How To Know if Your Therapy is Working
If you're seeking a new therapist, have been working with one for a while or even if a loved one has just started therapy, the question will likely cross your mind: "How do I know when it's working?"
The question doesn't have an easy answer.
One size does not fit all
Genesis Games, a licensed mental health counselor based in Florida, reminds us that therapy is a very individualized experience.
"There's no checklist that fits everyone," Games explained. "The most important piece is the therapeutic relationship—I like to call it therapeutic chemistry. If it's not there, and it just isn't, don't force it just because the therapist came highly recommended. They might be great, but their approach is just not for you. Seek other therapists until you find the right fit."
Games recommends evaluating your answers to certain questions to determine the possible fit, including, "Do you feel comfortable with your therapist?" "Do you believe they are invested in helping you?" and "Do you feel pushed and rushed or are they going at a pace that feels right for you?"
Games, a Gottman-trained couples therapist, said the same rules and questions would also apply for their journey.
If you've already found your perfect therapist, there's a chance they won't just help you get from point A to point B. It's likely your problems and needs will evolve, and your therapist will need guidance from you on how to best move forward.
"Having transparent conversations with your therapist throughout your work together is important to ensure your needs are met," Games said.
We play to progress
Then comes the question of children. Are these questions and conversations the same for them? If they're not watching therapy sessions firsthand, how can caregivers see firsthand how the work is progressing?
Kierra Lloyd, L.C.S.W., a play therapist based in Mansfield, Texas, said it all comes down to how parents engage with her.
"Based on the kiddo's play, I will inform parents of the themes that I observed and begin to tweak the play therapy techniques to be more specific to their situations," Lloyd said. "From there, I continue to educate the parents on the brain and/or reasons why their kiddo responds in that manner. After we are about seven sessions in, the parents usually report a decrease in the specific behavior.
"However, at this point," Lloyd added, "they are now more focused on the overall mental health of their child and how their daily interactions can impact the child's ability to self-regulate."
While parents may see a difference in their child's behavior eventually, the change can be gradual, plus it's natural to want to check in on the progress made behind closed doors. However, because a child may not fully understand their own progress, or may not want to feel their privacy invaded by a parent, Lloyd schedules routine parent consultations to debrief.
"Honestly, since I provide play therapy, most times when parents ask, 'How is therapy going?' or 'What did you do at therapy today?' the child will answer, something to the effect of, 'We played,'" Lloyd said. "Which is true, but there is so much more to understand about play therapy that the child would not grasp because we are working through trauma in their language. Which just so happens to also be 'play.'"
The need to be engaged
Outside of parent consultations, though, Lloyd said parents do have tools at their disposal to check in with their kids.
"If a parent felt the need to ask their child what they did in therapy, they could ask something like, 'What toys did you play with today?' or 'What emotion did you feel during your play?' These questions also then allow the kiddo to start recognizing and validating their emotions," she explained.
However, Lloyd emphasized, "therapy is not a magic wand and no child will leave perfect." Eventually, parents may notice their children enacting new harmful behaviors, but this does not diminish the work accomplished so far.
"The reason I have the parents remember a behavior is because they are able to see the progress the child has made in sessions," Lloyd said. "The difficult part comes in when, yes, the reason why they first reached out for therapy is 'fixed' but now the child is disrespectful or talking back. This is when I remind the parent of how far they have come in this journey."
Engagement, in the end, is very important from both ends. As Games said, "You won't always like or enjoy therapy, but if you are not engaged, therapy won't work for you."