1) What should I say to my child about their appointment?
2) What happens during the first appointment?
Let's go one at a time and assume that we are talking about children under the age of 12. Most kids over the age of 12 actually ask their parents if the can talk to someone. Of course there is a significant difference between a 12 year-old and 5 year-old so you adjust your conversation to an age appropriate level.
What should I say to my child about their first appointment?
This is a question I address during the phone consultation. First, tell your child about the appointment at least a day or two before the appointment. If your child is anxious and you feel that it will exacerbate their anxiety, go with what works. I've found in most instances that kids actually feel relief and curiosity when they learn that they are going to talk with someone about their emotional issues.
Especially for young children, make clear that they aren't seeing a medical doctor, they are seeing a “feelings” doctor. It's okay to be more specific, especially if your child has opened up to you about complex, confusing issues like depression and anxiety. Also make sure that your child knows that there are no shots or medications involved in this appointment, only talking. You would be surprised by how many kids assume a shot or medicine is involved when they hear “doctor appointment.”
Lastly, frame the appointment with concern and care. It's okay to say that the school or family has concerns and this appointment is to help. In many cases, the child has raised the concern and the desire to see a therapist, so it might be welcomed with open arms. You can also add that it's up to the child if they want to meet alone or would feel more comfortable with a parent in the room. The choice is theirs to make.
What happens during the first appointment?
The first appointment is an opportunity for the child psychologist to help the child feel comfortable with the idea of therapy. I usually spend the first part of the session reviewing patients' rights, my responsibilities, office rules, and other details like the length of sessions and who I am. I also try to mix in some humor or silliness to help the child feel more relaxed and playful.
How the first session progresses is up to the child. Especially in play therapy, the goal is for the child to feel like they have a safe, nonjudgmental space. Sometimes a child will want a parent or caregiver to accompany them for the entirety of the session. In other instances, a child might walk in and say “see you whenever we're done” and leave their parent(s) in the waiting room. It depends on the child and neither approach is wrong. The goal is to make sure the child feels that therapy is a safe space where they are respected and valued. That's the foundation of any healthy relationship.
Certainly there are exceptions to the rule, but this is a fairly accurate impression of how I encourage informing a child about an upcoming therapy session and how most first sessions go in my office.
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