Three Differences about Child Therapy
Although many therapists do both adult and child therapy, the process of child therapy has distinct differences from that of adult therapy. If you are considering child therapy, or your young person has asked to speak to a therapist, here are three nuggets of difference to adult therapy that are important to keep in mind!
Allow for Patience
Firstly, the process of child therapy requires more patience and can be a much slower process than adult therapy. Not all children or young people want to come to therapy or understand what the word therapy actually means. Therefore, there is a significant amount of time spent psychologically educating young people about what a therapist and therapy is. The initial process helps young people realise that going to therapy doesn’t mean they’re crazy or that they’re going to end up in the hospital or that they are destined for an unhappy future - Those are catastrophic thoughts that their therapist will help guide them through! Therapy is a service for people who are experiencing some kind of psychological distress, it is impacting them and they have a desire to do better.
If your young person does not want to be in therapy, the therapist's first job is to understand why that is, especially if the parents feel that there is indeed a problem. It is at this time where we sometimes see a very big difference between the parent's and the young person’s perception of what is going on at home or school. The therapist has to then find the middle ground that allows both parties to have a shared understanding of treatment, support and understanding what is the therapeutic goal. This isn’t always a straightforward process! It can take several weeks with a highly reluctant teenager in order to find common ground in the difficulties they are facing. From there we can create a therapeutic goal to support them through this chapter of life. At times what the parents want out of therapy isn’t necessarily what the young person needs support with. Ensuring good communication between all parties and for the parents to trust the therapist they are working with is extremely important.
The Development of Trust
Therapy is a real act of vulnerability and the best therapy is done when people give the therapist “permission to trespass” on delicate thoughts that aren’t typically shared in the public arena. Why on earth would anyone do that? Because they trust the therapist they are working with. For a child or young person to trust a therapist is an extremely novel act, they are engaging in a relationship that is unlike other adult relationships; a therapist is not their parent, family member or teacher. Therefore figuring out the dynamics of this relationship can be a slow process for a young person.
Therapy works through creating a therapeutic alliance of trust, this concept for a child or young person can be challenging to wrap their heads around due to novelty and expectations. Unlike school where a young person is told what to do with clear boundaries and expectations, much of child therapy is tailored around the needs of the child and the concept of “right or wrong” is somewhat non-existent. Unlike adults, it can be a confusing dynamic for a child to navigate as sometimes they have no other points of reference for what therapy is. Adults may have had previous experience in therapy, seen it in movies or TV shows, or even had a friend in therapy before with whom they spoke about the experience. Due to the unfortunate stigma, many young people have reluctance in trusting the therapist and therefore opening up to talk about what really matters can be difficult for them. A large component of child therapy is creating the bond between the therapist and the young person.
Lots of parents forget that therapy is a confidential process, it is not the therapist's job to understand their child and then report back to the parents. In therapy, we aim for the young person to understand themselves so they can better communicate their needs to the people that matter the most and emotionally regulate themselves to help themselves. The therapist is expecting the child to open up and be vulnerable, for many young people the thought that their parents could know everything they’re saying is unnerving and sets the wrong tone for therapy. Therefore the therapist will always set the boundaries of confidentiality with parents and the young person (their client) in the initial session. This boundary includes self-harm and risk but each therapist has different boundaries of what they share with parents depending on their therapeutic outlook and what is agreed upon in the initial session. It is always important to make sure that this is clear in the first session and everyone is on the same page.
At times, the therapist may want to include the parents in a session with the young person, or have parenting consultations to better understand the dynamics at home. Each therapist has a different approach and it is always best to ask more questions in your initial session to understand their therapeutic modality. Ultimately, healing happens at home and therapy is the catalyst and dress rehearsal of skills that the child or young person needs to practice at home, with the people who matter the most, their parents and friends.