Has your child been displaying signs of emotional or behavioral problems that make you feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to respond? It can be difficult to know if and when it’s the right time to take your child to pediatric counseling. Adults are not alone in needing mental health treatment; sometimes, counseling is indicated for children or adolescents as well.On the one hand, if your child is exhibiting signs that they might need to see a child therapist, you want to make sure they get the help they need. Various kinds of intervention, ranging from a few sessions of cognitive therapy to medication, can make a big difference for a child struggling with their mental health.
On the other hand, you might be afraid of over-exaggerating an issue or making a big deal out of a normal developmental phase. What if “this too shall pass”? Sometimes, children or adolescents may be resistant to the idea of seeing a child therapist, which can make your decision harder. Or, you might be unsure of how to raise the issue with your older child.
In this article, we’ll discuss some common questions parents have when asking, “How do I know if my child needs therapy?” Let’s review some reasons why therapy might be indicated for your child, and what happens in counseling for kids.
Mental Health Issues in Children
It’s not unusual for mental health issues to run in families, but they can also crop up regardless of hereditary factors. Mental health issues such as depression, ADHD, autism, and schizophrenia tend to run in families, but that doesn’t mean they will be at the same level of severity for each family member.
What if you or your child’s other parent suffer from anxiety, depression, or another mental health issue? Your mental health problems don’t mean your child is guaranteed to suffer from the same ones, but it might be wise to keep an eye out for similar issues as your child grows and develops.
These mental and emotional problems, as well as some medical conditions, can be passed along through multifactorial inheritance. This means that a person’s genetics and environment both affect their likelihood of developing a mental or physical problem. For example, medical problems that are based on multifactorial inheritance include asthma, diabetes (Type 2), and obesity.
So, for any child suffering from mental health issues, keep in mind both nature and nurture – any family history of mental health problems, along with current problems in their environment or distressing experiences they’ve had.
Children or teens who don’t have a family history of mental health problems, or who haven’t undergone any noticeable stress or trauma lately, may still develop problems that require the attention of a child therapist. If this is the case for your child, rest assured that counseling for kids can address the problems your child is struggling with and often leads to very positive outcomes for both the child and the family as a whole.
Signs Your Child May Need Therapy
It can be hard to tell the difference between a child who is experiencing a normal response to the stressors of growing up, and a child who is unable to cope with those stressors. In other cases, a child or teen has undergone significant trauma that warrants professional attention.
Everyday Health and Scientific American report that about 1 in 5 American children have a mental disorder that could be diagnosed and require treatment, whether or not they actually receive treatment. This is a significant percentage of children! Imagine the impact it would make if all of them received counseling for their struggles.
Everyday Health also adds that about 1 in 10 kids have a serious emotional disturbance, a term that refers to the following factors over a long period of time:
- Inability to learn that cannot be otherwise explained (academic performance below grade level, short attention span)
- Inability to build/maintain satisfactory interpersonal relationships with peers (failure to initiate interaction, avoidance of social interactions through fear/anxiety, aggressiveness, fighting)
- Inappropriate types of behavior/feelings under normal circumstances (hyperactivity, impulsiveness, withdrawal, inappropriate crying, temper tantrums, self-injury)
- General/pervasive mood of unhappiness or depression
- A tendency to develop physical symptoms or fears associated with personal problems
If your child is displaying any of the above symptoms, you may already be considering that they might need counseling. You can also assess what you know about their current situation, emotions, and possible conditions.
KidsHealth by Nemours says that a child’s need for therapy is often brought on by three types of problems:
- Tough times: bullying, family problems, health problems
- Feelings: sadness, anger, stress, grief
- Conditions: ADHD, anxiety, eating disorders, self-injury, trauma-related disorders, etc.
Here are 11 more warning signs of emotional and mental health problems in a child, often used to assess a child’s need for therapy, from KidsHealth:
- Overlapping problems in different areas
- Noticeable decrease in self-confidence
- Excessive anxiety
- Withdrawn from people and activities previously found enjoyable
- Significant changes in sleep and appetite
- Increase in negative behavior
- Repetitive, self-destructive behaviors (hair pulling, skin-picking)
- Self-harm (or even talking about it)
- Saying, “I wish I wasn’t here,” or, “No one cares about me”
- Mentioning suicide
As you’re considering whether to seek children’s counseling, read through the above symptoms and think about how many of them your child may be experiencing. The more symptoms you can identify, the higher the likelihood that counseling might make a positive difference in your child’s life.
Steps to Take if You Think Your Child Needs Counseling
First, it’s important not to rush to “fix” your child. If there are no issues that require immediate attention (such as self-harm, talk of suicide, evidence of abuse, etc.), then make the first step one of listening to your child and validating their experience. Sometimes, that’s all a young person needs, especially as they get older and develop a greater ability to express their emotions through words.
If you do feel like your child needs professional help, listen to your intuition. Don’t talk yourself out of it or downplay your gut instinct. The Cleveland Clinic suggests that if you want to raise the issue of counseling with an older child, you can use a script like, “Does this feel like something we need to get some help with?” Talk to your child’s pediatrician about options for therapy. You are your child’s best advocate.
What Happens in Counseling for Kids?
The type of therapy your child will need depends on the issue they’re struggling with, their age, and other influencing factors.
Traditional psychotherapy for children may include:
- Cognitive therapy,
- Behavioral therapy,
- Or a combination of both.
“Both are results-oriented, short-term interventions, consisting of anywhere from ten to thirty-five weekly sessions.” (Healthy Children)
Cognitive therapy for kids focuses on helping them change negative/unhelpful thought patterns. For example, they may learn to stop overgeneralizing or catastrophizing.
Behavioral therapy focuses on helping kids change attitudes and actions that are self-defeating.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy includes a combination of both approaches, as well as a focus on increasing social skills.
Counseling for kids is much more effective when at least one parent is involved. Family counseling may be indicated to help everyone get involved with healing and facilitating the child’s healthy coping skills and behaviors. Group therapy can also be a helpful option.
Therapy or counseling for kids does not mean a child will necessarily be diagnosed and/or treated with medication. In some cases, medicine is definitely needed, but don’t worry that by taking your child to counseling or therapy, you’ll have to put them on medication.
“In addition, psychiatric medication should never be a stand-alone treatment for kids. Meds should always play a secondary role to behavioral treatment, a school-based Individualized Education Program (IEP), and/or family therapy.” (Ellen Hendriksen)
In other words, taking a child to counseling can help you create an individualized mental health plan for them that may include, but is not limited to, counseling or medication. If your child does need medication, it will be given in the context of a broader treatment plan that can facilitate their growth and healing in multiple areas.
Counseling for children may also include alternative, evidence-based therapies such as art therapy or play therapy. Talk therapy, including Cognitive and/or Behavioral Therapy, may not be sufficient or developmentally appropriate for your child. Talk to your health care provider to find out more. In any case, it’s important to recognize that the more involved and cooperative at least one parent is in the counseling process, the better the outcome will be for the child.
“As many as 60 to 80 percent of patients with severe disorders such as schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder demonstrate a positive response to treatment.” (Healthy Children) This statistic is very encouraging because good outcomes are also quite likely for children with less severe disorders.
Counseling can come with a stigma for anyone, adult or child, but this vague sense of shame is undeserved. Getting mental health help can make a big difference for the present and future for your child. Don’t be afraid to reach out today.
“Brothers”, Courtesy of Sathyatripodi, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Bench,” courtesy of Michal Parzuchowski, unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Candy from Soldier”, Courtesy of Skeeze, Pixabay.com, CC0 License; “Alone,” courtesy of Luke Pennystan, unsplash.com, CC0 License