This would have to be one of the questions I’m asked most often by concerned parents. They have reached the point of deciding psychologist support is a useful step for their child, but Oh! How to broach that topic??? It’s Mental Health Week, and this is my guide for how to approach this with your child.
Compare Psychologists to Coaches and Teachers, not Doctors
Your Young Person is not broken. They are not sick. A psychologist will not make them better. I have often heard, and in the past even used myself, analogies along the lines of “you go to the doctor when you’re sick; you take your car to the mechanic… ergo it’s okay to see a psychologist when you’re mentally unwell.” These are well intentioned messages, but they all support the idea that something is WRONG with your child, and the magic psychologist will FIX THAT RIGHT UP for you.
Instead, remind your child that they are under construction – they are learning many, many life skills right now. Depending on their age, they’re learning to read; or they’re learning algebra. They are learning the rules of team sports, how to ride without training wheels, or maybe how to play an instrument. Some of that – a lot of that – happens at school and through incidental learning. However, sometimes the skills we need for a particular situation require more specialist attention. I might teach my kid to kick a footy in the park, but if he’s serious about AFL, I’m gonna send him to Auskick. Not because his kicking is broken and defective; not because there is something wrong with his hand-passes; but because kicking and hand-passes have become important to him and I don’t have the skills to teach him that myself. Also, I’m his mum, there’s some things the boys just don’t want to learn from me!
Sometimes our kids find themselves in situations they’re just not developmentally ready for – maybe they’ve changed schools; social dynamics have unexpectedly left them feeling on the outer; mum and dad are a bit more stressed than usual; their amazing brains are making really scary / anxiety-provoking connections at a rate they’re not able to make sense of – any number of situations can emerge where suddenly your child needs some skills they just haven’t mastered yet.
Our teachers in our schools are amazing – and the expectations on them are high; and the demands of the curriculum leave little wriggle room for more. It would be ideal if much of what is covered in a psychologist’s room was actually covered as part of the stock-standard school health curriculum (and people like Louise Hayes and Joseph Ciarrochi are working hard to make that happen). But it’s not yet. So sometimes it’s really useful to spend a few sessions with a psych to do the essential stuff that teachers can’t cover when they’re forced to teach six year olds how to write persuasive text.
Let your child know that you’re looking at this as a skills development opportunity for both of you.
In the same way that your child is under construction, so are you as their parent, always. Let your child know that you hope the psychologist will be able to guide YOU in how to provide better support to your young person. As parents, some of what we do makes things better, some things make things worse – but we are never, ever neutral. Let them know the two or three of you are going on this adventure together.
Help them make an informed choice.
If your child is reluctant to see a psychologist, help them explore the pros and cons of what that is about. Are they making assumptions about what will happen in the psych’s room? How do they know those assumptions are right? Have there ever been times they thought something would be dreadful and it turned out it was okay? Let them know that it is normal to feel anxious, scared, uncertain, etc, and that you’ll be right alongside them.
My recommendation is to encourage your young person to come ONCE – meet the psychologist, find out what’s involved in the process, and from there the two or three of you can make an informed decision together. Until you’ve had that first go, your child does not have enough information to make an informed choice. Praise them for their willingness to be brave and vulnerable in the face of something that may feel really scary. Talk with the psychologist for strategies for continued engagement if you believe further sessions are in your child’s best interests and s/he is still reluctant.
Use this same language with all Health Professionals
If you have an appointment with your GP to organise a Mental Health Care Plan and/or referral, use this same language (we are looking to build skills together and would like some coaching / guidance from a psychologist in how to do that), and help the GP to use that same language when speaking directly to your child. If your GP starts using language to suggest brokenness and fixing, politely steer them back on course (NB you do not need a referral to see a psychologist; but you do need one if you want to claim the Medicare rebate). Use this same language when you first take your child to the psychologist; and if there are significant details you would like to convey to the psychologist that may contradict that message, request that the child leaves the room before you share this information.
But is it too early? Maybe things aren’t “bad enough” yet?
I can’t speak for all psychologists, nor all parents. Here is my view on this: As a mother, I would far rather jump in early and be told I’m neurotic than wait longer and discover my child has had to navigate a much harder road than was necessary, without the most useful equipment. As a psychologist, clients coming in at the start of a potentially tough road are a joy and delight. There is excellent “bang for your buck” when you come in for some strategies to support healthy development right at the start of difficulties becoming apparent. Clients sometimes comment that they are worried about “wasting” my time on their issues, when there are people with “bigger needs”. My view: Come now! Be short-term, do a teeny bit of work together, and get on with your totally awesome life. Send me an email five years from now to tell me how great things are. Or better yet, forget my name all together because we seriously only met a handful of times 😉
PS – if you seriously thought my last post WAS my “Last Post”, go back and read it again 😉