Finding the Right Therapist for Your Child

Finding The Right Therapist for Your Child

Finding the Right Therapist for Your Child

How do you find a qualified clinician who has experience working with kids and teens? Experience and education are important, but your child must feel comfortable talking to him or her.

Your family physician can be a good source of a referral. Most doctors have working relationships with mental health specialists such as child psychologists or clinical social workers. Friends, colleagues, family members, pastoral ministers are also good resources.

Questions to Ask the Therapist

Consider the following factors when evaluating a potential therapist:

1. A good first step is to ask if the therapist is willing to meet with you for a brief consultation or to talk with you during a phone interview before you commit to regular visits. Not all therapists are able to do this, given their busy schedules. Most therapists charge a fee for this type of service; others consider it a complimentary visit.

2. Is the therapist licensed to practice in your state? (You can check with the state board for that profession or check to see if the license is displayed in the office.)

3. Is the therapist covered by your health insurance plan’s mental health benefits? If so, how many sessions are covered by your plan? What will your co-pay be?

4. What are his or her credentials? What type of experience does the therapist have? How long has the therapist worked with children and adolescents?

5. What is the cancellation policy if you’re unable to keep an appointment? Is the therapist available by phone during an emergency? Who will be available to your child during the therapist’s vacation or illness or during off-hours?

6. Is the therapist willing to meet with you in addition to working with your child?

The right therapist-client match is critical, so you might need to meet with a few before you find one who clicks with both you and your child.

Understand the Professional Credentials and Therapy Definitions

As with other medical professionals, therapists may have a variety of credentials and specific degrees. As a general rule, your child’s therapist should hold a professional degree in the field of mental health (psychology, social work, or psychiatry) and be licensed by your state. Psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists all diagnose and treat mental health disorders.

It’s also a good idea to know the meaning of the letters that follow a therapist’s name:


Psychiatrists (MDs or DOs) are medical doctors who have advanced training and experience in psychotherapy and pharmacology. They can also prescribe medications.

Clinical Psychologists

Clinical psychologists (PhDs, PsyDs, or EdDs) are therapists who have a doctorate degree that includes advanced training in the practice of psychology, and many specialize in treating children and teens and their families. Psychologists may help clients manage medications but do not prescribe medication.

Clinical Social Workers – LCSW, LICSW, CSW

A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW, LICSW)) has a master’s degree, specializes in clinical social work, and is accredited in the state in which he or she practices. Many social workers are trained in psychotherapy, but the credentials vary from state to state. Likewise, the designations (i.e., LCSW, LICSW, CSW) can vary from state to state.

Different Types of Therapy

Therapists choose the strategies most appropriate for a particular problem, the individual child and the family. Therapists will often spend a portion of each session with the parents, with the child, and with the family together.
Any one therapist may use a variety of strategies, including:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive behavioral therapy restructures negative thoughts into more positive, effective ways of thinking. It can include work on stress management strategies, relaxation training, practicing coping skills, and other forms of treatment. This type of therapy is often helpful with kids and teens who are depressed, anxious, or having problems coping with stress.

Psychoanalytic Therapy

Psychoanalytic therapy may be effective for older kids and teens who may benefit from more in-depth analysis of their problems. This is the quintessential “talk therapy” and does not focus on short-term problem-solving in the same way as CBT and behavioral therapies.

Individual & Group Therapy

In some cases, one-on-one work with the therapist on issues where kids need guidance, such as depression, social difficulties, or worry is effective. In other cases, the right option is group therapy, where kids meet in groups of 6 to 12 to solve problems and learn new skills (such as social skills or anger management).

Family Therapy

Family therapy can be helpful in many cases, such as when family members aren’t getting along; disagree or argue often; or when a child or teen is having behavior problems. Family therapy involves counseling sessions with some, or all, family members, helping to improve communication skills among them. Treatment focuses on problem-solving techniques and can help parents re-establish their role as authority figures.

Preparing for the First Visit

You may be concerned that your child will become upset when told of an upcoming visit with a therapist. Although this is sometimes the case, it is essential to be honest about the session and why your child (or family) will be going. The issue will come up during the session, but it’s important for you to prepare your child for it.

Explain to young kids that this type of visit to the doctor doesn’t involve a physical exam or shots. You may also want to stress that this type of doctor talks and plays with kids and families to help them solve problems and feel better. Kids might feel reassured to learn that the therapist will be helping the parents and other family members too.

Older kids and teens may be reassured to hear that anything they say to the therapist is confidential and cannot be shared with anyone else, including parents or other doctors, without their permission — the exception is if they indicate that they’re having thoughts of suicide or otherwise hurting themselves or others.

Giving kids this kind of information before the first appointment can help set the tone, prevent your child from feeling singled out or isolated, and provide reassurance that the family will be working together on the problem.

Providing Additional Support

While your child copes with emotional issues, be there to listen and care, and offer support without judgment. Patience is critical, too, as many young children are unable to verbalize their fears and emotions.

Try to set aside some time to discuss your child’s worries or concerns. To minimize distractions, turn off the TV and let voice mail answer your phone calls. This will let your child know that he or she is your first priority.

Other ways to communicate openly and problem-solve include:

1. Talk openly and as frequently with your child as you can.

2. Show love and affection to your child, especially during troubled times.

3. Set a good example by taking care of your own physical and emotional needs.

4. Enlist the support of your partner, immediate family members, your child’s doctor, and teachers.

5. Improve communication at home by having family meetings that end with a fun activity (e.g., playing a game, making ice-cream sundaes).

6. No matter how hard it is, set limits on inappropriate or problematic behaviors.

7. Ask the therapist for some strategies to encourage your child’s cooperation.

8. Communicate frequently with the therapist.

9. Be open to all types of feedback from your child and from the therapist.

10. Respect the relationship between your child and the therapist. If you feel threatened by it, discuss this with the therapist (it’s nothing to be embarrassed about).

11. Enjoy favorite activities or hobbies with your child. By recognizing problems and seeking help early on, you can help your child — and your entire family — move through the tough times toward happier, healthier times ahead.

Reviewed by: Michelle New, PhD

©2017 Alpha Resource Center


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