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Therapy can be a confusing concept for children to understand. As parents, it is important that how we explain therapy to a child in an age-appropriate way that helps them feel comfortable and reduces any anxiety they may have.

This blog post provides tips on how to have an open dialogue about therapy with your child at different developmental stages. The goal is to normalize therapy and help them understand how it can be a source of help and growth in their lives. We will also discuss key insights into how to explain therapy to a child in this fast-paced world.

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Preschool Age Children (3-5 years)

  • Keep It Simple

At this age, children have a limited vocabulary and ability to comprehend complex ideas. Avoid using the term “therapy,” which can sound intimidating. Instead, refer to it as “talk time” or “special play time” with a helper. Explain that this is a safe person they can talk to about their feelings. Give examples of feelings they can discuss, like feeling sad, angry, worried, etc. Don’t go into details about diagnoses or treatment plans.  You can also search online for resources on how to explain therapy to a child in a way he would understand. 

  • Use Play

Acting out pretend scenarios with dolls or stuffed animals can help make abstract concepts more concrete. Model a stuffed animal going to “talk time” and sharing their feelings. Praise the animal for being brave and getting help. This can help normalize the idea of talking to a therapist. This may help you have an idea of how to explain therapy to a child.

  • Answer Questions Simply

Preschoolers are naturally curious and may ask questions about therapy. Answer honestly but without too much detail. For example, if they ask, “Why do I have to go?” say, “The therapist helps you learn ways to feel happy again when you feel sad or upset.” Use language they relate to.

Elementary School-Age Children (6-9 years)

  • Explain The Role of a Therapist 

It is natural to look for advice from other parents who have experience with how to explain therapy to a child in a supportive way.

Children in elementary school better understand the concept of helpers like doctors. Explain that just like a doctor helps your body feel better, a therapist is a doctor who helps you manage feelings and behaviors. Share that therapists are specially trained to help kids talk through different issues.

  • Relate It to Emotions

Connect therapy to recognizable emotions like worry, anger, or sadness. For example, “Therapy is a safe place to talk about feelings you may be struggling with, like anger. Your therapist will help you learn ways to calm down.” Use examples they can relate to.

  • Emphasize Confidentiality 

Assure them that sessions are private and they can share things without fear. Explain that therapists can’t tell others what they discuss without permission. The only exception is if they reveal they are unsafe.

  • Involve Them

Invite their input by asking who they might want to talk about therapy or what goals they’d like to work on. This gives them some control and investment in the process. Respect their pace of opening up.

Pre-Teens (10-12 years)

  • Explain Mental Health

You may wonder how to explain therapy to a child without overwhelming her with too much information. 

Pre-teens have a growing understanding of emotions and mental health. Explain that just like we can develop physical illnesses, we can also develop mental health challenges that therapy helps address. Talk about common mental health issues like anxiety, depression, or eating disorders. 

  • Normalize Therapy

Explain that many pre-teens and adults go to therapy to help them manage difficult emotions and behaviors. Share examples of celebrities or public figures who have shared their mental health journeys. This helps portray therapy as common and destigmatize it.

  • Collaborate On Goals

Collaborate with your child to develop goals for therapy based on issues they identify. Pre-teens desire independence, so involve them in the process. Ensure goals reflect their concerns, not just yours.

  • Build Trust 

You may struggle to find the right words for how to explain therapy to a child without scaring them. Emphasize that therapy provides a safe space to share feelings without judgment. Discuss how the therapist is there to listen and support them in an unbiased manner. Highlight confidentiality and that you hope therapy becomes a source of trusted guidance.

Teenagers (13-18 years)

  • Take Their Lead

Given teens increasing need for autonomy, let them take the lead in sharing how comfortable they feel talking about therapy. Ask if they would like to keep it private or involve you. Respect their boundaries.

  • Affirm It’s Courageous 

Acknowledge attending therapy takes maturity and courage. Praise them for taking this step to gain coping skills and self-understanding.

  • Discuss Logistics

Review practical details like the location of sessions, insurance coverage, and arranging transportation. Offer to help coordinate scheduling if needed. Also, discuss policies on confidentiality and parental involvement.

  • Don’t Force Disclosure

While it’s ideal for teens to open up, don’t force them to disclose details of sessions before they are ready. Building trust with their therapist first is crucial. Let them determine when to involve you.

  • Reinforce It’s Voluntary 

While you may recommend therapy, remind teens that it is ultimately their choice. Share you believe seeking help takes strength and hope therapy equips them for future challenges. But emphasize they control the process.

For Younger Children—Use Stories and Metaphors

There are several examples of how to explain therapy to a child using storytelling and roleplaying. Younger children learn well through stories and metaphors. For example, you can say, “Going to therapy is like going to see a helper who listens well. Just like firefighters help people with fires, and doctors help people who are sick, therapists help people with feelings.” Use examples they relate to. Tell a story about a character their age facing a challenge and getting help from a wise therapist. Make therapy seem helpful versus scary.

  • Empower Them to Participate 

Children feel empowered when given choices. Discuss options like whether they want individual or family sessions, the gender of the therapist, meeting at home or an office, or methods like play therapy. Highlight their ability to share at their own pace. For younger kids, ask if they want to bring a stuffed animal, book, or toy to sessions. Involve them in small ways to ease anxiety.

  • Highlight Benefits

Don’t just focus on the problem being addressed. Proactively highlight benefits like learning new coping skills, having an ally to talk to, and gaining self-awareness. Share how therapy helped someone they know or a character they admire. Frame it as leading to self-growth versus reflecting inadequacy.

  • Troubleshoot Logistics

Work through logistics to make attending therapy feasible. Determine availability, insurance coverage, location, and transportation. For younger children, schedule sessions right after school/activities. Identify potential barriers like cost or distance and brainstorm solutions. Making the logistics smooth reduces resistance.

  • Follow Their Lead

Give children the space to ask questions and share concerns. Don’t overwhelm them with too much information all at once. Let your child’s unique needs and personality guide the discussion. If they seem uncomfortable, gently transition the conversation. Building trust and rapport is key, so follow their lead.

  • Normalize Struggles

Children often think they are alone in their struggles. Normalize feelings like worry, anger, or sadness as a shared human experience. “Many kids feel scared before starting therapy. This is very normal. The therapist is there to help you with those big feelings.” Share stories of other children who have faced and overcome challenges. 

  • Use Their Interests

Counselors suggest using metaphors as an age-appropriate way of how to explain therapy to a child. Connect the idea of therapy to your child’s interests. For a child who loves drawing, explain therapy as “talking and drawing with someone to help understand feelings.” For athletes, describe it as “a coach for your mind who helps develop mental strength.” Associating therapy with familiar interests makes it less intimidating.

  • Identify Triggers

Observe what situations tend to trigger challenging feelings for your child. Is it social settings? Transitions? New people? Explaining when therapy could help provides concrete examples. “When you feel nervous about going to parties, talking to your therapist could help you feel more confident.”

  • Respect Boundaries

While openness about therapy can be beneficial, also respect your child’s need for privacy, especially with teens. Do not force disclosure about therapy sessions, which can erode trust. Let professionals guide you on what information is appropriate to share with you. Honor your child’s boundaries.

  • Be Supportive

Above all, convey unconditional support for your child seeking help through therapy. “I’m proud of you for taking steps to deal with this challenge. I’m here for you.” Rather than scrutinizing their need for therapy, validate their courage in facing difficulties. Offer empathy and patience throughout the process.

The Bottom Line

Explaining therapy in an age-appropriate, destigmatizing way allows children to feel understood and empowered. Have honest conversations that evolve with their development. Maintain open communication while respecting their privacy and agency in the process. With your support, therapy can provide lasting benefits in managing their emotional health.

Are you thinking about how to explain therapy to a child in a way they would understand?

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