W.Walker Peacock, Psy.D.
We’re entering that fateful time of year when progress reports start rolling out, which is when many parents make the decision to provide extra support to their children. Entering into therapy can be a daunting task, and not just for the child. How can you talk to your child about taking them to therapy without making them feel as if something is wrong with them? Does asking for professional help with my child mean that there is something wrong with me as a parent? It’s a lot easier to seek professional help from a plumber, or a golf pro. After all, they’re just pipes. It’s only a game. But this is your child.
Thankfully, the stigmas associated with therapy have greatly washed away over the past decade or so. Actors, athletes, and titans of industry have come forward publicly to discuss their own mental health struggles, and shared the benefits they have received from working with a therapist. As we as a society have become more educated about mental health and self-care, we’ve learned that nobody is “normal.” And - let’s face it – “normal” is boring. We all struggle with something from time to time.
While it’s easy to acknowledge that fact rationally, there is still an understandable anxiety when deciding to begin therapy. Seeking help from an expert opens us up to having to confront our own flaws. This can be even more difficult when we’re doing so to a seemingly all-knowing entity who never makes mistakes. But here’s the thing: the best golfers in the world still shank it into the trees. The most experienced plumbers still get leaky pipes in the basement. And the best therapists make the same mistakes as everybody else.
I’ve been the kid who went to therapy. I’ve been the parent who has helped his daughter find a therapist. And I’m the guy who has watched countless families walk into my office for their first therapeutic experience. So I’ve come up with a list of things that parents can do (and can avoid) to give themselves and their children the best chance of having successful therapy.
Talk to your kids before starting the process. Share your concerns with them from a place of compassion. If your tone comes across as critical or judgmental, then your children will see therapy as a form of punishment. I’ve winced when I’ve heard parents tell their child, “If you don’t clean up your act, you’re going back to see Peacock.”
If you don’t know what to say to your children, or your attempts to talk with them about therapy haven’t gone very well, schedule an appointment to meet with the therapist yourself. You’ll get a good sense of whether the therapist is a good fit for your child, and you can also get helpful tips on how to prepare your child for the first session.
Set clear and realistic expectations for what you hope to achieve with therapy. A therapist’s job is not to “fix” or “cure” anything; our job is to help you learn how to make things better for yourself. Try to find the small successes. For example: If your child is failing five classes, they’re probably not going to be passing any of those classes anytime soon. But if their daily grades are coming up and assignments start getting turned in, those grades will eventually turn around. In a similar way, if your child was cursing at you and having meltdowns 6 days a week and now he’s only doing it 4 days a week? That’s a win.
Be patient. Television sit-coms will have you believe that severe trauma can be treated in a single 30-minute episode (thanks a lot, Full House). But depending on the nature of your concerns, effective therapy can take months or years. It takes time to get to know a client and build the trust necessary to start making progress.
Communicate with the Therapist. The limits of confidentiality mean that the therapist cannot/will not tell you about what your child says in therapy. But that doesn’t mean that you cannot share information with the therapist. We depend on your input so that we can more effectively help your child.
It takes time to develop the kind of trust where a teenager will openly discuss the fight he had with his mom last week, or share that he got caught drinking with friends over the weekend. It’s hard to talk about, especially with a relative stranger. So let us know what’s happening at home and at school. That will enable us to bring it up with your child in an empathic and non- judgmental way, reinforcing the idea that therapy is a safe place to discuss anything.
Don’t lie to your kids. I know this sounds like a “Yeah, Duh…” moment, but it happens all the time. Parents will tell their son that he’s going to a doctor’s appointment, but they don’t clarify that it’s for therapy. Or the parent will wait until the last minute to tell their daughter that she has therapy that day. I get it. I really do. It can be hard to face that confrontation if your child is either unprepared or unmotivated for therapy. But deceiving them about it only undermines the process before it can begin. Your child will associate the therapist with the deception, and it makes it twice as hard (or impossible) for the therapist to earn your child’s trust. If you don’t know what to say to your kids about therapy, talk with the therapist beforehand. Don’t limit us to fighting fires. Psychologists have two jobs: Fire fighter and Arson Investigator. The fire fighter deals with crises as they come up, trying to put out the fire while limiting the damage done. The arson investigator sifts through the ashes of previous fires, trying to determine which factor(s) sparked the flames in the first place. Once we have that information, we’re in a great position to prevent the same fire from starting again.
Psychologists will play both roles with all of our clients, but arson investigation is where the really good work happens. You can help us spend more time in this role by communicating with us, and by sticking with the recommended treatment plan. I’ve had countless clients who fall out of my schedule for a variety of reasons, and when I call to follow up the parents will tell me that “____ is doing fine, so we don’t need therapy now.” More often than not, I’ll get a call from those same parents a month or so later, trying to get back into my schedule because their child is in crisis. And it’s back to putting out a fire that likely could have been avoided in the first place.
I’m not suggesting that you must keep your child in therapy for the rest of their lives in order to avoid crises. But if you feel like your child is doing well enough, or that he/she needs a break from therapy, please consult with your therapist before making changes to the treatment plan.