you’re both comfortable with,” says Beurkens.

You also shouldn’t pry and ask them what they plan to talk about in therapy. “Tweens and teens really want their privacy respected. They also need to know that they are having a confidential conversation with their provider,” adds Dr. Amladi. If there’s something serious going on — for example, if your child tells their therapist that they engage in self-harm or are thinking about suicide — the provider will let you know.

Some Simple Therapy Do’s and Don’ts for Kids of Any Age

These pieces of advice can help set up kids in all age groups for successful therapy.        

Do: Be positive. You don’t want your child to think they’re a problem or that they’re broken. “Explain the challenges that you’re seeing and that you want the best for them,” says Beurkens. “They should view therapy as a way to get the support they need.”

Don’t: Surprise your child with therapy. “My colleagues and I have all had experiences where parents just show up in our parking lot, and their kid has no idea until then that they have an appointment,” says Beurkens. “It puts both the therapist and the child in a difficult situation right out of the gate.”

Do: Meet alone with the therapist beforehand. This can help you know what to expect and how to talk to your child about the session, says Dr. Amladi.

Don’t: Drag finances into it. “Kids are sensitive to parental worries. If you say something like, ‘You’d better behave in this session because this is very expensive,’ it puts a lot of pressure on the child in a way that’s unproductive,” explains Dr. Amladi.

Don’t: Use therapy as a form of discipline. “It turns what is supposed to be a resource into a punishment,” says Dr. Amladi. You want your child to view therapy as a safe place to go where they can relax, let their guard down — and even have fun. The more positive the experience, the more likely your child will get positive things out of it.

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