Process & Progress: The Role of Parents in Therapy

luis-quintero-1209369-unsplashSeeking therapy for a child can be a difficult step for parents. While some parents try to reach out to establish a therapist for their child in a proactive manner (i.e. impending divorce, family member with a terminal illness, etc), some parents reach out in a reactionary manner (i.e. behavior at home or school is adversely affecting more than the child, a traumatic event, etc). We’re not here to state which approach is better because we applaud any family decision to seek support for a child or children. Its the role of the parent and how they can support the therapeutic process that we want to focus on.

Its really important to understand that simply bringing a child to therapy sessions may not automatically resolve whatever issue is the focus. There is no “fixing” children here (or their families for that matter). Helping the child recognize and develop an awareness of behaviors and emotional responses is usually the starting point. This also extends to parents, so they can reflect on how their parenting style or approach as well as other factors, can impact the child or children. Then developing and practicing coping strategies, for all, can take place. Depending on the circumstances or the age of the child, the therapist may actually work more directly with the parental unit than the child. If its a case where the therapist is working more directly with the child; however, the role of the parent is still very critical.

Parents and their child or children in therapy are working as a team. The child and their family are the ones who must do the real work involved. Parents are also key players in reinforcing the skills and strategies to be practiced within the home environment. If this doesn’t take place, progress can halt and remain stagnant, or it may not happen at all. Because of this, its not unusual for parents to pull back or even stop bringing their child to therapy. They may perceive that it isn’t helpful without connecting their roles or responsibilities as a factor.

There are many reasons parents may not engage and become active participants within their child’s therapeutic process. Parents are so incredibly stressed and stretched thin today. Most are focused on getting through each day, so asking them to create a new routine or to change their approach feels impossible and this leads to frustration. Some parents may not agree with the therapist’s assessment. This may make them less likely to want to try a new approach or reinforce what’s already being done in session.  In some cases, parents may simply be unwilling to change their approach. Therapy is definitely not the easy way out. There is real work involved, but there are also a variety of ways parents can support this process for their child or children.

  • Express any reservation to the therapist. If parents don’t agree with what is being said, communicate this. This will not only help the therapist see the other perspective, but it can also help shape a goal or plan that parents will agree with. It will at the very least give everyone a starting point and something to process.
  • Try to remain positive about this experience. This is often an unfamiliar process, so maintaining a positive outlook will not only help parents feel hopeful, it will also help the child feel confident about going as well.
  • Try to keep the child’s day to day schedule the same. Engagement in the process can be draining and stressful at first, not to mention a significant change for everyone. Keeping the routine as structured and predictable as possible can help ease the transition.
  • Try to avoid pushing negative behaviors on to the therapy session only. Making statements like “make sure you tell him/her what happened at school today/at home last/etc” can send the message that parents aren’t interested in helping the child problem solve; that this issue or behavior is theirs and theirs alone to work out. The reality is a child’s behavior or set of behaviors are serving some kind of function for the child, which is not likely happening in isolation. Everyone is affected in some way or another.
  • Support and reinforce the coping strategies the child is tasked to practice. Using the same language when possible can also be helpful for skill generalization to the home environment. If parents don’t think a strategy will work or don’t find any value in a certain strategy, try to avoid communicating this to the child.
  • Communicate anything that isn’t clear. If parents are confused or not confident in changing an approach or changing how they phrase things, say so. The therapist can model and walk parents through how the change should look.

One final thing to consider is if the therapist is checking in with parents. This can look very different depending on the age of the child, the presenting issue, and goals set. Maybe the therapist is checking in every 6 sessions. Maybe its every single session. Maybe there is a separate parental session scheduled every 3 months. Whatever interval is set, the therapist should be checking in on how things are going. This helps gauge the engagement of the parents, but also to know which strategies are working and which ones are not.

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