How to Work With Your Child's Therapist to Support Their Therapy

A young girl and her parents with a therapist

Prostock-Studio / iStockphoto

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Raising kids can be challenging, especially because their behaviors and emotions can change quickly. Much of the time, these fluctuations are a normal part of child development and nothing to be concerned about.

But sometimes, these changes in mood or behavior are indicators of a more serious concern like anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue. In these cases, you may find that a mental health professional is needed to help your child or teen cope with what they're experiencing.

If you've decided to get your child help and have selected a mental health professional, you may not know how to proceed. This can be especially confusing if you have little to no experience navigating a counseling environment.

Here we will walk you through what to expect while your child is in therapy. Learn how to embrace your role, collaborate with the therapist, and support your child.

What Is the Purpose of Therapy?

Therapy can be very beneficial for both kids and their families. During therapy sessions, your child will learn how to understand and resolve problems, make positive changes in their lives, learn coping skills, and modify behaviors.

Throughout the therapy sessions, the therapist will work with your child or teen to improve their coping mechanisms so that their symptoms improve. Ultimately, the overall goal of therapy is to provide insight into your child's issues as well as improve their functioning and overall quality of life.

Sometimes, your child will need only therapy; and other times, they will be prescribed medications to help aid the healing process. Together you, your child, and their medical team can determine the best course of action to take so that they begin feeling better.

If your child is struggling with a mental health issue, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. Or, talk with your healthcare provider.

What to Expect From Therapy

Most parents want to know how long treatment will take and how soon they will start to see progress. Ben Bring, DO, a physician specializing in family medicine at OhioHealth Dublin Methodist Hospital stresses that therapy is not a quick fix. "One or two visits will not solve these issues," Dr. Bing says. "Therapy requires daily growth and maturity from the child and the parent."

It's also important to note that kids make progress at very different rates. Some kids will take to therapy right away. Others will need a little more time to warm up to the therapist and become comfortable.

That said, it's perfectly acceptable to ask the therapist if the three of you can set specific treatment goals in the beginning. This can help you determine how you will measure success and give you a better handle on how things are progressing. It can also help you decide whether this particular counseling relationship is right for your child.

Confidentiality

Many times—especially with teens and older children—therapy sessions are confidential. As a result, you may not always know what is discussed in the session unless your child shares the information with you.

"I remind parents that communication regarding the session is based on what is necessary so that the teen or child feels comfortable having a safe place to share," explains Kristin Rinehart, MSW LISW-S, TTS, director of behavioral health services for Muskingum Valley Health Centers and owner of Changing Minds.

Sometimes, the therapist will let you know what they are working on or how you can support your child at home. But the details of their conversations are usually kept private. With younger children, there might be situations where the parent is in the room with the therapist and the child. It just depends on the situation and the goals of the therapy session.

"My kids' counselors told my kids that what was said in their office was private," says Kathleen Buoni, a Pickerington, Ohio mother of three teens and a hospice state tested nurse's aide. "But [the therapists] also warned [my kids] that if they discussed something that was life-threatening then they needed to understand that they would share that information with an adult." Buoni has worked with therapists with two of her three children.

How to Collaborate With the Therapist

Even the most skilled therapists will need input from you throughout the therapy process. This is because they simply do not have enough time with your child to develop a complete picture of the issues. Consequently, many counselors want to meet with parents at that first visit so that they can understand what is going on. This helps them work with the family to set goals for therapy.

Some therapists will even set aside time to check in with parents to learn more about what they are seeing at home. Often, this includes what progress the child is making as well as what challenges they are facing. Be honest and straightforward about what you are seeing and experiencing when you do talk with the therapist.

"Sometimes parents fear judgment or shame thinking that sharing their children's problems or family issues is a negative reflection [of them] as a parent," Rinehart says. "Don’t be afraid to share your biggest or smallest worries. You know your child best."

Kristin Rinehart, MSW, LISW-S, TTS

Don’t be afraid to share your biggest or smallest worries. You know your child best.

— Kristin Rinehart, MSW, LISW-S, TTS

In the meantime, if things don't make sense or if you need more information, be sure to ask for clarification. You also can request background reading material, online resources, or information about support groups, all of which may help you process and make sense of things.

It's also important to be realistic about your expectations. Make sure you keep an open mind and try to be flexible through the counseling process.

"Don't be put off or let down if after the first appointment it doesn't seem like your child clicks with the therapist," says Buoni. "It will take a few sessions for things to gel." As your child becomes comfortable with their therapist and the therapist begins to build trust, that is when you will start to see changes, improvements, and growth.

Tips for Supporting Your Child

Having a child in therapy can feel frustrating and overwhelming at times, but parents are an important part of the process. For this reason, it is key that you work to develop the right mindset and approach to your child's therapy. Here are some tips on how you can best support your child throughout the process.

Be an Active Participant

One of the first steps to successful therapy is recognizing that you have an important role to play in your child's healing. For this reason, Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and best-selling author, recommends that parents become active participants in the therapy process.

In other words, try to be organized and engaged when you do visit the therapist's office. And do your best to avoid distractions caused by phones and technology when in therapy.

Amy Morin, LCSW

Think about what you want to communicate. Get specific in terms of the symptoms you’ve been seeing and how long you’ve been seeing them.


— Amy Morin, LCSW

"Think about what you want to communicate," Morin explains. "Get specific in terms of the symptoms you’ve been seeing and how long you’ve been seeing them. Saying something like, 'My child seems a little off and this has been going on a while,' won’t help." You can also try to name specific behavioral or emotional symptoms.

Getting involved in the process yourself shows your child that they should take therapy sessions seriously. This means keeping appointments, arriving on time, and being engaged when communicating with the therapist.

Keep Lines of Communication Open

There are no hard rules when it comes to therapy. In the beginning, share your expectations with the therapist and work together to determine how all of you can support and collaborate with one another.

"Ask about the best way to communicate with the therapist," suggests Morin. "Some therapists may want you to call ahead of an appointment if you have any specific concerns. Others may want you to attend appointments so you can ask questions or talk about what you’re working on at home with your child." Being engaged and knowing how you can best work with the therapist may help prevent problems before they arise.

It's also important to communicate openly with your child about therapy. Ask how the session went and give them opportunities to talk if they want. Try not to push the issue, though. Instead, let them know you are there and interested, and allow them to make the decision on what to share.

"My kids were quiet about their counseling sessions," says Buoni. "Usually, I could tell they felt better afterward. But they didn't want to run and tell me everything about the session either. I had to learn very quickly to be OK with that." This can be difficult for parents, especially if you want to understand what may be going on. Know if your child keeps things to themselves, that is OK and does not mean therapy is not working.

Build Trust

Parents are also instrumental in building trust between the counselor and their child, Dr. Bring says. For this reason, parents should talk with their kids about why they will be going to therapy.

"Sit down with your kids and make sure they know that you're doing this to help them and that no one is getting in trouble," Dr. Bring says. "You also should work with your child to set goals and determine what they would like to get out of the therapy sessions."

Ben Bring, DO

Make sure they know that you're doing this to help them and that no one is getting in trouble.

— Ben Bring, DO

For therapy to be successful, your child needs to trust the process as well as the people involved. As a result, make sure you are listening to your child's fears and concerns and helping to address those. If they can trust the process, as well as you and the therapist, they are more likely to experience positive results.

Avoid Being Judgmental or Critical

Therapy can be a challenging process and, it's easy to become judgmental or critical when things aren't going exactly as you had hoped. But these reactions can be detrimental to your child's success in therapy. So, do your best to keep those feelings in check. "Kids are more likely to share with parents if they know that their parents are always going to love and support them," says Dr. Bring.

When they do share, try not to overreact. Remember that kids make mistakes. "Instead of dwelling on the mistakes, teach them how to learn from them," Dr. Bring says. "Too many times, parents don't want their kids to fail, but learning how to fail is an important part of life."

It's also important that parents not resort to internal criticisms or give in to guilt. Instead, focus on the positive things you are doing and how you are helping your child. You also should resist the urge to take things personally or getting offended, Buoni says. Allow space for your child and the therapist to do their work so that your family can get the healing they need.

And remember, this can be a difficult time for parents too. "Parents may not be suffering in the same way as their child, but they are dealing with the runoff from the mental health issues and that can be hard," Buoni says.

Kathleen Buoni

Parents may not be suffering in the same way as their child, but they are dealing with the runoff from the mental health issues and that can be hard.

— Kathleen Buoni

Be a Good Listener

As hard as it may be at times, Dr. Bring encourages parents to focus on doing more listening rather than talking. And when you do speak, make sure you are asking open-ended questions and allowing your child or the therapist to answer the question thoroughly and thoughtfully.

"Always try to understand your child's point of view," Dr. Bring says. "Make sure they understand that their opinions and values are respected." Remind them that you will be there to support them, no matter what.

Allow for Autonomy

Providing opportunities for autonomy is critical when it comes to therapy. Part of the therapy process is learning how to approach the challenging parts of life in healthier ways. When kids learn to do this without being forced by their parents, it builds their self-esteem and sense of independence. "Allow them to implement what they have learned on their own," Dr. Bring says. "[Forcing your child to] practice the skills the therapist is teaching them won't have the impact it should."

Sometimes parents get too involved in the therapy sessions, says Morin. They may even try to direct the therapist or tell their child what to talk about in therapy. You can communicate your concerns, but do not overstep.

"Trust that the therapist and the child will determine what to address and how to address it," Morin says.

Be Honest

You need to be honest with yourself and with the therapist, says Buoni. There is no room for telling stories or trying to spin things in a way that will make you or your child look differently. As hard as it may be, you have to be willing to face the facts of the situation.

"You are going to hear things you don't want to hear or that you might possibly disagree with," Buoni says. "Don't shut down if the therapist says something you don't like. You need to stay engaged and aware of where the therapist is trying to take your child mentally and emotionally."

When you are honest with yourself, your child, and their therapist, there is a greater chance that you will see positive results from the therapy sessions.

A Word From Verywell

Making a decision to get a therapist for your child is a big step that can feel scary at times. But with the right approach and mindset, both you and your child can benefit from the experience. Do what you can to stay engaged in the process and support your child at every turn.

Before you know it, you will start to see improvements in your child's mental and emotional health. Until then, be sure you are building a strong relationship with their therapist and the rest of their medical team. Together, you can make sure your child gets the care and the treatment they need.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Psychotherapy for children and adolescents: different types. Updated April 2019.