What To Do If You Think Your Child Needs Therapy

Four Million is a large number. Wouldn’t you love to have FOUR MILLION DOLLARS? Or four million consecutive VACATION DAYS? Or four million FRIENDS?

The number four million also represents the number of children and adolescents that suffer from a mental illness in this country. This means that 4,000,000 American children and adolescents are suffering from severe enough emotional or behavioral problems that it is having a significant impact in their functioning at home, in school, and/or with their peers.

In addition, half of all LIFETIME cases of mental disorders begin by age 14! If these problems are not treated during childhood, then these children are at risk for developing more serious problems during adulthood.

There is such a stigma and a lack of awareness regarding childhood mental illness that too often children and adolescents are not treated during their childhoods and they develop more serious problems later in adulthood. Not to mention that if these problems were treated during the younger years, these kids would have a better chance at having a calmer, happier, and more productive youth.

How do you know if your child might be suffering from a psychological disorder? Have you sometimes thought that there might be something a little “not right” about your child? Maybe you have watched your child suffer for years while they can’t seem to connect with their peers at school. Perhaps you dread knowing your child has an upcoming test or large school project because you know that this means your child will “flip out” or go through excessive amounts of stress and worry that is not typical for someone their age? Maybe your child just isn’t the same since the divorce, or death of a loved one, or some other major change in their life.

There are many different reasons that your child might benefit from therapy. Some childhood problems are not that serious and just need a few months of therapy to allow your child to get through a difficult phase of life. Therapy is also beneficial for your child when they need to process difficult emotions or to learn coping skills that allow them to navigate life’s challenges more effectively (i.e. to learn new attention/concentration strategies or to cope with stress).

Yet, other problems can be more serious like suicidality, self-harm, addiction, or anger problems that might require long-term therapy or even inpatient or intensive outpatient (IOP) therapy.

The point of this article is to help you decide if your child could benefit from therapy, how therapy works, and how to find the right therapist for your child.


Signs Your Child Might Benefit From Therapy

Below I have listed many typical worrisome “signs” that might indicate that your child could benefit from therapy. This is not an exhaustive list of all possible signs, but just a small sampling of many reasons why you might want to consider therapy for your child:

  • Developmental regression (i.e. child who was toilet trained is now having regular accidents)
  • Emotional problems (i.e. your child seems more anxious, depressed, angry, etc. that other children their age)
  • Learning problems that don’t seem to resolve themselves with extra help from the teacher
  • Excessive behavioral problems at home or school
  • Difficulty making or keeping friends
  • Significant and sudden drop in grades at school
  • Changes in eating habits (i.e. food restriction, sneaking food, etc.)
  • Your child seems unmotivated, sleeps a lot, and does not seem to enjoy life
  • Your see cuts on your child’s arms or legs that are difficult to explain
  • Your child talks about dying
  • Social withdrawal or isolation from family and friends
  • Overly aggressive behavior not typical of a child their age
  • Lack of enjoyment in activities they used to find fun and exciting
  • Development of or an increase in physical complaints (i.e. headaches, stomach aches) despite normal check-ups by a doctor
  • Sudden dislike to be touched or hugged by anyone
  • Taking part in violent acts such as setting fires or cruelty to animals.

If you are still on the fence about whether or not to seek mental health services for your child, keep in mind:

  • SEVERITY of the worrisome symptoms – is this behavior/emotion more extreme in your child than other children their age?
  • DISRUPTION – is this behavior/emotion having a significant negative impact in other areas of your child’s life such as with academics, peer relationships, or family closeness?
  • TIMELINE – Is this problem not resolving itself with time or extra attention from you, a teacher, or other family member?

If the concern that you are having regarding your child is severe, disrupts many aspects of their lives, and does not seem to be going away on its own or with extra attention from you, then seeking help from a professional might be the next logical step in helping your child.


What Therapy Can Do For Your Child

Some parents are doubtful about sending their child to a therapist because they have never been to a therapist themselves and don’t really understand how therapy works. Or, maybe they have been to therapy, but is was simply talk therapy and they don’t know how their young child could possibly sit in a big, stuffy chair for 50 minutes talking about their lives. These are valid concerns that I want to address in this section.

Therapy for kids and teenagers isn’t just having your child sit in an oversized chair across from a stuffy therapist while talking about their problems. Good child therapists like to engage their young clients in activities, games, art projects, or worksheets. This might look like “play time” but it is really useful in gaining trust with the child client, as well as allowing them to feel comfortable in a strange, “medical” environment.

A good therapist can help your child:

  • Deal with stressors (i.e. academic problems, problems making or keeping friends)
  • Process a significant life event (i.e. parent’s divorce, death of a loved one, etc.)
  • Deal effectively with bullying problems at school
  • Give your child a comfortable space to talk about difficult things
  • Learn strategies and/or coping skills in order handle problems on their own in the future
  • Come to terms with and/or understand a mental health diagnosis, medical diagnosis, or other psychical illness.

Therapy is more than just talking about problems for an hour – it is about helping your child process uncomfortable emotions, learning more positive ways of handling these emotions, and allowing your child to become their own “therapist” so that they can use these new skills by themselves for future problems. The goal of therapy is to work with your child in the SHORT-TERM so that they can gain LONG-TERM HAPPINESS through new, more positive behaviors.


Checklist For Choosing The Right Therapist

The therapeutic alliance between the child and therapist is very important. Research has shown that therapy “magic” happens when there is a good relationship between the client and therapist; therefore, you don’t want to call the first child therapist in the phone book.

Because this checklist is very important (and pretty long), I have created a downloadable PDF for you to keep on your computer and to pass along to other parents who might find it useful. Sign up in the box below and I will email that checklist to your email inbox.

It is important to note that if you take your child to a therapist and your child just doesn’t seem to “click” with that particular therapist – that’s ok. Find another one. The number one factor in successful therapy is the relationship between the client and therapist! So don’t waste a bunch of time forcing a relationship between your child and the therapist; if after several sessions your child doesn’t seem to like their therapist, then look around for a new one.


Types of Therapists

There are so many different types of therapists out there that it can get really confusing! Below I have described for you the most common mental health professional degrees that you might encounter when looking for a therapist for your child.

  • Clinical Psychologists (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) – Clinical psychologists go through 5 to 7 years of academic graduate study and 1 to 2 years of postdoctoral fellowship clinical work before earning their license. Clinical psychologists provide psychotherapy services (individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, etc.), psychological testing, and diagnosis of mental illness. They cannot prescribe medication, but usually will refer the client to a psychiatrist for medication management services during therapy.
  • Psychiatrists (MD or DO) – Psychiatrists go through 4 years of medical school and 3 to 4 years of residency before earning their license to practice medicine. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are the only type of therapists that can prescribe medication; therefore, most psychiatrists refer their patients to psychologists for psychotherapy services and focus on medication management services only.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) – Social Workers attend roughly 2 years of graduate school and earn a master’s degree. During their graduate school experience, they obtain 1-2 years of clinical experience. A graduate with an LCSW degree places emphasis on a psychosocial treatment approach that includes client advocacy, consultation, and assisting with integrating clients with community resources. While LCSWs can perform psychotherapy, they cannot administer psychological testing or prescribe medication.
  • Marriage and Family Therapists (MFT) – Marriage and Family Therapists go through 2 years of graduate school and earn a master’s degree. Before they can earn licensure, they must obtain 2 years of clinical experience. MFTs focus on understanding their clients’ symptoms and interaction patterns within their existing family and social environment. They cannot administer psychological tests or prescribe medication.

Generally, all of the therapists listed above can perform therapy with your child. The difference between the disciplines is usually in how they approach the problem.

If in doubt, go to a therapist who has a good reputation with your family and/or friends and if that therapist is not appropriate for your child, then they will usually refer you to someone they believe might be more helpful to your child.


Types of Therapy

  • Individual Therapy – (i.e. “psychotherapy” or “counseling”) is a process through which a therapist works one-on-one with your child. The “magic” happens when the therapist assists the child —in a safe, caring, and confidential environment—to explore their thoughts, feelings, and/or behaviors.
  • Group Therapy – Group therapy is when one or more therapists guides a group of around 3-10 kids in a discussion aimed at helping kids process their emotions, learn and try out new coping skills, and/or allow their peers to give feedback on their behaviors in a safe environment. I love group therapy – it is my favorite mode of therapy as a therapist! The “magic” happens when the kids (who feel accepted and understood by other kids in the group going through the same problem) are able to discuss thoughts and feelings that they are too afraid to discuss with their family and friends.
  • Play Therapy – play therapy is usually most effective for toddlers through pre-teens. The guiding theory behind play therapy is that children communicate their innermost thoughts and feelings through play, and the therapist aims to change worrisome behaviors through interventions that use toys. For example, a therapist working with a child exhibiting anger problems, might play puppets with the child client where they both act out appropriate ways of expressing anger. This is effective for young kids because playing with toys is fun and nonthreatening, thus, making it easier for the child to work on their feelings and behaviors.
  • Family therapy – Family therapy is a way of working with members of a family when the family as a whole is experiencing problems. The guiding belief behind this type of therapy is that each family is a social system that has its own structure and patterns of communication. The therapist works with the family in areas such as inspiring better communication, changing ineffective behavior patterns, and providing psychoeducation on positive family styles.


How To Be Involved in Your Child’s Therapy

Finally, the last important point when considering therapy for your child is understanding YOUR ROLE AS THE PARENT in the therapy process. You are probably wondering if you will be in the sessions, if you should “report” any problems to the therapist each week, or how the therapist communicates with you.

It is your right as the parent to place your child in therapy, get reports on your child’s progress in therapy, and to take your child out of therapy at anytime. This should all be explained to you during the intake session.

Generally, your child will be going into the sessions without you, except when the therapist feels your presence in therapy would help your child in some way. It is best if you wait to be asked by the therapist to join a therapy session.

It is also understandable that, as a parent, you would like to know what happens during each session, but be prepared that this probably won’t happen. The therapist probably will just report to you each week that “things are fine,” or your child “is doing great.” Remember when I mentioned above that part of the “magic” of therapy if the special relationship between the child and therapist? This can only happen if the child feels that the therapist won’t “tattle” to mom and dad about every little thing.

Do keep in mind, however, that the therapist is MANDATED BY LAW to tell you IMMEDIATELY if your child is a danger to himself/herself, if someone is hurting them (or has hurt them in the past), or if your child is threatening to hurt someone else. I know that it is difficult, but try to trust the therapist’s judgment that they cannot report to you about every little detail that goes on in the session, but they WILL involve you when needed.


Take Home Message

The goal of this article is to educate the parent who might be considering therapy for their child. When kids struggle with mental illness, this is often a very freighting time for the parent. Parents often report to me that they experience feelings of helplessness, fear, and confusion when trying to help their child who is suffering from a psychological problem.

Don’t suffer alone – get therapy for yourself too. It doesn’t mean that you are a failure of a parent if you and/or your child is in therapy. I think it means that you are wise enough to get professional help when needed in order to help your family. You would take your child to a doctor if they were sick, right? Going to therapy is the same thing.

Please let me know your thoughts regarding this article either on my Facebook Page or in the comment section below. Also, don’t forget to sign up in the box to get the FREE PDF CHECKLIST for finding the right therapist for your child. This is a great resource for you and you can share it with other interested parents.

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