Preparing Your Child for Mental Health Services

How to Best Prepare Your Child or Teen for Services

Parents often ask, "How do I prepare my child for the Initial Appointment?"

You may be especially concerned if your child is ambivalent, reluctant, or even resistant to participating.

No worries! This is fairly common.  In fact, it's pretty rare that a kid comes into my office saying, "Thank God, I couldn't wait to meet some stranger - a shrink, no less - so I can tell him all about my most embarrassing or difficult personal problems!"

It's completely natural to feel some ambivalence about coming to a see a mental health professional, knowing that you are dealing with some personal problems.  It's even harder for kids sometimes, because more often than not it's the parents who want to come in to "fix the problem."

Relax.  If your child isn't thrilled to be here initially, I promise I won't take it personally. And, while I can't guarantee I'll win your child over on the first try, I do have a pretty good track record.

I'll show up with kindness and candor, warmth and firmness, and we'll figure it out just fine together.

How to Have Those Difficult Conversations

Meanwhile, here are some simple rules of thumb for how to talk with your child about the Initial Consultation before the Initial Consultation. - Or before beginning any mental health services, anywhere.

The key is to make it a dialogue - to have an honest conversation about some genuine concerns you have for their health and well-being.

You may adjust the details to suit your child's age and temperament, but try to adhere to these guiding principles and practices:

  1. Be brief, honest, and direct.  Do not be vague or evasive. Definitely don't try to deceive your child or fake it. Do not say we're going to meet a new friend or just to play and talk with this nice man.  Explain the truth, kindly and sensitively, but directly and honestly.
  2. Start with a recent example of how your child has been suffering lately.  For example, refer to some recent arguments or conflicts, blow-ups or meltdowns. As in: "Remember how we got in that big fight yesterday ..." or "I've noticed you've been seeming kinda down lately..." or "You know how you keep worrying about [this...] or you've been complaining about [that...]."
  3. PAUSE to allow some time and space for the child to be able to admit - "Yeah, that happened / that happens sometimes..." or "Yeah, that's kinda true..."
  4. Proceed to acknowledge that you/they are stuck in this rut.  You've tried, but haven't found a way to break this pattern. "Well, we've been thinking that it's been going on for a while..." or "We haven't been able to figure out a way to stop this..." or "It's just been too intense lately..."
  5. Acknowledge - empathically, not judgmentally - that it's been painful: "...AND it's clearly been not fun for you or us." Perhaps adding: "There's been more suffering / struggling / worrying / arguing... than we're comfortable with" or "more of it than we wish for you."
  6. PAUSE to allow the child to agree, even partly, "Yeah, it's not been fun for me / it stinks when that happens / it sucks!"
  7. State clearly and authentically how much you care about your child, how much you hate to see them sad / angry / anxious / stressed-out like that.  - How much you'd like them to be able to "get along better or be happier."
  8. PAUSE to allow them to admit that they, too, would like to be feeling better and/or doing better.
  9. Now let them know: "That's why we think it's important for us to get some help.  - Get some professional help from a doctor or therapist who specializes in helping kids and families with the kinds of difficulties that we've been going through." 

    Bottom line:  "You're hurting. We're hurting for and with you.  We care enough to do the right thing - even if it seems like a tough thing - and that is to get some professional help, now."

  10. PAUSE to allow them to agree or disagree.  To vent... To reject the notion that there's really any problem or that they don't need any help... To share their fears or frustrations about this idea.  Or maybe to express some relief and gratitude. Perhaps even some hope!
  11. If they're struggling with this idea, respond warmly yet firmly with "YES..." you understand those mixed/mad/afraid feelings, "AND..." you're going to do your job as a caring, committed parent, and get them to a doctor or into counseling to try to help them, anyway.  Period.
  12. Finally, you can reassure them (to the extent that it's authentic and true!) - that you've done your homework, and you've learned about this one child psychologist who is really good, really nice, and really experienced at helping kids/families just like us.

    "So we're going to give it a try.  We want you to give it your best try.  And let's see how it goes.  We're hopeful it can help us find our way to a little bit more peace and happiness..."

These are suggestions based on many years of hard-won experience. Follow them as best you can.  Or, as you'll hear me say quite often:  Take what works for you, and leave the rest.