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Process & Progress: The Role of Parents in Therapy

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Seeking therapy for a child can be a difficult step for parents. While some 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 the child and others, 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.

It’s really important to understand that simply bringing a child to therapy may not automatically resolve whatever issue is the focus. There is no “fixing” children here (or their families for that matter). Helping your child recognize and develop an awareness of behaviors and emotional responses is usually the starting point. This also extends to you, the parent, so that reflection can take place; reflection on how your parenting style or approach and any other factors (i.e. how you respond to stress or frustration), is impacting your child. Then the development and practice of coping strategies can occur. Depending on the circumstances and/or the age of the child, the therapist may actually work more directly with you. If it’s a case where the therapist is working more directly with the child, your role as the parent is still very critical.

You and your child are working as a team in therapy. You are the ones who must do the real work involved. If your child is younger, you are usually the key player in reinforcing the skills and strategies to be practiced within the home environment. If this doesn’t take place, progress can remain stagnant, or it may not happen at all. Because of this, its not unusual for you to feel as if you want to pull back or even stop bringing your child to therapy. You may perceive that it isn’t helpful without really connecting your role 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 simply 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. They just may not be ready to face the issue themselves, or they may not see their role as a contributing factor. 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.

  • Express any reservation to the therapist. If you don’t agree with what is being said, communicate this. This will not only help the therapist see your perspective, but it can also help shape a goal or plan that you will agree with and feel good about. 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 you feel hopeful, it will also help the child feel confident about going as well.
  • Try to keep the child’s schedule the same. Engagement in this 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 you aren’t interested in helping your 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 you 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 you are confused or not confident in changing an approach or changing how you phrase things, say so. The therapist can model and walk you through how the change should look.

One final thing to consider is if the therapist is checking in with you. 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. This helps the therapist understand your engagement, but also to know which strategies are working and which ones are not. It also gives you an opportunity to share your experience, which should include not only any concerns you have, but successes you’ve noted as well.

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