Kids and Therapy
5 benefits of having someone to talk to
Therapy teaches kids to identify their emotions, making them better communicators and more effective in relationships. They learn to make connections between actions and consequences, helping them to make more advantageous decisions. Therapists utilize various exercises to show kids how to interact considerately with others. Perspective-taking is a technique that builds empathy and compassion by asking kids to place themselves in someone else's shoes and imagine how they would feel.
Even when they’re not grappling with greater-than-usual social or emotional difficulties, kids benefit from talking about feelings, thinking about relationships, and making conscious choices. Sometimes that’s easier to do when Mom or Dad isn’t in the room, whether through formal sessions with a licensed therapist or regular meetups with a school guidance counselor or peer group.
In honor of Mental Health Month, here are five ways therapy can prepare kids to deal with the inevitable issues that arise as they grow up.
1. Therapy can help kids and parents connect.
Establishing a supportive relationship with an outsider who isn’t caught up in family dynamics frees kids to express desires, fears and emotions that may be unacceptable at home.
Every family has its rules, many of which are unspoken. Messages received nonverbally have a powerful effect on a child’s understanding of what is expected. Falling outside of a family’s ideal can lead to issues with self-esteem. Parents who discourage the expression of anger teach kids to experience shame and internalize their emotions, which can lead to depression or even self-harm. Some families teach children not to cry or show vulnerability, which can result in kids who maintain a stiff upper lip yet suffer in silence.
Children’s egos are not fully developed. They do not have the ability to challenge their parents’ values. A therapist can help bridge this communication gap so parents might better understand their children’s emotions and world view, and support their growth into unique individuals.
2. Therapy teaches empathy and tolerance.
Children are often taught to think in black-and-white terms. Someone is either good or bad. This binary framework can compel kids to judge themselves and others harshly. Therapy makes room for the gray. We all have moments when we act in ways we later regret. Therapy helps kids develop compassion for themselves and others, and formulate strategies to handle distress effectively and appropriately.
3. Therapy groups show kids that they are not alone in their struggles.
Children are socialized to be competitive. When kids are taught that being tough is an asset, they keep their sensitivity to themselves — lest others underestimate their capability. For that reason, they may not realize that other kids have similar problems. Whether they are experiencing academic-, family- or peer-related issues, kids feel validated when they belong to a community of friends who identify with and support each other in a climate built on trust. Feeling known and accepted helps kids gain confidence being vulnerable, a requisite for forming meaningful relationships.
4. Therapy teaches kids to make decisions that weigh consequences and reflect their values.
Childhood is a time of constant change. Adolescence is a particularly challenging stage, as teens’ bodies and interests mature and expectations start to mount. There is tremendous social pressure to conform to an often-unattainable standard. Kids know they need to look and act a certain way to fit in.
At some schools, fitting in involves substance use and sexual activity. Preteens and adolescents tend to be loath to discuss such delicate issues at home, because they sense their parents’ discomfort, they want to protect their parents or they feel embarrassed even broaching the topic.
At the same time, kids also face pressure to achieve high grades, to perform well on standardized tests and to participate in a well-rounded assortment of activities to make them attractive candidates for competitive universities.
The focus on image and achievement takes away from kids’ ability to explore who they are as unique individuals — not to mention who they want to become. Therapy provides a space for kids to reflect on their values in an atmosphere free from pressure or judgment. Having this safe outlet can help minimize risky behavior, promote safe choices and help kids gain confidence in making unpopular decisions that are true to who they are.
5. A positive experience with therapy in childhood makes turning to a therapist as an adult a viable option.
When kids learn early on that they don't have to work through all of life's challenges alone, they are more likely to seek help when they struggle later in life. There are still parents who teach their kids that maturity means handling everything on one's own and seeking help is an admission of deficiency. In stark contrast with this narrow and isolating notion, influential leaders surround themselves with advisors. Sensible adults wouldn't try to run a business single-handedly. Why would we teach our kids to run their lives that way? Collaboration is a powerful tool, inviting new perspectives that can significantly improve outcomes. Successful people consult with experts to help them be as effective as possible
Self-compassion developed in therapy helps bolster kids against challenges they will face and create resilience against defeats. Therapy teaches kids to ask questions of themselves and the people around them, building a foundation of critical thinking and relationship skills that will help them grow into capable, independent adults.
Barrie Sueskind, MA, MFT is a psychotherapist in Los Angeles. She specializes in working with preteens and adolescents. She also works with individuals, couples and families, and leads a variety of groups.