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How Child Therapy Works: What Parents Need to Know and How to Prepare

How Child Therapy Works: What Parents Need to Know and How to Prepare



By Rebekah Hudson

By Rebekah Hudson

By Rebekah Hudson

Your child was struggling, so you did the research to find a child therapist to support their unique needs. The first appointment has been scheduled, and you’ve prepared your child for their first therapy session. But as the parent or caregiver, how do you prepare yourself? What else do you need to know to be informed? It is important to know what to expect during child therapy, and at Hopscotch, we are here to help you every step of the way. 

The child therapy process

It can be helpful to think of your child’s therapeutic journey as a process with four foundational phases. From start to finish, here is what caregivers need to know about how child therapy works.

Phase 1: How child therapy starts

Technically, your child’s therapy journey began when you become a client—legally, that is when consent for treatment has taken place. At the first session after signed consent is when a therapist's legal obligation begins. However, you may think of your first first consultation with a therapist as the beginning: Whether that was over a preliminary 15-minute consultation call or through e-mail, from the moment communication occurred between you and the provider you selected for your child, the process started.

During this first phase, you will schedule the first appointment known as an intake session, and in preparation, your efforts are best focused on helping the therapist support your child. This might include gathering relevant documentation such as school records, report cards, doctor notes, family history, or any other information you think might provide the therapist with the context necessary to support your child.

Phase 2: The intake session (first meeting)

The intake session is the first, official, full-length appointment with the child therapist. Typically most of the intake session with a younger child is with the parent(s) only. Parents need time to tell their story and for the therapist to gather relevant social and emotional information, as well as family history. Older children may be in some or all of the session.  The intake is really a time for the therapist to gather more details from the parent about the concerns that were mentioned in the 15 minute consultation and intake paperwork.  

As for what happens, the child’s age and needs will determine the functionality of the session itself, but you can expect that the therapist will provide an overview of the treatment to be administered, methodology, and session functionality. The therapist will also articulate caregiver participation expectations for future sessions and provide a structure and cadence for progress updates. Ultimately, the intake session provides you with an excellent opportunity to confirm whether or not the clinician is a good fit for your child.

Note that if your child is a teenager, then talk therapy is likely, however, if your child is under the age of 12, then it is likely that not much “talking” will be happening. Children learn primarily by doing, and their primary form of communication is play. While play therapy and art therapy techniques are sometimes utilized for teenagers and adults, play therapy and art therapy are especially common and appropriate for children ages 3 through 12 years old. In either case, parental session participation may or may not be necessary, and the therapist will clarify caregiver involvement during the intake session.

Phase 3: Subsequent sessions and the course of child therapy

This is where the majority of the therapeutic work and progress occurs: parents should partner with their child's therapist to determine the session frequency and goals, which may evolve over time. It's also natural for your child to resist going to therapy throughout the process. 

The therapist will initially be focusing on making a connection with your child and establishing a rapport with both of you. The goal is for your child to feel safe, accepted, heard, and as comfortable as possible. The functionality and frequency of subsequent therapy sessions will largely depend on the nature of your child’s needs, condition, and the type of therapy being administered. For instance, children may naturally outgrow play therapy and progress into art therapy or eventually talk therapy.

Phase 4: Assessing how long child therapy will last

Child therapy duration varies. Child/adolescent therapy is a proven and effective form of treatment that takes time. The importance of patience with the child therapeutic process is paramount; because the first few sessions are focused on establishing rapport and building a connection with the child, it can take around five to ten sessions before any improvements may be noticed. There is value in trusting the process and giving it some time before evaluating. We recommend caregivers and therapists assess the child/adolescent’s progress on a routine three to six months basis, but keep in mind that some therapy goals may require more (or less) time than others. 

How can I help support my child between sessions or after therapy?

Growth is more likely to be achieved and sustained when the caregiver solidifies in-session progress through at-home practices. Because caregivers and therapists each do their best work when they partner together as a team, we encourage caregivers to consult directly with their child’s therapist on precise ways collaboration may be possible. There are many ways caregivers can positively reinforce therapy session-based learning in the home, and therapists can be relied upon for providing child-specific suggestions to caregivers on how to support their child’s development. Hopscotch's resource center offers our experts' advice and therapeutic interventions you can use when you're at home.

When does child therapy end?

Therapeutic sessions may conclude when the established goals have been achieved and the underlying issues that motivated therapy are no longer prevalent. Like adults, children and adolescents may need a mental health tune up or "booster session" again at some point in the future. But once the child’s skills have expanded, their coping methods improved, their panic attacks subsided, and their emotions recalibrated, then the therapeutic process has successfully run its course.

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