Mental health counseling has probably never been more widely accepted, appreciated, and sought out than it is now, two years into the COVID-19 pandemic. Even for those who have been privileged and fortunate enough to maintain good health, meaningful work, and fulfilling social relationships, the effects of isolation are profound. Many people, including myself, find consistent individual counseling to be of tremendous value as a space to find insight and feel supported.
Couples counseling is also reasonably well understood. Whether a couple is facing a make-or-break decision about the relationship or wanting to make their conflict more productive, they know they can find a couples counselor who can help them improve their communication skills and better navigate the inherent difficulties that show up alongside intimacy.
Family counseling is usually called for when a child is experiencing mental health symptoms or is demonstrating problematic behavior. While family counseling can be quite effective with adolescents, people at that developmental stage tend to highly value their privacy and are in the process of discovering their own individual identity. Teenagers love the confidentiality that individual counseling offers.
Everyone is different and has unique needs, but in general, I recommend family counseling for children five to 12 years old. There are several benefits to coming in as a family instead of having the child attend alone. They have the safety and comfort of having their parent(s) with them. Coming in together also takes the pressure off of them to produce answers to difficult questions. A child can learn a lot from overhearing a conversation between their parent(s) and the counselor, which they can pop into as they choose while playing with a toy or drawing a picture, depending on the child’s temperment.
When parents are ready to get counseling for their child, there is often a breakdown in understanding and/or communication within the family. Although many parents say that they want a place where their child can say anything, I find it to be of much greater value to discover what the child can express when their parent is present. Rather than have the child get comfortable alone with the therapist, the deeper breakthroughs come when parents and children work through a problem together.
By having both parent(s) and child in session, the therapist can see the dynamics in the family play out in the room. This allows the therapist to point out what is happening. The therapist can increase the parental awareness of the situation and offer potential interpretations and suggestions directed toward the specific behavior pattern. When the family goes home, they’re more likely to notice the pattern and make more effective adjustments, greatly increasing the potency of the therapeutic work that takes place in the office.
As a parent or caregiver, you are your child’s most influential person. Young children respond best to behavioral and environmental shifts that the adults make. Even subtle changes in the approach of a parent can create positive, observable results that last. When a family solves a problem together, it increases trust in taking on whatever the future brings.