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  • Lydia was diagnosed with bone cancer after her eighth birthday. After three years of cancer treatments, she is sad that her classmates avoid her, fearing that her cancer was contagious.
  • Paul is six years old, and he became withdrawn after his parents separated. Struggling with a learning disability, he seldom speaks, but expresses his feelings through vivid crayon drawings.
  • At age nine, Danny complains that he cannot get rid of “bad thoughts” in his head. Every night, he compulsively counts all his toys before going to sleep.

These children are grappling with psychological issues. Can child therapy help?

Why Therapy?

Unresolved problems or disorders can get in the way of a child’s development or trigger emotional states that cause trauma for the child, the parents, and the family. The effects may be long lasting.

Significant childhood problems—including poor bonding with parents—can shape future adult work and social relationships if not treated. Therapy can help children resolve current problems, as well as provide tools to cope with life challenges later on.

When Does Your Child Need a Therapist?

As a parent, you are likely to be the first to recognize changes in your child’s behavior. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, there are warning signs that indicate that your child is having difficulty and may benefit from a psychiatric evaluation. Some of these signs are:

  • Changes in school performance, such as dropping grades, missed homework, and skipping school
  • Excessive worry or anxiety
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Change in sleeping habits or frequent nightmares
  • Mood changes, including temper tantrums, depression, anger, and aggression
  • Dangerous and/or illegal behavior, including:

What Happens Inside the Therapist’s Office?

A common therapeutic approach for children ages 4-11 is play therapy. In play therapy, children use dolls, art, and games to express their thoughts, experiences, feelings, and conflicts to the therapist. The therapist may observe and/or interact with the child during play, using talk or play objects to communicate.

Depending on the child’s verbal abilities and maturity, talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy methods may be used with older children.

If you have decided on child therapy, there are things you can do to prepare for the first visit:

  • Be honest with your child about why the session is needed
  • Explain that the session does not involve a physical examination or shots
  • Tell your child the he or she may play during therapy to help solve problems and feel better
  • Explain that the therapist will be helping you and your family members as well as your child
  • Reassure older children and teens that anything said in therapy is confidential and cannot be shared without their permission

What If Medication Is Needed?

Certain psychological or behavioral disorders may be treated with medication as an adjunct to other types of therapy. Some conditions treated with medication include:

Although medication can help reduce or eliminate symptoms, it should not be prescribed lightly. All psychiatric medication should be prescribed by a doctor experienced in treating psychiatric problems in children and adolescents. The course of treatment should be monitored closely by both parent and doctor. If medication is advised for your child, discuss all pros and cons of the treatment with your doctor.

How Should You Choose a Therapist?

There are many factors to consider when choosing a therapist, such as financial/insurance arrangements, scheduling, and location. But most importantly, you will need to choose a therapist with whom you and your child are comfortable. Good places to find therapy referrals include:

  • Word of mouth from a doctor, trusted friend, or family member
  • Regional or local mental health centers
  • Hospitals
  • Human service organizations
  • Mental Health America

    http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net

  • National Institute of Mental Health

    http://www.nimh.nih.gov

  • Canadian Psychiatric Association

    http://www.cpa-apc.org

  • Canadian Psychological Association

    http://www.cpa.ca

  • Taking your child to a therapist. KidsHealth—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: http://kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family/finding%5Ftherapist.html. Updated October 2013. Accessed July 27, 2012.

  • When to seek help for your child. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: http://aacap.org/cs/root/facts%5Ffor%5Ffamilies/when%5Fto%5Fseek%5Fhelp%5Ffor%5Fyour%5Fchild. Updated March 2011. Accessed July 15, 2014.