It is often difficult to know if a child (under age 12) needs help. Children are so involved with family that sometimes the problems of parents become confused with the problems of the child. Divorce, death of a family member, moving, change of parent’s job and attending a new school may all be sources of stress for children. In figuring out if your child needs help, keep in mind that an appropriate reason to consider treatment for a child is if he or she is generally unhappy.

The following checklist includes some of the signs which should help you decide if your child would benefit from therapy. You may want to find help for your child if any of these warning signs has been present for some time.

Some Warning Signs in Your child:

  • Displays unusual changes in emotions or behavior.
  • Has no friends or has difficulty getting along with other children.
  • Is doing poorly in school, misses school frequently or does not want to attend.
  • Has lots of minor illnesses or accidents.
  • Is very fearful.
  • Is very aggressive.
  • Does not want to be away from you.
  • Has many disturbing dreams.
  • Has difficulty falling asleep, wakes up during the night, or insists on sleeping with you.
  • Suddenly refuses to be alone with a certain family member or friend or acts very disturbed when he or she is present.
  • Displays affection inappropriately or makes abnormal sexual gestures or remarks.
  • Becomes suddenly withdrawn or angry.
  • Refuses to eat.
  • Is frequently tearful.

Some of these problems may be relieved by working with the teacher, counselor, or school psychologist. Help may come from concerned family members who offer reassurance, love and the most secure home environment possible.

Many will require help from a mental health professional.

Parents may experience a tremendous feeling of guilt because their child is having emotional or behavioral problems. You need to realize these problems may have little to do with the home or school environment; they may be caused by physiological factors. The child should have a complete medical examination before starting therapy.

Choosing a Mental Health Professional for a Child

A mental health professional for your child should be warm and caring, aware of your cultural background and needs, and still be professional and objective. Parents and children should begin to feel comfortable after several sessions, though both may be anxious, frightened, angry or resistant to treatment at the beginning. A good mental health professional will be trained to anticipate and work with those emotions so that open communication can be established. To select a mental health professional, you may want to interview more than one person, using Choosing a mental health professional as a guide.

It is important for parents to understand that there may be certain aspects of the therapy that should remain confidential between the mental health professional and the child. Before treatment begins, the parents, the child and the therapist should come to an agreement as to what information will be disclosed to the parents.

How Therapy Works With Children

When your child is in therapy, the relationship between the mental health professional and the child is the same as it would be with an adult, but you as the parent will be involved as an interested third party. Early in therapy, you and the therapist should be able to identify the child’s main problems and set goals to solve them.

There are many therapeutic techniques that are used with children. One is play therapy, which offers children a natural means to communicate with adults. Through the use of games, dolls and art, the child can express difficult emotions. Older children with better communication skills may be able to talk more directly with the mental health professional.

A mental health professional may suggest other family members come for a number of sessions to help understand how your family works as a system. He/she may suggest new ways to relate to your child at home.

It may take time for your child to get comfortable in therapy. Just as with adults and adolescents, problems may become worse before they get better.

Try to get your child to stick with therapy until he/she feels comfortable. However, if the child seems to distrust the therapist after a time, it is a good idea to consider another professional.

Evaluating Therapy for Children

It is as important in child therapy as it is in adult therapy to evaluate the progress of the treatment and the relationship with the therapist. After your child has been in therapy for a while, ask yourself the following questions to determine if therapy is working. If the answer to most of them is “yes,” then you should be confident that therapy is helping. If the answer to most of them is “no,” then you may want to get a second opinion from another mental health professional and consider making a change in your child’s treatment.

  • Does our child seem comfortable with the mental health professional?
  • Is there open communication between the mental health professional and us, the parents?
  • Has the mental health professional diagnosed the problem our child is having?
  • Are the professional and our child working toward the goals which we set together?
  • Has our relationship with our child improved?
  • Are we, as the parents, being given guidance to work on the problem at home?

How to Know When Your Child Should Stop Therapy

Your child may be ready therapy when she/he:

  • Is much happier.
  • Is doing better in school.
  • Is making friends.
  • And when:
    You understand and have learned how to deal more effectively with those factors that led to the problems for which you sought help.

Sometimes, ending therapy will be an anxious time for children and parents.

Problems may reappear temporarily.

The mental health professional should be available to provide counsel and support for a period of time after your child is finished with therapy.

It is a good idea to give yourselves some time to adjust before considering going back into therapy. You and your child may benefit from support groups.

Just remember the path to recovery includes knowing when your child needs help, choosing the right professional, evaluation and knowing when your child can stop therapy.

Support is the key.