A couple of weeks ago, we published an article on what to expect at your first counselling appointment. We wrote this article in response to questions we’d been receiving from people who hadn’t been to a counsellor before and we hope it was helpful!
We’ve been receiving more questions about counselling appointments, and particularly appointments for children with a Registered Clinical Counsellor. So, we thought we’d write another article to address some of the things that are unique about counselling appointments for children. I won’t repeat the details of the last article, so you may want to read that one first, and continue here.
Consent and Confidentiality in Counselling for Children
Consent to Counselling
One of the questions we get asked is, “Who can consent to treatment, and can my child consent?” This is a bit of a tricky question in some situations, particularly around parental separation and divorce. I’ll save the intricacies for another article, but in general, one or both parents need to consent for their child to see a Registered Clinical Counsellor. If there are no court orders involved, either parent can consent but we always like to get both parents to consent, and also to provide history and input because we believe it’s in the child’s best interests to operate this way in most situations. The more information we can get and the more support the child can get, the better off everyone is.
In terms of when a child can consent to their own counselling, there is no black and white line drawn in BC in terms of the age at which a child can consent. One of the most commonly-used ages is 14 and is generally accepted by most service providers. If, however, you can make an argument that the child is what is called a mature minor, the child can consent as early as age 12, or possibly earlier as long as they understand what they are consenting to. In most situations, we use the age of 14 as a guideline here at Alongside You.
Confidentiality in Counselling for Children
Many parents find it unnerving to send their child to counselling when they are not in the room to witness what is happening and being said. As a parent, I can easily understand this anxiety – I know I want to know what is happening for my kids all the time! Here’s the challenge – counselling relies on a safe, secure relationship between the client and the counsellor built on trust. If the child thinks the counsellor is going to turn around and tell the parents everything they are saying, what are the chances the relationship of trust will survive? Probably not very high.
Every Registered Clinical Counsellor at Alongside You is responsible for their professional practice and so there may be some variability in how much input from parents is sought. What I would suggest is that most counsellors will seek to collaborate with parents as much as possible, with the best interests of the child in mind. The degree to which information is passed, however, is going to depend on the comfort level of the child and the strength of the therapeutic relationship with the counsellor. It will also depend on the counsellor’s judgement of what information would be helpful to pass on. If there is a suspicion of imminent risk to the child, confidentiality can be breached without consent, but this is a judgement call on the part of the counsellor and up to their professional discretion. I know this involves a great deal of trust on the part of parents, and it is not lost on us as professionals. We want the best for your kids and will hope to strike the greatest balance between these needs to help your child.
Who Comes To The First Appointment?
The answer to this question really depends on the age of the child, or what the child wants. For younger children (i.e. approximately 12 years old or younger), it’s quite common for the first session to be with the parents alone to get some history and background and answer any questions or concerns. This first appointment can also be split between the parents and the child, at the counsellor’s discretion.
For older children, it’s likely going to come down to what the child wants. If the child wants the parents to come into the first session, then that’s likely what will happen. If, however, the child wants to come in alone, it’ll likely be just the child in the session. This is to build trust between the counsellor and the child and allow them to establish boundaries around safety and trust.
How Can I Help My Child While They Are In Counselling?
Encourage Your Child
Going to counselling can be scary for anyone, and it’s a lot to take in for a child. One of the best things you can do is to be encouraging. Let your child know that this is a time for them to have a safe place to talk about what is happening for them. Emphasize that this is an opportunity to work through some of the difficult things in life, it’s not a place to go to get fixed because there’s something wrong with them. They are wonderfully made human beings who sometimes need a little extra help.
It may also be helpful to let your child know that you’ve gone to see a counsellor before and share how it helped you, in as much detail as you’re comfortable with and as is appropriate for the age of your child. Common experience and reassurance can go a long way.
Avoid Interrogating Your Child After The Session
I get it – you want to know what happened. We all do as parents. But, it’s not going to support the process if the child then worries about being interrogated after coming out. Instead, a helpful question can be, “Is there anything you’d like to tell me about your time with the counsellor?” Realize that answer may be, “No,” and this needs to be okay. You want to give your child the opportunity to share their journey with you, not make a demand that they let you in if they’re not ready to do that yet.
Understanding The Reports You Get Back
We all love our children, and we want to believe everything they say. I remember when my parents would ask me what I did at school, invariably, my answer each time was, “I played and had a snack.” I, of course, didn’t do this, and this only every day at school. I was a very forthcoming child apparently. I also know, that what kids report back to parents isn’t always accurate (the same goes for adults), or the full story. This isn’t intentional necessarily, it’s just how our communication patterns work. I remember a client that I was doing EMDR with one time had gone home and told their parents that we had been doing ECT. Yes, that ECT that involves significant electrical charges to the brain in a hospital setting. Thankfully the parents called me to clarify and assumed that something got lost in translation. I’ve also heard clients tell parents, “All we did was talk about boring stuff,” or, “All we did was draw a picture.” While some of this may be true, there’s usually a lot more to the story.
It’s helpful if we all start with the assumption that the counsellor has the best interests of the child in mind and that we may not be getting the whole story when we get it from our child. Be curious, ask general questions, and if you have any concerns, contact the counsellor to clarify.
Trust The Counsellor and Your Child
I know it’s unnerving to trust someone else with the care of your child. I get that on both sides, as a Registered Clinical Counsellor and as a father of two young girls. Again, trust goes a long way and goes both ways in the relationship between parents and therapists. We want what’s best for your child, and we’ll do whatever is possible to help. Sometimes this involves us not divulging information you may want to know, and sometimes that may be unnerving for you.
We want to include you in any way we believe will be helpful for your child and your family. This sometimes takes time to develop, understand, and plan for. Your patience is much appreciated, as is your commitment to a process that may have you feeling like you’re standing on the outside at times.
Thanks for reading to the end! I hope this helps with some of the questions you may have about the first appointment with a Registered Clinical Counsellor for your child, and a bit about the ongoing process. Sending your child to a counsellor for the first time can be nerve-wracking, and challenging at times. Please feel free to ask any questions you like as you’re booking, we’ll answer them as best we can!