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In an ideal world, all parents would be 100% supportive of their child’s therapy process. They would be understanding and respectful of all boundaries surrounding confidentiality, and they wouldn’t try to get information out of you or the teen you’re working with.
In reality, parents are human beings—with their own feelings, past experiences, and opinions. This often means that parents may have a lot of anxiety about their child’s therapy process.
They may have worries about the child’s mental health, and whether they’ll get through whatever they are going through. They may worry about family secrets getting spilled. They may feel the need to talk to you about their own past experiences and traumas. They may be afraid of being judged for their parenting skills, or even worry that their parenting style has caused their child to need therapy.
How Therapists Can Help Parents Manage Their Feelings About Therapy
The child may be your client, but you may also need to help the parents learn how to manage their own fears and anxieties about their child’s therapy process. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
Many parents feel anxious about their child’s therapy because they aren’t very familiar with the process of psychotherapy itself. They may come from another generation or culture in which therapy isn’t as normalized, which means they might hold some internalized stigmas about mental health and worry about how therapy will affect their child.
These fears may be especially intense if their child is part of a mandated therapy program.
What you can do as the therapist is provide psychoeducation about what therapy is and how it can help their child. Help normalize the experience of therapy for them: Explore stigma and shame, assure them that their child isn’t “crazy,” and talk to them about what types of issues child therapy can help with. Answer their questions with as much detail as possible.
They may also benefit from help in understanding the logistics of the therapy process. For example, will the parent be asked into your office each session, or will they wait in the waiting room? What types of interventions will you use with the child? How does confidentiality work, and what does it mean that you’re a mandated reporter?
Answering these types of questions for the parent can go a long way in easing their anxiety.
As a therapist, you’re already very skilled at this. But your client (the child) isn’t the only person who needs your empathy—the parent does, too.
It may become annoying and overwhelming when the parent is constantly coming to you with worries about their child. Try to remember the 4 components of empathy as described by Theresa Wiseman:
2. Staying out of judgment
3. Identifying emotions
4. Demonstrating care
Take the parent’s perspective and try to identify what they may be feeling and why. Normalize these emotions for the parent and show compassion.
For example, you might have a client whose mother was a victim of child abuse herself. She might have some fears about her abilities as a parent, and how her own past trauma could come up in her parenting. She might feel deathly afraid that her child will say something negative about her to you, because she doesn’t want you to judge her.
Have empathy. Make it clear to the parent that you aren’t there to judge anybody—neither their child nor anyone else in the family. Validate their feelings without making them feel judged or dismissed. Show that you understand their perspective and that you care about their concerns.
It’s helpful to show empathy for parents, but it’s also important to have boundaries. You are the child’s therapist—not the parent’s. You cannot serve as the parent’s therapist, as this would constitute a dual relationship (and a conflict of interest). This can become especially challenging to navigate when the parent and the child have a conflicted relationship.
If the parent has mental health struggles of their own, refer them to another therapist who may be able to work with them. Set boundaries around the ways in which you, as their child’s therapist, can (or cannot) support them personally.
For example, you may need to let the parent know that they are not to call you after hours unless their child is experiencing a mental health emergency. Having these boundaries in place can encourage the parent to find their own sources of emotional support.
Include Parents in the Process
Research indicates that including parents in the child therapy process makes therapy more effective. Working together with the parent can help ensure that you are all on the same page, and that the lessons and skills your client is learning in therapy are implemented and reiterated at home.
You can include the parent in the child’s therapy process by having collateral sessions (sessions with the parent without the child present) if you wish to do so. The choice to have collateral sessions with the parent will depend greatly on the relationships your client has with both you and their parent. These sessions may be more appropriate for younger children, as adolescents may feel that collateral sessions are a betrayal of therapeutic trust.
If you do have collateral sessions, keep in mind that the purpose of the session is to discuss your client (the child) and how they are doing at home and at school.
You can also choose to hold family sessions or sessions together with the parent and child. Again, the main purpose of these sessions is to address family dynamics that may have contributed to the client’s presenting problem—not to help other family members with their own mental health concerns.
Provide Them with Resources
Lastly, provide parents with outside resources that can help learn how to manage their emotions.
This may include a referral to their own mental health therapist, as discussed previously. But it can also include things like:
Book and article suggestions
As the child’s therapist, you can only do so much to help the parent grapple with difficult and painful feelings about your process with their child. But by referring them to outside resources, you can empower them to take control of their own mental health in order to be the best parent they can be for their child.