Parents seek therapy for their children for a variety of reasons. Perhaps your child or pre-teen is going through a challenging time at school or at home; Perhaps your child, or their close friend or relative, is dealing with a physical or mental health issue; Perhaps your child or pre-teen is feeling anxious, sad or stressed without really knowing why. Therapy is a valuable tool for helping children and pre-teens work through issues they may be facing and build new coping tools.
When your child is struggling, or you are worried about their behavior, it can be difficult to know when to seek professional support. You may ask yourself, “What is considered developmentally typical versus atypical?” and “When would a specific behavior benefit from professional intervention?” All children struggle emotionally at times and learning new ways to address life’s challenges is an important part of healthy psychological development. Having a parent patiently listen might be all that your child needs to navigate difficulties successfully.
However, there are times to seek professional support. If your child is experiencing problems in many areas of their life, such as at home, with friends and at school, it is a good idea to consult a mental health professional. If your child expresses excessive worry and/or hopelessness, engages in any self-harm or self-destructive behaviors, withdraws from activities, or shares that they frequently feel bad about themselves, therapy is an essential resource. If there are challenges or stressors between parents or other family members, your child may be reacting with anger, anxiety, or sadness, and therapeutic support can be helpful. If your child shows signs of eating disordered behavior or more serious mental health issues, early treatment is important. Even if problems are not severe, therapy can help your child learn new coping skills and help ease them through life transitions.
Child therapy is most effective when the mental health professional works individually with the child and supports the family as a whole. How often the family meets with the therapist is dependent on the age of the child and the underlying issues. With young children, parents often accompany their child to therapy. With older children and pre-teens, parents can expect to meet with the therapist periodically to learn about their child’s progress, to share ongoing concerns, and to learn how they can best support their child. In most cases, therapists will not share the details of what is discussed in therapy, but rather general themes related to treatment, unless there are specific concerns about the child’s safety.
There is no one size fits all approach to child therapy, though there are a few general things you can expect. At the initial therapy sessions, the therapist will ask questions about your child’s strengths and interests, and about issues that are bringing your child to therapy. In addition, the therapist may ask about social and school history, family history, and developmental and medical history. The goal of these initial sessions is to help the therapist learn more about your child and to determine how they can best help.
In general, therapy with children is creative and playful, and developmentally appropriate. Often, children have a harder time identifying and articulating their emotions, making art, play and books central in the therapeutic process. Older children and pre-teens may engage in these activities, as well as more traditional talk therapy. Frequency of sessions and how quickly progress is made depends on many factors. Most of the time, you can expect the therapist to meet with your child once a week for a few months.
Finding the right therapy match for your child is important to treatment success. Take time to consult with possible providers; explain your concerns and ask questions about their therapeutic style and approach.