Parenting never seems to be as easy as it looked in the old TV shows. On the Brady Bunch or Home Improvement, even the most serious problems could be wrapped up in 30 minutes. Sometimes, if the problem happened on a vacation, it might take an hour.
In this brief time, with pauses for commercials, and with non-stop one-liners and a hug at the end, they settle problems like
- Choosing which parent to take to a school event
- The phone bill
- A fear of heights
- Teaching your kids to have manners
These problems are indeed life-like, ripped from the pages of daily family living. However, almost nothing is resolved in half an hour in real parenting.
In reality, these problems are complex. They involve multiple people, a series of relationships, and they overlap each other. As parents, it seems we never get to handle one problem all by itself in isolation. Worse, we are often still dealing with the emotional fallout from the last issue then another one arises.
And this gets complicated by factors that face parents today:
- Social media exaggerating even small events or issues
- Internet access allowing children to see dangerous or offensive material
- A sense of children maturing more quickly than ever
- The related sense of a loss of childhood
- Fear of violence at school
- Increased levels of poverty and income inequality
- A loss of grace and courtesy in our public discourse
Parenting is hard. It can be overwhelming. Sometimes the problem obviously needs a counselor. Other times, it takes some discernment.
Below are some things to consider when trying to determine if it is time to bring your child to a counselor.
What are the emergency signals?
There are a few kinds of events that should trigger an immediate visit to a counselor:
- A suicide attempt or frequent discussion of suicide
- The suicide of a close friend or family member
- Extreme unsafe behavior
- Possession of drugs including marijuana
- Evidence of depression or anxiety that impacts daily living
When these things become apparent because of a specific incident, parents should respond immediately by taking several steps.
If your child has attempted suicide, no matter how effective the attempt seemed, the appropriate response is a visit to the emergency room. If this is not possible, make a call to a local suicide hotline.
Then you should take steps to decrease access to that dangerous behavior. For instance, if you found a drug in your child’s possession, you should try to figure out where it came from. Work to make access to it impossible. Did it come from a friend’s medicine cabinet? Was it purchased during a sleepover at another friend’s house? Track it down and speak with parents of other children who might be involved.
Or perhaps your child is too anxious or depressed to function. If they have lost enthusiasm for things they used to enjoy, or if their habits have suddenly changed, it is time to get curious. The child who is too anxious about grades or personal relationships to even get out of bed needs immediate help.
Be guided by the evidence of your child’s actions, not their words. Older children especially will deny that they have a problem. Or, when confronted, they may say they have a plan. If the patterns that concerned you continue, you should take steps to intervene.
Less urgent counseling needs
Emergencies are not the only reason for counseling. There are lots of significant events in life that can throw someone off their game without rising to the level of an emergency. You should consider seeking counseling for your child, or perhaps even going together to counseling, in some situations. Among those:
- The death of a loved one, especially a spouse / parent involved in daily life of your household
- A major life change, such as the disability or sudden unemployment of the family provider
- A planned move that will uproot friendships and familiar patterns
- Constant, chronic fighting between you and your child
- Divorce and/or a parent potentially getting married to someone new
- Constant and chronic fighting between siblings
This is not a comprehensive list. As a parent, you know your child best. When they are not quite themselves, it can be hard to tell if it is just growing up or a serious situation. Ask yourself, “is my child thriving? Is my child happy?” If the answer to either, or both, is “no,” consider using a counselor to help your child regain his footing.
Parents often lament that they did not act soon enough to ask a professional counselor to intervene. They will express regret that a great deal of time went by between when they saw the problem and when they finally intervened. Or worse yet, they wish they had intervened, and now things are worse.
Sometimes adults visiting a counselor will say, “I wish I had talked through that years ago.” We should not be in the habit of second-guessing others and the choices that were made, including those made by our own parents. However, we can work to prevent ourselves from making those same mistakes.
How do I talk to my child about starting counseling?
These are challenging conversations for parents and students. If your child is younger than high school, there should not be much of a discussion. It is simply a decision you have made.
As the person fully in charge of the schedule for your child, you do not need to ask them if it is okay. You simply inform your child that at this time on this date, we are going to talk with a counselor.
If your child asks, you can explain that a counselor is someone who is an expert at helping other people find the answers to questions in their own lives. If someone has problems or concerns, a counselor can help them sort it out.
Teenagers are more likely to be resistant to talking with a counselor. Unfortunately, counseling and therapy often carries a negative connotation in our society. This is passed on informally through social networks, such as among friends at school.
Students internalize that the kids who “have a problem” are the ones who need a counselor. Because no one likes to think that they “have a problem,” this can make teens unwilling to talk to a counselor. They often don’t know that many children experience difficulties, and they don’t see that many of their thriving peers have also used counseling.
One way to make this go more smoothly is to let your child have some options, if any are available. While your child does not get to make the decision whether or not to go (that is your decision) you can give your child some flexibility:
- Offer to let them have some control over which counselor they see (based on limitations in your insurance and economic situation)
- Offer a choice from private or school-based counseling
- Offer them some control of when the sessions are (but this might affect who they can see, depending on counselor schedules)
It might also help to find others who have been through counseling. Talk to other parents and see which students have utilized counseling – you might be surprised. Also, make an appointment or simply call the school counselor. While the school counselor can’t (or shouldn’t) tell you who they have seen, they can encourage one or more of their clients to reach out voluntarily to your child. This helps make the process seem less strange.
You can help this conversation go smoothly by offering these options and explaining how counseling works.
How does counseling work?
Despite having options, your child may still be reluctant to visit a counselor. This is because many people just don’t know what counselors are and what they do. They might picture movies or tv caricatures where counselors make someone break down crying to have a “breakthrough” and suddenly change their life.
They may think of counseling a lot like Dr. Phil. Almost daily he has someone on who is making poor choices. He seems to ridicule those choices and offer “tough love” in the form of harsh criticism and pointed questions. Imagining this happening in front of an audience would by mortifying for most adults. It seems impossible for a child to do.
But this is not how counseling typically works.
A friend of mine who works with teenagers frequently uses anUno (the card game) analogy.Even if you don’t know the rules of this particular game, the imagery can help explain the content.
When you have too many cards in your hand in Uno, it can help to set them down and sort them out. Perhaps you sort them by color, and put the special cards in their own section. Whatever works for you to help you play your cards most efficiently. The counselor can help you sort, but can’t play your cards for you. That is your work.
A counselor can help you do this when you feel like you have too many problems in your own life. They can’t solve any of the problems for you, but they can help you sort the problems out and decide which ones to handle first. You can leave with a better understanding of your own situation, and confident that you know which “cards” to play first.
Also, counselors can offer a child needed expertise and discretion. Teens are especially protective of their privacy. As they approach adulthood, they see more and more of their activities and thoughts as private. Until they can live on their own, keeping these things private from their parents is sometimes their greatest source of autonomy.
So knowing that a counselor will keep much of the conversation private is important. There is an exception. Counselors must report if a child talks about things that are an imminent threat to herself or others. They also must intervene if a child is suicidal.
There is more information on how counseling works here [insert link to related article]