Therapy FAQ

Should Your Child Go to Therapy? 9 Signs They May Need Counseling

Parenthood is a rollercoaster of love and challenges. Sometimes, you notice your child struggling with their emotions or behavior. That’s where child therapy steps in. Here’s a guide on recognizing the signs, understanding therapy types, and supporting your child’s emotional well-being.

isbell oliva garcia grow therapy By Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC

Updated on May 13, 2024

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Parenthood is an incredible adventure – but it certainly comes with its fair share of challenges. As you watch your child grow, there might be times when you notice something doesn’t quite feel right. 

Perhaps your kid is struggling with their emotions, behaving in concerning ways, or having trouble connecting with others. As a parent, you may feel like your child is facing difficulties that go beyond your capacity to help, and that’s where professional support through therapy or counseling comes in. Child therapists offer a helping hand to children and parents alike. 

Recognizing the signs that your child may benefit from therapy is vital. Early intervention can make a significant difference. Seeking professional help for your child is a proactive step towards nurturing your little one’s emotional and mental well-being, setting them up to feel better and thrive.

Here’s what you need to know about child therapy, signs your child could benefit from therapy, and more. 

Introduction to Child Therapy

Just as adults can greatly benefit from therapy, so can children and adolescents.

Child therapy, sometimes referred to as child counseling, provides valuable support and a safe space for kids facing various mental, emotional, and social challenges. Qualified child psychologists and therapists undergo extensive education and training to thoroughly understand child psychology. They can assess, diagnose, and treat mental and behavioral conditions in kids and teens. By tailoring therapy techniques and treatment plans to suit each child’s unique needs, a child therapist is well-equipped to help your kid when they’re suffering.

Child therapy and the type of counseling may vary greatly depending on age. “Young children frequently have difficulty talking about what is bothering them. This is not because they do not want to discuss their thoughts and feelings, but because they have not yet developed the vocabulary or insight that they need to be able to do this,” says Andrea Mann, a licensed child therapist with Grow Therapy. In cases like this, they may benefit from alternative types of child therapy, like play therapy.

On the flip side, teens who do have the vocabulary and insight into their emotions may benefit more from traditional psychotherapy, or talk therapy – especially as mental health awareness is raised and stigmas around therapy are broken.

The Role of Parents in Therapy

Even though the child therapist will do a lot of work to help your child, caregivers will be involved in the process, too.

Child therapy involves a trained clinician establishing a relationship with both the child and parent in an effort to create change,” says Denise Cummings-Fagan, a licensed clinician with Grow Therapy who works with teens and parents. “In order to make an impact on the child’s behaviors, emotional regulation, or communication skills, the parent must be willing to participate in the process.”

Your involvement as a parent in a session will vary based on the child therapist. For example, a therapist might want to include you in the therapy session for 10 minutes or so before talking to the child alone.

“You should also realize that therapy will not be an island. The therapist will want to talk to you to determine behavior, progress, and the family dynamics,” says Rick Melton, a licensed child therapist with Grow Therapy. “The therapist will probably suggest different methods of intervention, things to try at home that involve the entire family. Do not ever think that a therapist replaces you.”

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Types of Child Therapy Approaches

The type of therapy best for your kid depends on the child’s age and the specific issues they face. Some common types of therapy for children and teens are:

Play Therapy

Play therapy gives children the chance to use toys and other play to express themselves. In a play session, Mann says kids use their play to show the therapist what they’re thinking and feeling. From there, the therapist can use play to communicate with the kid and help them learn healthier behaviors and attitudes. 

Art Therapy

A child who has trouble expressing their feelings with words can benefit from art therapy. “Art therapy is the use of artistic expression to aid the child in expressing emotions and help the child find methods of expelling negative emotions,” Melton says.   

Behavioral Therapy

For kids who need help with behavioral issues, this can help make positive changes. “Behavior therapy focuses on rewarding new behaviors in an attempt to reduce negative behavior choices,” Cummings-Fagan says. “Behavior charts and reward systems are the cornerstones for this intervention, with parent participation just as important as the child’s buy-in.”

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is more effective for older kids and teens with the vocabulary to understand and express their feelings. “CBT helps the child or teen learn to recognize how thoughts cause feelings and feelings impact behaviors,” Cummings-Fagan says. “By changing harmful thoughts or distorted thinking patterns, feelings, and behaviors will also change.” Valuable coping skills will be taught, too.

Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)

While DBT isn’t a fit for younger children, teens can benefit from this unique therapy that helps with emotional regulation, distress tolerance, and interpersonal relationships. It can especially benefit teens who struggle with self-harm or suicidal ideation.

Family Therapy

For a more holistic approach including the whole family, you may consider family therapy under the care of an expert such as a licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT). This will improve communication and conflict-resolution skills among family members while allowing for open sharing of emotions in a safe, neutral space.

Benefits of Child Therapy

Therapy can change a child’s life for the better – boosting overall well-being and teaching valuable new skills they can carry throughout their life. Cummings-Fagan says some examples of common benefits of counseling for kids include:

If a mental health expert diagnoses your child with a mental health condition, a major benefit is that they are qualified to treat this, resulting in symptom relief for your child and a treatment plan to manage this as they grow.

9 Signs Your Child Might Need a Therapist

You may already have a gut feeling that your child needs the help of a mental health professional. But if you aren’t sure, here are nine signs your child or teen may need counseling. 

1. Major Changes in Behavior

Sudden, significant changes to a child or teen’s behavior or personality is cause for alarm, says Cummings-Fagan. An example of this would be a child who has always been calm and cheerful but suddenly becomes withdrawn or acts out, she explains.

Look at your child’s behavior now, and compare it to how things were six months or a year ago. “You know your child better than anyone else ever could. If you see your child change in a way that worries you, pay attention to that feeling,” Melton says. 

Some areas to keep an eye on for obvious changes are sleeping patterns, eating habits, and personal interests. Look out for changes that last for two weeks or more. Another example of changes in behavior is if they start to act out frequently. This may happen at home, at school, or both. Your child might act defensively, be irritable, argue, talk back, or have angry outbursts. 

2. Experiencing a Traumatic Incident

As a parent, you may or may not be aware that your child has been through a traumatic event. If you know for sure that your kid has experienced trauma, such as mass violence at school, a severe accident, or a sudden loss of a loved one, they may benefit from talking to a therapist.

Look out for signs of trauma lingering. It’s important to be aware of these signs in case there’s a traumatic instance you aren’t aware of, such as sexual abuse. Some examples are:

3. Poor Performance at School

If your child’s grades are dropping, this could be a sign that they are in distress, Melton says. Especially if your child usually performs well at school and then suddenly their performance is different, this is cause for concern. It’s especially a red flag if they’re struggling in other aspects, such as relationships with family and friends. 

Even if the drop in grades isn’t due to emotional distress, by investigating this, you’ll learn if there’s something else going on, such as a learning disability like dyslexia or a disorder like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

4. Withdrawal or Isolation

If your child starts to withdraw from their friends and family and isolate themself – especially if they weren’t a shy introvert before – this could mean they are feeling sad or anxious and may need help. Some examples are if they avoid playdates with their friends even if they used to love having playdates, sit alone at lunch by choice, or don’t even want to leave the house. 

5. Long-Lasting Sadness 

Of course, everybody gets sad from time to time, and some kids are more sensitive than others. However, if your kid has been obviously sad for more than two weeks, this could indicate something more serious than just sadness, such as depression. Other symptoms of depression in children include losing interest in fun things they used to enjoy, low energy, and irritability. 

6. Persistent Worry

It’s normal for your kid to feel worried or anxious in certain situations. However, it’s possible for the worrying to become a problem if the anxiety is out of proportion and getting in the way of your kid’s life. Your child may verbalize their worries and anxiety, or they may show other signs. Examples include:

7. Otherwise Unexplained Physical Symptoms

If your child constantly complains of physical symptoms such as tummy aches or headaches, and you’ve taken them to the doctor to rule out any physical cause, these symptoms could be physical manifestations of anxiety and distress. You may notice these symptoms linked to stressors, such as if the symptoms pop up before your child goes to school in the morning. 

8. Self-Destructive Behaviors or Self-Harm

Your child may repetitively engage in self-destructive behaviors such as picking at their skin or pulling their hair. While they may not realize this is self-destructive, it could point to anxiety or distress. Or, your child may engage in more outright self-harm, which is dangerous. They may cut, burn, or hurt themselves on purpose in an attempt to feel relief from negative emotions. Alternatively, even if they are not actively self-harming, but they talk about hurting themselves, this is definitely cause for concern.

9. Suicidal Ideation

A huge red flag that your child needs help ASAP is if they are talking about suicide directly or non-directly. For example, they may talk about how they wish they were dead or say things would be better off if they weren’t around. Or, they might make drawings or write about death. Do not hesitate to call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Tips for Finding the Right Child Therapist

You have many options when looking for a child therapist.

Your kid’s pediatrician will likely have trusted referrals for recommendations for child psychologists or therapists. Your kid’s school principal, teachers, or social worker may have great recommendations, too. Alternatively, you can use online search tools like Grow Therapy to filter for child or adolescent mental health professionals in your area. Finding the right child therapist for your little one can be difficult, and it may take some trial and error until you find the right fit. You do not have to stick with the first therapist you choose, and it’s wise to ask for a brief consultation to feel it out before committing to someone.

“Personalities, viewpoints, and perspectives must complement both the parent and child,” Melton says. “You may have to try several therapists to find one that you and your child connect with.” Good rapport is crucial for making progress in therapy.

Other factors to consider include:

Recognizing the signs that your child may benefit from therapy is an important step toward supporting their happiness and growth.

By being attuned to your kid’s needs and seeking professional help, you’re doing your job as a parent to nurture them and help them flourish in this life.

This journey won’t always be easy, but with your love and support – coupled with the expertise of a child therapist – your child can feel better. 

Frequently Asked Questions

About the author
isbell oliva garcia grow therapy Isbell Oliva-Garcia, LMHC

Isbell Oliva-Garcia is a licensed mental health counselor, bilingual in English and Spanish. Isbell specializes in women's issues during difficult times of transition and also works with front-line individuals struggling with PTSD or stressors created by the job.

This article is not meant to be a replacement for medical advice. We recommend speaking with a therapist for personalized information about your mental health. If you don’t currently have a therapist, we can connect you with one who can offer support and address any questions or concerns. If you or your child is experiencing a medical emergency, is considering harming themselves or others, or is otherwise in imminent danger, you should dial 9-1-1 and/or go to the nearest emergency room.

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