How Do I Talk To My Children About Going To A Counselor?

Interview with Dr. Duanita G. Eleniak, PhD, art therapist, clinical social worker and philosopher of consciousness studies
with Franziska von Eysmondt, social work student from Germany.

Franziska: Dr Duanita, what do you tell parents when they ask you what the best way is to talk to their children about counseling?

Duanita: Well, tell you what. Your pretend that you are parent and ask me the questions that you think parents would like to know the answers to. Sound okay to you?

Franziska: That sounds perfect.

Duanita: Okay start.

Franziska: Dr. Duanita how do I tell the kids about coming to counselling?

Duanita: Well, first of all, it is really important for you to prepare them so I am glad that you are asking this question. With your little ones under 10 years old you can say that you are going to a special place to visit the Play Lady. It is a place where all kinds of people go when they want to feel better. Here you could refer specifically to what you child needs to feel better about.

Franziska: For example, if I am bringing my children because someone is dying in the family I would say, "Tomorrow we are going to visit the Play Lady. It's a special place where we can go to help us feel better about Mommy going to heaven.”

Duanita: Right. Or if you were wanting to take your children for counselling because you were going through a separation or divorce, you would say...”We are going to a special place to visit the Play Lady to help us feel better about the changes in our family.”

Franziska: Right.

Duanita: Or if it is because your child is being bullied in school you would say, “We are going to a special place to visit the play lady to help us feel better and know what to do about what is going on at school.”

Franziska: Okay as a parent I would want to know what to do if my child doesn't want to come to counseling.

Duanita: And that is a good question because it can be a bit scary to go to a new place to share things in your life that usually are not talked about. So then it is important to say..."If you don't like the place or you don't like the Play Lady, no problem, you don't have to go. We would just find another special place with another Play Lady. But we’re going to at least meet her."

Franziska: As a parent this kind of gives me a funny feeling. I guess I would ask you, “So, you actually give children the choice about whether to come or not to counselling?”

Duanita: Yes. That is part of my philosophy. Finding the right counselor that 'fits' for your child is extremely important. So if your child does not like it at counselling my belief is to listen to your child and keep 'shopping' so to speak until you find a counselor that fits just right. 

Franziska: But I could imagine some parents might disagree with letting a child make that decision?

Duanita: Yes, however, with counselling, I would explain that if there is no connection between the counselor and your child the process is not going to work anyhow. So very often I get parents who really, really want their child to see me and I really have to make to make it clear that it is still ultimately up to their child whether or not they want to come. 

Franziska: So really what you are saying is that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink.

Duanita: Right. Easy for you to say.

Franziska: What if my child has an unexpected birthday party or sleep over and does not want to go to counselling?

Duanita: Well, keeping the 24 hour cancellation policy in mind, it is really important that if a child has a place that they would rather be than counselling I usually recommend rescheduling counselling, otherwise the child can end up resenting going to counselling and it will interfere with the process anyhow. So...priority goes to birthday parties and other 'fun' events.

Franziska: What do I say if my child asks me what we do there?

Duanita: Tell your child that when they come they get to choose what they do. You can say, “There are toys there so you can play; there is a sand tray there that you can make a picture in; there is paint and paper to draw on. Or you can talk” (and here you would once again mention what they could talk about which refers to the reason that you are coming for therapy). “It is up to you. you get to decide what you do there.”

Franziska: What if they are scared to go in alone?

Duanita: I pretty much always give children the choice about whether or not to bring their parent or parents into the playroom, especially during the first few sessions where we are just building trust. So you can say to your little ones: "If you want Mommy to come with you, I can. If you want to go into the playroom alone you can. If you want Mommy there only a little bit of time and then for me to go and wait in the waiting room, I can do that too. So see, you can get to decide if Mommy is there or not. The Play Lady said that for sure Mommy comes in at the end, though, and does wishes with you."

Franziska: Do you talk to me as a parent either before or after the counselling time with our child?

Duanita: No. The way I work with parents is if there is anything that happens during the week that you think is important for me to know about before I go into session with your child, I ask that you call me beforehand and give me the information. If I am unavailable for the telephone at the time you can feel free to leave a confidential voicemail with the information. This kind of update can be very helpful because often times children work in the metaphor in the playroom and may never mention what is happening in “real life" so to speak. So if you make me aware of events that are happening sometimes it helps me make connections from the themes in their play or art to their "real life".  I find that children get very upset if Mommy or Daddy use any of their time in the playroom. Also it is very unwise to either talk about your child with your child there as sometimes can happen in the waiting room. 

Franziska: So when do I get a chance to know what is happening in the playroom or ask questions?

Duanita: First of all, please know that if I see anything in your child's play that is concerning or that I think you need to know about right away, I will call you right away and set up a parent meeting. Otherwise, we set up regular parent meetings so that I can share with you what I see and you can have a chance to ask questions and share as well.

Franziska: How frequent are the parent meetings?

Duanita: Well, that depends on the issue that you are dealing with, on how quickly your child opens up, etc. Usually I see children for 1-4 times as an assessment and then meet with parents to tell you what I see.

Franziska: Do you ever keep what children say confidential or do you share everything with me as a parent?

Duanita: I explain to your child that I do talk to their parents about what we do in the playroom. I let them know that if they do not want me to tell their parents something they can let me know that but I can't make any promises about keeping it private because they are their parents. When your child reaches 16 years old, in Canada, they can receive treatment without parental consent. As soon as they reach between 11-16 years old a counselor could also deem them as a mature minor which means they also may be able to receive counselling without parental involvement, however, for young children we cannot guarantee confidentiality.

Franziska: What if we run into you in public?

Duanita: Because of confidentiality and because I don't know who you might be with in public, when I see you in public I am not allowed to go up to you and greet you. I will explain this to your child because otherwise children can feel hurt or think I forgot them. I explain that they can come to me to say hello but I can't be the first one to do so. Makes sense?

Franziska: Yes. What do I say if my child shows me either art or the sand tray that they did while in counselling?

Duanita: This is a very important part of the process for children, that of being witnessed by you. And very often children will invite you into the playroom to show you what they did. So your question is very important because the way that you respond is crucial. Refrain from making statements about what you think the picture is, for example, what a lovely horse (when the picture is actually a picture of Daddy). Instead, ask your child "Tell me about your picture". Then just listen. 

Franziska: Can the children bring their art home and if they do what is the best way of dealing with it?

Duanita: I recommend that all of the art done in counselling sessions be put into a folder at home. Unless it is a very healthy picture that represents a breakthrough in the counselling process, in general I discourage the display of any art done in the art therapy counselling process. I recommend that these pieces be very well taken care of in a special folder made for all of the contents of therapy. This keeps the process contained.

Franziska: What if they give me gifts? What do I do with them?

Duanita: If your child makes you gifts, decide whether or not they can be displayed and I can help you with that if you call me between sessions or if you bring it up in a parent meeting. Never throw the gifts away. One again, put them in the special container which has all of the art made during the counselling process. It is generally recommended that you keep this folder until your child is about 26 years old. 

Franziska: What do I say when I pick up my child from counselling?

Duanita: Good question. Avoid saying things like "Did you behave? Did you listen to Dr. Duanita? Did you help clean up?” because the process might actually be very different. Generally I recommend that you can ask a usual question like "How did it go?" but you follow your child's lead. If your child begins to chatter about what happened then just listen. No comments, just encourage them to keep talking by using minimal re-enforcers like nodding your head and saying "uh huh". Remember that everything your child says is you also must keep it so and help your child to contain their process as well.

Franziska: What do you mean by that? 

Duanita: I mean if grandma and grandpa are over and your child begins to talk about their counselling and you know that grandma and grandpa don’t believe in counselling, help to move the conversation in another direction. Help your child to create good boundaries around the process.

Franziska: What if my child won't tell me anything?

Duanita: If your child says hardly anything...then leave it that way. Counselling is a very special place ...kind of like a rice pot. You know, when you are cooking rice you put in all of the ingredients and then you put the lid on and you leave it on until the rice is cooked. That's kind of like therapy. If you lift the lid, that is, ask your children to talk about what is happening in the process of counselling, you could be letting out the "steam" so to speak that is required to create the changes. Does that make sense?

Franziska: Yes.

Duanita: And the same goes when you are bringing your child to therapy. Generally it is unwise to tell your children what to talk about or how to behave. Never put pressure on your child to talk about what you think they need to talk about. It really is their process and it is important for parents to remain respectful of this if the process is going to work. Also remember that the rules in the playroom are often different than the rules in “real life". So, for example, in the playroom we share things that often we don't share in “real life". We express feelings in ways that often we cannot in real life. Sometimes swearing, for example, is allowed in the playroom (only with children that can differentiate the playroom from “real life"). Messes are allowed in the playroom where they often are not in real life. Sometimes the counselor cleans the messes rather than the children which again can be different than real life. So...leave the behavior guidelines to your counselor. Does that make sense?

Franziska: I don't want my child to think that they are crazy or something because they have to come to counselling. How can I manage this?

Duanita: Some parents prefer to use the words 'child coach" instead of 'counselor' because children have more of a point of reference to coaches who help people through life. So, with me, some children call me a ‘coach' and others just call me the 'Play Lady' so that there is very little reference to 'counselling' per se. Just as an aside, however, counselling in general in Canada does not have the same stigma as it used to. Even in popular media it is actually quite fashionable to have a counselor. Counselors have kind of replaced what extended family used to provide. So instead of talking to your grandma or a favorite auntie, very often now families have a counselor who fills that role.

Franziska: What’s the best way to pay right after the session or do I give a cheque to my child?

Duanita: The best way of payment that I have found over the years is one where payment is as unobtrusive as possible to the counselling process when it comes to working with children. The best way I have found is to give your credit card number and then payment is processed after each session very separately from the counselling time. If you want to bring in cash or a cheque it is preferable that you put it in an envelope and hand it over after session. Receipts are given in parent meetings. 

Franziska: So how long will it take before everything gets better?

Duanita: What is really important to know about the counselling process with children is that things might get a bit worse before they get better. I often say that the process is kind of like going to a dentist where it might be a bit more painful to pull the tooth, but then it has a chance of actually getting better.

Franziska: So you mean my child's behavior or nightmare or fears might even get worse by coming to counselling?

Duanita: Yes. This can happen. Sometimes the symptoms increase before they are released. It doesn't always happen, however, I like to tell parents this so that if it gets worse, you know that it could be because counselling is actually working. Also, it is really important for you to know that there are no guarantees in this field. I cannot guarantee that things will change or that they will change in the direction that you want. There are just too many variables involved in healing for me to be able to state that with certainty.

Franziska: Are these guidelines what I would expect if I took my child to any counselor?

Duanita: No. What I have been telling you are the guidelines that I tell parents when they are bringing their children to me. My guidelines are informed by my particular way of working with children. It is important for parents to ask their particular counselor these same questions because every counselor might work differently.

Franziska: Thank you Dr. Duanita for being here and sharing your ideas about how to talk to children about going to counselling.

Duanita: You are welcome. I hope this helps parents know how to prepare themselves and their children for healing.

Therapy Articles by Dr. Duanita

Animal Assisted Therapy
Child Art Therapy, Scribbles And Squiggles
Art Therapy With Children, Visioning Your Practice: An Activity
Dancing For Wellness, Expressive Therapy
Therapy Guidelines, Handling Disclosures Of Child Sexual Abuse, British Columbia, Canada

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