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Parent check-ins: Why they matter and what child therapists need to know

When it comes to childhood development, research has concluded there is no other influence more profound than the child’s primary caregiver. While child therapists certainly have an impact and help facilitate positive change, caregivers are the true Agents of Change and one of the strongest factors contributing to a child’s well-being. Because caregivers have an innate ability to impact their child’s well-being, they need to be (and deserve to be) fully involved, and because child therapists are the experts, it is their responsibility to advocate for and facilitate parental involvement. Thus, explaining to caregivers why the parent check-ins are so important and communicating the framework for how parent check-ins function must be a priority for every child therapist. 


5 Reasons why parent check-ins are so important 

  1. Parent check-ins really are necessary. 
    From a social and environmental perspective, parent check-ins benefit the therapeutic process in many ways. Whereas most psychotherapeutic methodologies are based on an individual therapy structure, children/adolescents do live and operationally function within the context of a family, which makes children/adolescents psychologically, socially, relationally, and emotionally dependent on filial dynamics. Therefore, the family system needs to be understood and family unit leaders must be included in the child/adolescent’s treatment process.
  2. Parent check-ins provide an avenue for meaningful caregiver involvement. 
    It is not uncommon for child therapists to lament a lack of caregiver involvement; however, it is the responsibility of the child therapist to solicit and coordinate caregiver involvement. As the child therapist, you are the “expert,” and caregivers will look to you as the expert to communicate why, when, and how caregiver involvement is expected.
  3. Parent check-ins make therapy more efficient and effective. 
    Parent check-ins provide the necessary context for making therapeutic efforts as appropriate as possible, and it is a uniquely instrumental time to explore unique, child-specific ways to optimize the therapeutic process.
  4. Parent check-ins help establish rapport. 
    The parent check-in is a significant opportunity for child therapists to build rapport, an essential ingredient for cultivating in-session growth. 

5 Tips for child therapists – How to facilitate a parent check-in framework 

Child therapy is a collaborative process that does its best work when the child, therapist, and caregiver work together as a team, and one of the best ways to facilitate this collaboration is to have a structured framework for the parent check-in. While there is no one best parent check-in framework to accommodate all clinicians and clients, these five, therapist-inspired tips are proven ways to help child therapists successfully facilitate a parent check-in. 


Tip #1: List out your expectations for caregiver involvement.
Start developing your parent check-in strategy by listing out your expectations for caregiver involvement as appropriate to your practice. Whether you meet with caregivers every week, every two weeks, or once a month, try to develop a clear structure and general cadence for when and how you intend to facilitate parent check-ins. 


Tip #2: Clearly communicate your expectations for caregiver involvement to caregivers.
Communicating caregiver involvement expectations is ideally done during client intake, but expectations can be re-visited anytime to ensure utmost clarity. Be sure to specify booking structure, payment, duration, cadence, and any other contextual information caregivers need to know in order to successfully comply. Essentially, you are helping them help you help them. 

Tip #3: Define what a parent check-in means.
Caregivers may not be familiar with what a parent check-in is, or they may have a pre-existing notion about parent check-ins from a past experience with a different therapist. It’s important to ensure that caregivers know exactly what parent check-ins mean to you so that all perspectives are aligned with what the parent check-in is, and what it is not. 

What is a parent check-in?

The parent check-in is a designated, scheduled time for collaborative, interactive dialogue between the therapist and the caregiver. The parent check-in is different from a filial session, which is a therapy session that includes both the child and parent. Although circumstances may vary, children are often not included in the parent check-in. (Note: With insurance, the parent check-in session is generally billable as a family session without the client present.) 


What is NOT a parent check-in?

The parent check-in is not the same as an e-mail or text update. Besides the fact that there are some major privacy concerns with e-mail/text updates, an update is not a check-in. It’s an update, and while updates are important, an update is not the same as involving caregivers in the therapeutic process.

The parent check-in is also not the last/first five minutes of the session. For one thing, it’s never only five minutes, and even if it is, five minutes is not sufficient time to accomplish the goal the parent check-in is meant to achieve. At best, it is an unsustainable way of connecting with parents. Those five minutes can quickly turn into 15 which not only throws off your whole schedule, but deprives caregivers of the incentive and opportunity to book a time for some collaborative dialogue.  

Tip #4: Consider including the child/adolescent in the parent check-in process.

Imagine your boss telling you that they are going to have a meeting about you with another manager… and you had no idea what they were going to say about you. All you knew is that you weren’t invited to the meeting. But… you can wait outside the meeting room door. 

Sounds awful, right? 

It’s a tough situation for anyone to be in, including children, and that’s why there are so many reports of little ears pressed up to the door and parent check-ins getting interrupted by an understandably anxious child. 

While it is possible to create a safe environment to neutralize such anxieties, it is also not entirely uncommon to include the child in the parent check-in. Of course, every situation is different, and depending upon the information to be shared, there is value in considering how allowing the child to be present in at least part of the session in the parent check-in may be beneficial for all involved.

Including children in the parent check-in can provide a great opportunity for child therapists to model validating feedback, positive parenting, and co-regulating skills. It also provides child therapists with an in-the-moment chance to gently reframe unhelpful parenting statements and help caregivers talk about a child’s difficulty with respect and compassion. 


Tip #5: Be upfront and honest with the child regarding the parent check-in. 

Sometimes, however, there are things that the therapist and caregiver need to talk about, and including the child/adolescent in the parent check-in may not be prudent or appropriate. When this happens, it is important to address any potential anxiety or nagging curiosity a child may have in a direct, honest, and age-appropriate way. Often, simply telling the child before the parent check-in that the therapist and the caregiver have some hard work to do together (since children aren’t the only ones who need help) is sufficient. Afterwards, at the next child-session, it’s a good idea to ask the child if they have any questions they would like to ask, and if not, a brief, age-appropriate overview of what you and the caregiver discussed typically appeases any of the child’s potential anxieties.