Does My Child Need Therapy?

I think my child needs therapy.  Do you think my child needs therapy?  How do I know if my child needs therapy? Maybe I need therapy!  HELP!

Does that sound familiar?  These are the types of concerns and questions that I hear from parents every single day.  At some point or another, most of us have been there, me included!  Wondering if we could improve our children’s lives or tackle a few of their specific problems with counseling.

In a lot of ways, I think all children (and parents) could benefit from some therapy.  Sort of like going to the dentist every six months for a cleaning or the pediatrician annually for a well visit.  Just to check in and see how everything is going.  Any problems?  Anything you’d like help working on?  If so, let’s set some goals and get to work.  If not, we’ll see you again next year but feel free to call us sooner if you have any problems come up.

Doesn’t that sound good?  Unfortunately that’s not the way therapy usually happens for a number of reasons.  Often the cost of therapy keeps many people from being able to get services.  Even if you have insurance, the co-pay can just be too much.  Others can’t get therapy because they don’t have a child psychologist in their community or there is a long wait to get an appointment.  And sadly, some don’t pursue therapy for their kids because they worry about the stigma associated with seeing a psychologist.

So, what’s my answer when people ask me if their child needs therapy?  Usually I tell them to trust their instincts.  As parents, we know our children better than anyone.  If something doesn’t seem right then go with that gut feeling and get help.

But how do you even start?  Here are a few tips to get you headed in the right direction:

Figure out as best you can specifically what you’re concerned about and want help with.  Easier said than done I know, but before you start searching for a therapist you’re going to want to at least have an idea of what you need their help for.  Think about it this way.  Imagine you’ve got a lot of health issues.  Bad knees, poor eye sight, high blood pressure.  But right this very minute you have a fever and sore throat.  When you go to the doctor, you’ll want to fill them in on your entire health history, but what you really want (and need) is some immediate relief for your sore throat!  Getting your blood pressure under control, eyes corrected with glasses, and knee surgery are goals for some future point too, but the most pressing issue is the sore throat.  Think about your child’s issues from that vantage point.  What’s their “sore throat” problem right now?  What’s the biggest concern you have?  You can still get help in other areas, but you need a starting point.

Once you’ve given some thought to the issue you want to address, do some research.  Before you get excited, DO NOT do a Google search.  Repeat after me.  No Google searches.  Instead, find and buy one of the many well written books by child psychologists that teach parents how to address the common problems of childhood at home with your child.  I have a few favorites.  Topics like defiance, anxiety, anger, divorce, and social skills to name a few.  A lot of times those books will take you step by step through a treatment protocol to get your kids back on the right track.  Don’t get me wrong.  They’re not magic!  They require your involvement every step of the way.  But they can be a perfect place to start for solving problems with your child.

If the problem is serious, overwhelming, or you just need more help than a book can offer, then you’ll want to seek the help of a professional.  Depending on the issue, I often tell parents to talk to their child’s pediatrician or school counselor first.  They will be able to provide some immediate assistance and are familiar with your child and the options for therapy in your community.  You’ll also want to check with your insurance to see if they cover therapy services, and if they have providers in your area that you are required to use.  If you’ve done all of that and still need help finding a therapist, try some ‘old school’ methods.  Think word of mouth and the phone book.  Jump to the modern era and you can also find qualified therapists online using a psychologist locator like the one provided by the American Psychological Association.  No matter how you select a psychologist, you’ll want to make sure that they are licensed by your state psychology board or working under the supervision of a licensed psychologist AND that they have specialized in child psychology.

No matter what, don’t forget to trust your instincts.  If you think that you or your child would benefit from talking with a therapist, then go with that gut feeling and get help.  Best of luck!

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About Dr. Polly Dunn

Child clinical psychologist, wife, and mom of four blogging about her 'Perfectly Imperfect' parenting solutions.

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