What exactly is your relationship with goals? Therapists either love them or hate them.
I happen to be planted firmly in the LOVE IT camp! And secretly (but not so secretly) I hope by the end of this you might be too.
Ok- so beyond needing to take a big ole’ deep breath as you type in all the information that maaayyy be a little dry into your electronic medical record there is definitely gold in goal setting. In both the process itself and how it seres as a guide for the entire therapy relationship.
Check out my four reasons I love setting therapy goals with clients:
1. Enhanced parent and child engagement and “by in”
Let’s face it - most young people aren’t requesting to come to therapy. Usually a parent, the school, or a physician has noticed difficulties with mental heath, big feelings, or change in behavior and recommend the child receive therapy. And as much as we know young people need the support of therapy we can also have empathy that they didn’t exactly sign up for this. If you have ever (willingly or not so willingly) committed to doing something you didn't want to do, you can definitely relate to the feelings of dread, anxiety, and even anger that come up when it’s time to actually do that thing.
Research has shown that collaborative goal setting is actually associated with higher levels of engagement and therapy retention. When we can join together with young people and figure out what they want to get out of the process they can take more ownership over their own therapy. And - likely will have some fun in the process!
2. Identify a clear baseline of symptoms
Having a clear baseline of symptoms and symptom profile when a client enters therapy is essential for knowing what to do next. A client’s exact symptoms (including the frequency, duration, and intensity) helps you clarify next steps in a client’s treatment. Grounding yourself in what the symptoms are and the intensity helps you make a plan about what type of therapy is going to be most effective for your client.
3. Clarify realistic expectations
Oftentimes parents and young people come to therapy with the hope of what their life will look like as a result of putting in the hard work of engaging in therapy. Sometimes that picture is realistic and achievable and...well...sometimes it isn’t. It is in the goal setting process that we can set realistic expectations for what therapy can do - and what it can’t. We can help parents understand that their children are not going to be compliant robots that always turn 100% of their homework in on time, never sass back, and always have a clean room. We can help young people understand that having big feelings like sadness or anxiety is a normal part of life and that therapy won’t erase completely the bad things that may have happened in their lives.
4. Help evaluate progress
Maybe it is just me, but how often do you hear parents or young people say “therapy isn’t working”? And sometimes that is true. Maybe the client needs a higher level of care, different service, or different type of therapy.
However, most often the thought that “therapy isn’t working” isn’t really true at all. Remember above when we got a great baseline of symptoms? Well, we can use this valuable piece of information from goal setting to help pain the picture of where the client was when they started therapy and compare that to today when they are sitting in front of you in your office. You can use this as a tool to highlight their strengths and progress towards their goals.
And these moments? Well, they just happen to be some of my favorite moments in therapy. When a client can acknowledge their growth and have pride in how far they have come!
Okay - now your turn! Do you have a love or hate relationship with setting therapy goals? What are your favorite (or least favorite) parts? Drop a comment below!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.