Knowing when a child needs to see a therapist can be tricky. Naturally, young kids don’t have the emotional or communication skills to verbalize what they need and how they’re feeling.
Therapy can be incredibly helpful for kids. It teaches children healthy coping skills. It teaches them how to understand, articulate and express their feelings instead of acting out behaviorally, said Clair Mellenthin, LCSW, a child and family therapist.
Therapy also provides additional support for the whole family, especially during a divorce or death, she said.
During tough times, kids may think they need to protect their parents and don’t want to add to their pain. Therapy provides a safe space for kids to grieve, “without feeling like they need to take care of anyone else.”
How do you know if your child needs to see a therapist? Below, Mellenthin, also clinical director at Wasatch Family Therapy, shared the various signs along with tips for finding a good therapist.
According to Mellenthin, significant changes in your child’s behavior or emotionality may be signs they would benefit from therapy. These might include:
- Crying uncontrollably
- Social isolation
- Bedwetting after being potty-trained for a while
“Typically young children do not have the language or emotional intelligence to tell a parent what is wrong; they just feel really big emotions and because they don’t have words, they will use their behaviors to tell you instead.”
Mellenthin suggested parents seek out a play therapist. This is a child therapist who’s specifically trained to work with young kids.
“A Registered Play Therapist (RPT/RPT-S) is most appropriate for children 2-11 years old because they use play therapy to access the child’s world.” She noted that kids open up and work through their issues more quickly when play therapy is used.
Parents can find therapists at The Association for Play Therapy website, she said.
Also, when looking for a therapist, find a practitioner who not only works well with your child, but also “is willing to work with you as a parent and be part of a team instead of the expert.”
Mellenthin tells parents that therapy isn’t a punishment. Therapy “should never be used as a consequence to an undesired behavior,” such as “Cut that out or you will have to see a shrink!”
Instead, she suggested saying that “they are going to see a special grownup who they can talk about their worries with and find new ways to feel happy or better inside.” Parents also refer to a therapist as a “’feelings doctor, who will help you feel happier again,” she added.
Most of Mellethin’s young clients call their therapy sessions a “play date,” because she uses play therapy.
In fact, she stressed that therapy doesn’t have to be scary or even serious. “It can be playful and enjoyable, even when working through difficult issues including trauma, anxiety, and abuse.”
- This piece from The New York Times parenting blog “Motherlode” has insights from parents who sought therapy for their kids.
- This Psych Central piece focuses on teens and therapy.