A PARENT’S GUIDE TO PSYCHOTHERAPY FOR CHILDREN & TEENS
By Morag S. Webb, LMFT
In my child and teen counseling practice, parents often ask how therapy works. Psychotherapy refers to a variety of techniques and methods used to help children and teens who are experiencing difficulties with emotion and behavior or who are coping with traumatic events. Although there are different types of psychotherapy, each relies on communication as the basic tool for bringing about change in a child or teen’s feelings and behaviors. Psychotherapy may involve an individual child or teen, group or family. One teen I worked with commented that psychotherapy helped him see different ways of solving problems that he wouldn’t have thought of on his own. The ability to face and solve problems without just reacting is one invaluable skill that is cultivated in psychotherapy.
For children, playing, drawing, building, and pretending as well as talking, are important ways of sharing feelings and resolving problems. When I work with children, I don’t usually use talk therapy. I use their language of play. Of course we talk during our play, but the communication occurs in the context of the dollhouse, the puppets or as we play a board game. Thoughts and feelings about situations are acted out in each child’s play. As I play with children, I speak their “language”, and through the use of their language I help them resolve their struggles. They come to see that they can get in charge of their anxiety or anger, that they are valuable, or that a divorce is not their fault.
As a child and teen psychotherapist, I am also asked about the practical aspects of therapy. In my practice, I start with an initial assessment to determine the need for therapy. Therapy is useful in many, but not all, cases. Deciding to proceed with therapy is based upon such things as the child’s current problems, history, development, ability to cooperate in treatment, and what interventions are most likely to help with the presenting concerns. Psychotherapy is often used in combination with other treatments such as consultation with the school, parenting support, and sometimes medication. The length of psychotherapy depends on the complexity and severity of problems and can last from three months to a couple of years.
The relationship that develops between the therapist and a child or teen is very important. A trusting relationship makes it much easier for the child to express him or herself. If a child is resistant to therapy, it can be useful for the child to work through their resistance and learn to communicate with a therapist rather than get out of developing these skills. As negative feelings are worked through in therapy, new paths are forged for the child to work through problems with their important relationships. Of course, there are also times when a child is so resistant to therapy that it is not a good intervention and other interventions should be considered.
Psychotherapy helps children and teens in a variety of ways. They receive emotional support, learn how to resolve problems and conflicts with people, come to understand their own feelings and problems, and learn how to try out new solutions to old problems. Goals in therapy may be specific (change in behavior, improved relations with friends) or more general (less anxiety, better self-esteem, or support during a time of loss). A good child psychotherapist coaches parents how to respond to their children therapeutically so that changes can be reinforced at home and the child’s important relationships can be permanently strengthened.
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