How Psychotherapy Can Change Your Child’s Life

how psychotherapy can change your child's life

Takeaway: Psychotherapy (i.e., ‘talk therapy’) gives your child a safe place to express her feelings and process her thoughts. And this can help her tackle problems that would otherwise overwhelm her. But while it is about talking, it’s more than just a regular conversation, and therapists have a range of approaches and techniques to choose from. Psychotherapy takes time to work, but it can slowly transform the way your child lives her life.

As parents, it’s hard to see our children hurting but not know how to help them.

It’s difficult to watch our children go through tough times when nothing we do seems to help. For example, if you find out your child is being bullied or has a life-threatening illness, you want to step in and take the problem away — but quite often, you can’t. Then there are challenges like ADHD, depression, eating disorders, and other diagnoses that you might not quite understand or know how to handle. And even everyday emotions like anger, sadness, and anxiety, aren’t always straightforward to deal with in children.

Psychotherapy is a powerful technique to help a hurting child. It’s called ‘talk therapy’ because it involves a series of conversations between your child and a trained therapist.

With psychotherapy, an experienced child psychologist has a series of conversations with your child over multiple sessions. These conversations can encourage your child through challenges and help make her feel better. But there’s more to it than that. The real purpose of psychotherapy is to teach your child to look at problems differently and use more productive tools to tackle them. That’s why it’s not necessarily only for children who are ‘struggling.’ It can help any child grow emotionally by giving her a safe place to explore whatever she’s feeling.

Psychotherapy may be about talking, but it’s not your regular conversation. There’s a lot of research, theory, and testing behind it.

A child’s mind is a complex thing, and different schools of psychotherapy approach it from different angles. For example, a Psychodynamic approach to therapy looks at past experiences and how they’ve shaped your child’s personality, unconscious motivations, and beliefs. The idea is that in unlocking this unconscious behaviour and ‘inner’ struggles, a child can work through her ‘outer’ struggles, too. In contrast, a school of therapy like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) isn’t concerned so much with the past and the unconscious, but rather explores the current distorted thinking patterns that hold your child back. So, if a child is being bullied, CBT will address the scary, inaccurate thoughts that add to the trauma. For example, if she blames herself for being ‘weak’ or feels isolated, it’ll magnify her suffering. But if she learns to challenge these assumptions and see her inner strength and her support system, she’ll come out of the experience stronger. Sure, we’ll absolutely need to stop the bullying, but we’ve already begun healing the scars.

Often, a therapist will borrow from different schools of psychotherapy to create a custom, eclectic mix.

Therapists often choose their approach depending on the child’s needs. For example, teens battling complex emotions might benefit from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Here, they’ll learn to embrace troubling feelings instead of trying to bottle them up. In contrast, children who regularly get into fights will probably respond better to something like Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT). DBT will help them reassess how they approach conflict and aggression. And for very young children, Play Therapy or Art Therpay can help make abstract concepts more concrete by using toys, art, and role-playing. But often, it’s not as simple as choosing a single form of psychotherapy. Rather, a therapist will mix and match different approaches based on a child’s unique needs. (Learn more about an eclectic approach to therapy.)

Psychotherapy isn’t always just about your child, though. Sometimes, it can involve you, too.

Many of your child’s struggles are coloured by family dynamics. For example, if she’s disruptive and aggressive at home, she’s not necessarily the ‘problem.’ Rather, it’s a situation where the entire family (including your child) plays a role, and no one, in particular, is to blame. So sometimes, it helps when the whole family comes in to explore these dynamics and find a group solution to the challenge.

Children learn best by doing, so your child’s psychotherapy sessions will usually involve one or more activities.

Children respond to psychotherapy just as well as adults, but the process needs to be tweaked a bit. And this usually means including child-friendly activities to supplement the conversations.

1. For younger children, activities like ‘The Mad Game’ can help them process emotions.

The Mad Game originally targeted ‘anger’ (hence the ‘mad’ in the name), but it can be tweaked for other emotions, too. Here’s how it works: The therapist and child sit across from each other with some toy blocks in front of them. They take turns stacking the blocks, each time listing one thing that makes them angry. The therapist can start by listing silly things like, ‘Someone changing the channel without asking first.’ But as the game goes on and the child gets comfortable, she can start probing for more deep-seated issues. Finally, the child stacks the last block, naming the thing that angers her the most. And then she gets to knock all the blocks down while making an angry face. The game is a fun way of teaching her that it’s okay to be angry and that we should talk about our anger. Plus, the final toppling of the blocks is a playful outlet for the anger she’s been discussing.

2. Older children might prefer conversational games and storytelling.

With ‘narrative therapy,’ a child can retell the story of a traumatic event, but with a twist. First, she tells the story as she usually does. So, for example, if she got bullied, she’d talk about where she was, who was present, what happened, how it made her feel, etc. But now comes the powerful bit where she tells the second story. In this one, she goes through the same events, but instead of focussing on what happened to her, she describes how she responded. So, she’ll talk about (1) How she tactfully kept quiet to de-escalate the situation, (2) How she strategically walked away as soon as she could, and (3) How she bravely told her parents about it even though she was worried that would make things worse. By narrating this second story, she’s reminding herself that there were things she could control even during that trauma. Plus, she’s learning to recognise and celebrate her strengths — which is an empowering experience.

Psychotherapy isn’t a quick fix, but children grow to love it when they see how it transforms their lives.

The goal of therapy is to help your child live a better life. And this takes time. Sessions may last for weeks or even months, and it’s often a slow, frustrating journey. Sometimes she might even feel worse before she feels better — especially if she has to process painful emotions and memories. But we know therapy works because we see children blossom over time. They gradually develop new coping strategies, change their response to things that used to fluster them, and begin to believe in their inner strength. As therapists, it’s a privilege for us to witness this growth. And it always excites us when we see initially-reluctant children begin to look forward to their next session eagerly.

If you like what you’ve read and feel that your child might benefit from psychotherapy, we can help.

The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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