What Should I Tell My Child before His First Visit to the Psychologist?

by Gary E. Dudley, Ph.D.

We are frequently asked at the time we are scheduling an initial visit for a child, "what shall I tell him about this doctor visit?" Many parents express concern about telling their child that they are about to visit with a mental health professional. Other parents worry that somehow talking about their child, his or her behavior, or difficulties that the child and/or the parent are having with some everyday issues and concerns will be detrimental to the child, his psyche, or his developmental progress.

In general, parents bring their children for consultation with psychologists and counselors because they are concerned about some aspect of the child's development or worried about the way things are going in the family. In some cases, parents are divorcing and there is concern for the reactions of the child. In other situations, the child's school performance has deteriorated and there is concern about stress or depression. In yet other cases, the child is just starting out in school, perhaps first or second grade, and struggling to get the work done. In each of these situations, the issue at hand is that the parent is worried or concerned.

I suggest that you communicate the following information to your child. First, tell him or her that you have scheduled a doctor visit. Next, depending on his age (under 12 years) tell him that he will not be getting any shots or injections at this visit. Finally, tell him that you have been thinking about some things that have been happening in the family, at school, or in the neighborhood. Tell your child that you are making this doctor visit to discuss the things that you've been thinking about, or perhaps worrying about, with a doctor who has studied the sorts of things that have been on your mind.

While relaying the initial information in this manner underscores an important point in not only putting the child at ease with regard to the initial visit, but also addresses the issue of problem ownership. That is, in the majority of cases involving children, the children do not present to the doctor with "a problem." Rather, the problem resides in the parent. That is, the parent is worried, concerned, and sometimes scared or anxious. In placing ownership of the problem where it actually resides, the child is less likely to have any concern that he or she "may be in trouble." At the initial visit, concerns can be openly discussed, and an appropriate course of action can be decided upon to help identify the sources of parental concern whether it be a developmental delay with the child, stress affecting the entire family, or in some cases, unrealistic expectations. In any event, the initial visit is likely to be more productive if the child arrives in a state of relative comfort and ease

Finally, with very young children (eight years or under), it is often useful to say "I plan to talk about some things with the doctor, and he may have some toys for you to play with while I talk or he may want to play with some of his toys with you.

Therapists differ in terms of how they conduct the initial interview, and the information described above is how I advise parents who are scheduling a visit with me

I hope this information is helpful to you. If you have suggestions about adding to this information or would like to suggest other questions that should be addressed, please feel free to communicate with me through the web site e-mail.