Choosing counseling for your child can be an overwhelming prospect: What are the signs my child needs counseling? What does this mean about my child? Am I a bad parent? I hear these questions all the time.
When I think of counseling, I view it less from a “something is wrong” lens and more as another part of tending to our health. There are enormous benefits to participate in counseling. Mental health supports can bolster physical and relational health, provide a sense of purpose, and grow one’s self-worth. It helps us not be so alone in our self-doubts, disappointments, and closest relationships.
I often see people underestimate the power of these benefits. Because of the privileges many of us have, we think we have to “just deal” with areas that are uncomfortable. How many times have you heard or maybe even said, “If you knew what it was like when I was a child...?” Each generation advances us further, giving to the next generation. These statements keep us from listening to what the new challenges of the generation are, and prevent us from assessing the help they need.
In the hope to expand on the benefits, I want to explore research that has emerged about the need for counseling, what counselors look for in assessing the need of counseling, and ways we can look at our own hang-ups to engage in counseling.
Enduring acute and chronic stress has a lifelong impact. Providing both ourselves and our children a space to heal and learn to cope in healthy ways can change the course of one’s life. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris shares her experience with health and ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) in this Ted Talk:
ACES teaches us that pushing ourselves through our struggles in life isn’t about if but more so when one’s body or emotional state will collapse under the pressures. It can take just one unprocessed stressor or traumatic event to impede education, work, social well-being, self-confidence, and emotional and physical health.
In addressing these issues, relational dynamics are at the forefront. What we find is that unprocessed relational dynamics replay until healing has happened. Robert Waldinger reflects on his research with Harvard, identifying “the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.”
If relationships and connection are as important as this research suggests, being stuck in unhealthy relational dynamics is a risk for our long-term health. The challenging relationships and events that happen in our lives will be processed one way or another, if it is through our physical body, emotional health, or relationships. Therapy provides ways to process so that it doesn’t have to result in a lifelong illness, isolation, or constant flux in relationship.
Sometimes children will come straight out and ask for counseling. Other times their cues are more subtle. Parents are usually pretty aware of when their child is doing ok or not, and I encourage you to listen to your gut if it’s telling you something may be off.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (or SAMHSA), is a valuable resource for more specifics on diagnoses and further education. This article highlights important symptoms and situations children may need counseling for if you’re finding it difficult to assess the need.
Dr. Burke Harris suggests in her Ted Talk that, while we all endure adversity, most of us don’t want to address it. There is a hesitation to reach out for help which creates a barrier to mental health care. We have done such a good job at caring for medical needs. For example, when an individual becomes pregnant they surround themselves with a team of medical supports. This introduction to the medical community at birth teaches children how important, valuable, and normal our doctors are in our lives. With regard to the mental health community, services aren’t anticipated but instead utilized when a crisis has happened. There is a hesitation to initiate services.
I hear this hesitation from others in statements like, “It’s not that bad, many people have it much harder.” The intent behind this statement is to look on the positive side of things, but what ends up happening is one begins to ignore what is causing the distress. In counseling, when we dig deeper, we discover compounded distress because these areas have been ignored for such a long time.
Another cause for hesitations is fear that counseling will expose that you have messed up as a caregiver. There are messages even from the psychology field that people coming to therapy are processing their bad childhood or parenting. Seeing a therapist doesn’t mean a caregiver has messed up; it actually validates that life can be stressful and re-enforces a message that we look to support from others in times of need.
If you’re finding yourself hesitating to enter counseling for your child, I’d encourage you to reflect on the hesitation. What makes you pause in reaching out for counseling?
Whatever the hesitation, the reality is that the earlier we validate the pain endured in everyday life, the more time in our lives we can embrace healthy bodies, thriving relationships, and have a greater impact in the lives of those around us. Considering your child’s need for extra support may offer a springboard toward better health, social connection, and achievement for their future.