Should Your Child Be In Therapy?

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As a parent, you want what is best for your child. You want to take care of them and provide them with whatever support and resources they need to thrive. It can be challenging to know what those resources are, though. So, how do you know if your child might need therapy?

What Does Therapy for Children Look Like?

Children’s brains are different from adult brains. Between ages six and 12, children are still developing the ability to think about concrete operations (such as adding and subtracting). It isn't until adolescence, or ages 12 to 18, that kids and teens are able to do more complex thinking such as considering abstract concepts, reasoning new ideas from known principles, and considering many points of view.

The adult brain isn't fully developed until 25 years old.

The fact that children's brains are so different from adult brains means the way that children experience emotion, process their experiences, and communicate their needs will be different than how adults do these things.

Play Therapy for Young Children

Younger kids especially often process emotion through play, and play therapists utilize games and toys in their sessions to facilitate this. It can look to parents like their child is “just playing” in their sessions, when in fact the therapist is creating space for this important emotional work to occur.

Children often feel safer opening up emotionally when they are engaged in play. In addition, children often act out real-life scenarios through play, which provides a lot of information to the therapist about what the child is coping with. Play also provides a low-pressure scenario during which a therapist can build a connection with a child.

Talk Therapy

Teenagers might engage in talk therapy but spend much of their session discussing things that the parent might not think is “relevant” to their presenting issues. What your teen feels is important to cover in therapy might not perfectly line up with your perception.

Since rapport is a key element of therapeutic change, discussions that do not seem to relate to your teen’s symptoms are still an important part of their treatment.

Even though the parent or legal guardian has to sign off in order for the child to participate in therapy, this does not mean that you will have access to all of the information from your child’s sessions.

While you will have access to their medical records, the Privacy Rule under HIPAA states that, with a few exceptions, parents don't always have rights to receive a mental health professional's notes that are taken during sessions with their child.

It's important to note that treatment outcomes are better when teens can build a trustworthy rapport with their therapist. A therapist will usually discuss privacy with your teen when sessions begin so that they feel free to open up emotionally.

Mandated Reporting

You, your child, and the therapist should discuss limits to confidentiality early in treatment to ensure that everyone understands and is on the same page about privacy in sessions.

Should your child disclose something that makes the therapist concerned for their safety, the therapist will have to follow your state’s applicable mandated reporting laws. The therapist might let you know that they had to contact Child Protective Services about a disclosure, but if they are concerned that this disclosure would put your child at risk, they might not share this information with you.

Please remember that you can ask your child’s therapist questions about treatment, their approach to therapy, or anything that you are unsure about relating to your child’s treatment.

Signs Your Child Might Benefit from Therapy

There is no minimum threshold for someone to need or deserve support. If your child states that they think they need therapy, take their concerns seriously. However, the following signs might indicate that they may benefit from mental health treatment:

  • There has been significant change in their mood. If your child has become withdrawn, fearful, or moody, this might indicate that they are having a hard time and could benefit from talking to a therapist. 
  • Their behavior has changed. Has your child started getting into trouble at school, or have their grades shifted suddenly? This can be a red flag that they are struggling. Instead of punishing them for a change in behavior, help them explore what the cause might be.
  • They have experienced a stressful or traumatic event. Trauma is relative, and different things impact people differently. If your child has experienced something stressful or traumatic, they may benefit from processing with a professional. Examples of traumatic events include childhood abuse, experiencing or witnessing domestic violence, bullying, and the death of a loved one.
  • They have engaged in self-harm behavior. A person might engage in non-suicidal self-injury when their mental health is suffering. A therapist can help your child identify the underlying causes of this behavior and help them find more appropriate coping skills.
  • They have expressed suicidal ideation. Though it can be distressing to think about, even children as young as four to six can experience suicidal thoughts and behaviors. A mental health professional can help implement a safety plan and treat any mental health issues contributing to their suicidal ideation.

Finding A Therapist For Your Child

It can be difficult to find a therapist who specializes in your presenting concerns, has availability, is a good fit, and accepts your health insurance. When finding a therapist for your child, the following things are important to keep in mind:

  • What are your child’s specific concerns? Therapists can specialize in different areas, so look for someone whose expertise includes your child’s needs.
  • Who does your child want to see? It can be tempting to choose a therapist based on your preferences, but remember that they are there to treat your child. The child’s preferences and needs should take priority in choosing a therapist.
  • Can your child develop good rapport with this therapist? You might have to try more than one therapist before your child meets one with whom they feel safe and comfortable. Encourage them to communicate with you about their experience so that you can help find the right fit.

It can be tempting to choose a therapist based on your preferences, but remember that they are there to treat your child. The child’s preferences and needs should take priority in choosing a therapist.

Do You Need Therapy, Too?

Although they do not always show it, children are very in tune with the emotions of the adults around them. Often, a child will engage in acting out behaviors in response to things they have experienced or even unspoken feelings they pick up on from their parents. Stressors that impact your child’s mental health may likely be affecting you as well.

Many mental health issues have a genetic component, and so if your child meets criteria for a diagnosis, it is possible that you are predisposed to something similar. Furthermore, parenting a child who is dealing with mental health issues can be stressful, and you deserve support for your own stress.

Because mental health stigma is pervasive, many adults are hesitant to seek therapy for their own issues. It is OK to get support and attend your own therapy. This can not only help you get the care that you need and deserve, but it normalizes getting mental health treatment. You can model for your child that it is OK to ask for help, and struggling with their mental health does not make them bad.

Getting your own therapy can help you change how you approach parenting and how you interact with your child, breaking maladaptive or unhealthy patterns. If appropriate, you and your child can attend family therapy together to work on your relationship.

A Word From Verywell

If a child needs therapy, it does not mean you are a bad parent. Sometimes, the best and most supportive thing you can do is seek support for your child or yourself.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Health information privacy.

  7. Crits-Christoph P, Rieger A, Gaines A, Gibbons MBC. Trust and respect in the patient-clinician relationship: Preliminary development of a new scaleBMC Psychol. 2019;7(1). doi:10.1186/s40359-019-0347-3

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By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.