Talking to your Child/Teen about Counselling.
This blog is dedicated to clearing up any misconceptions and providing advice and tips on how to approach the delicate discussion of taking your HK Teen, Tween or Child to see a counsellor. This information is based off of the current work I do with parents and young people, plus my years of experience across schools and private practice in Hong Kong.
1.Tell your young person they are going to see a counsellor.
Yes, this might sound obvious... but I hear more often than not, ‘and should I tell my child i’m bringing them to see you?’ YES, is always my response. I understand as parents you are concerned regarding how to approach this delicate topic with your young person and you're also aware that I have the skills to appropriately prepare them for what to expect from the process, but based on what I have shared below, now, so do you!
As parents I want you to feel empowered to be able to communicate directly with your young person regarding this process, knowing that setting the groundwork here makes a big difference to both how your teen feels and to the quality of our work in sessions going forward.
Recently I have had some teens as old as 18 who have walked into my room completely unaware as to the concept and expectations of being in counselling. I watch them visibly relax when I say, ‘do you want to play uno and we can chat a bit about your hobbies and interests?’ It’s really that simple. Think of the difference it would make to them if they hadn't spent the entire day or week worrying about this one hour meeting with me? Be well informed so that your young person is informed.
2.Tell them that a counsellor is a person who helps individuals who are feeling stuck.
When a young person receives the news via teachers or parents that they need to see a counsellor their initial thought process is often, ‘i’m in trouble, i’m a problem’ or ‘there’s something wrong with me’. They might even believe that they are in someway inherently troubled and that my role as a counsellor is to mould them into someone the people in their life want them to be. This is of course not the case, and although this might be obvious to us, it’s not to them. Your role as parents in this process starts here, setting the expectations and allaying any concerns involved with seeing a counsellor.
In addition, lot’s of young people (and adults) have been struggling for a while before they make it into my room and their self-esteem and ability to believe in change, is low and they are suffering for it. They may be feeling like they are to blame for all of their family’s problems or that they are so overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings no one will ever understand or be able to validate their perspective.
What I emphasise is that counsellors help people who are feeling ‘stuck’. If your teen is anxious you can say, “A counsellor helps young people like yourself who are feeling stuck in their worrying.” If your teen is depressed you can say, “We’re going to visit a counsellor who helps people who are feeling stuck in their sadness/low moods.” If your child is angry you can say, “The counsellor will be able to help us figure out how to help you get better at managing your anger.” After all, your young person is NOT defined by their worrying, depression or challenging behaviour. Your child is a wonderfully whole, yet complicated being who is currently struggling. Counsellors help with this struggle; they help people get unstuck from the struggle.
3. Let them know that they are not the only one’s who need to make some changes, as a family sometimes you have to make a change to.
If I’m working with a young person, then I’m usually providing support to parents too, in the form of parent briefing sessions. This is true specially for my clients aged 8-14. Often the young people I provide sessions for feel they are at the root of all of their family’s problems and because young people have a certain amount of developmentally appropriate ‘self-centeredness’, any issues at home — they believe it all comes back to them. Our young people don’t exist in a vacuum and if a child is struggling then most likely the family/parents are, too. Counselling is meant to help everybody, which means helping your teen to be the best version of themselves and helping yourself as parents to be your best parenting self, too. Let your young person know you're open to change and that you’re a passenger on this journey with them.
4. Explain that they will get to set the pace.
Teens who come to see me don’t always want to talk to me. This is normal and it's fine. Feeling cautious with a stranger — particularly a stranger who’s been tasked with supporting them to explore their vulnerabilities - is appropriate. Let your teen know we can play Uno & Crazy 8’s, we can play with the kinetic sand and play dough, I can watch the child create art and essentially orient herself to the space and our relationship. I do not force teens to talk to me and usually even the most resistant young people will find a way of sharing, if given the time and space to learn how to work together. (Note: Once rapport has been established I will help them to explore the issues at hand, but at the beginning we take it slow.)
5. Don’t suggest that counselling is a punishment (my job can be difficult enough!).
If a child or teenager gets the sense that being in counselling is one step away from being in a whole heap of trouble, or a last straw before you as parents 'give up on them', it makes it really difficult to build rapport. It goes back to number one; if people believe that only messed up individuals seek counselling, then the threat alone might get seen as a weapon and can make counselling a shame induced experience. “If you continue to behave badly then I’m taking you to a counsellor to get your attitude changed!” Or to other people, “Her anger is so out of control that we’ve had to start seeing a therapist!” Oh dear... Not a great message. Even if you’re feeling discouraged, frustrated or lost and even if you feel like counselling is the last ditch effort. Please remember that coming to counselling is always a really smart, courageous and positive move, and your young person needs to know this.
This also works the other way round, often a young person can have negative ideas surrounding counselling based on the opinions of friends or friends of friends of friends…Respond to their concerns positively; “Yes, some children do go to counsellors because they are in trouble, but Amy is not that kind of counsellor. She helps young people like yourself learn to calm anxieties/emotions/stress. She will listen to you and teach you new things to try. So, you are not “crazy” or in trouble. Mum and dad are just going to get some extra help, to help us figure this out.”
6. It’s OK to acknowledge the problems (difficulties) that are taking you to counselling.
Yes, this can be a difficult balance as you don’t want to make your child feel like they are being labelled as the problem, and place the entire burden of changing on them. However, you can have honest discussions regarding why they are going to see me and even highlight the possible benefits based on the advice given above. Having the problem out in the open without judgment or labelling sets a really good basis for open and positive communication between all parties involved, which helps me, your young person and you as parents, navigate confidentiality and work together.
7. Counselling is confidential.
Essentially, counselling is a space for a young person to just be them, to be reflective, and to educate and orient themselves to the way they think, feel and act. The process of doing so involves sharing many vulnerabilities, it is important that the young person knows these vulnerabilities will be handed by me with care and most importantly; will NOT be shared outside the room.
What I usually inform my young clients, is that anything they share with me stays inside the room, it does not get shared with school it does not get shared with parents. However, the exceptions to this rule are if the young person is at risk to themselves or others, or they give me permission to share. I then explain that they should still be brave and share with me any thoughts they have surrounding harm/risk/suicide and I can help them with this but ultimately if risk is assessed I will have to bring mum and dad in on it so we can all support you to see you safe.
If you are able to channel some of the important messages from above in your discussion with your young person, then you will be doing an amazing job of empathically catering for your childs mental heath needs. Familiarise yourself with the key messages below, via a poster displayed in my room that I share with young people during the initial session.
Any questions regarding modelling appropriate messages regarding counselling/therapeutic support then head over here to my facebook and drop a comment on this shared post.
Amy Williams is an experienced counsellor working with pre-teens, teenagers and young adults in schools and private practice in Hong Kong, (see 'About Amy' for more info).
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