When Your Child Should See a Therapist
My oldest child is 11 years old. And I believe that if you do something every day for 11 years, experience alone should make one proficient. However, parenting is more of an art than a science. What works one day may not work the next, and there are many factors that contribute to the ebb and flow of family functioning.
I have daily conversations with my wife about our kids. We continually strive to be appropriately involved without being overbearing. Our two boys seem truly happy, enjoy school and have engaging outside interests. Would it ever make sense to seek counseling when there are no apparent problems? And would seeing a therapist create an issue when one doesn’t exist?
The field of counseling is slowly changing. In past decades, only troubled individuals sought out mental health services. I have, however, noticed modern, well-functioning families are frequently reaching out for assistance to work through life’s regular challenges—study strategies, curfew conflicts, technology troubles and minor parent/child disagreements. These clients come with an agenda, set goals and collaboratively solve problems with their counselor.
For those families, therapy is a normal process like going to the doctor for an annual physical. They find no stigma with seeing a counselor and appreciate the professional perspective. Unfortunately, many parents feel conflicted about their child seeing a therapist and question the decision to do so. It truly can be worrisome to determine when additional assistance is needed.
Of course, there are obvious situations when a child needs therapeutic support. In some unfortunate instances, circumstances beyond a family’s control such as the death of a loved one, major illness or an unsettling life event causes undue stress. Other times, there are noticeable behavioral changes such as excessive crying, emotional withdrawal or inappropriate weight loss. And in some cases, a child’s teacher or family doctor highlights a concern that needs attention. Unfortunately, knowing when a child is struggling also can be very challenging.
Kids are constantly moving, growing and changing, making it difficult to determine the difference between normal developmental changes and truly turbulent times. Judging a child’s behavior in relation to their physical age is a great place to start. It is normal for a 5-year-old to constantly poke another child when they are supposed to be quiet, and it is normal for a teenager to have a major parental disagreement over a seemingly minor thing. When the frequency, intensity and/or the duration of the behavior seems disproportionate to the causing catalyst, it is time to seek professional help.
Regrettably, some parents avoid seeking a therapist because they worry that they may be the problem. In fact, the opposite is true: Seeking a counselor means you are an engaged and active individual trying to improve a life circumstance. Furthermore, a good therapist will view you as an ally toward healthier family functioning. If your ‘gut’ says help is needed, don’t let your own anxieties get in the way.
OK, you finally made the decision to take your child to a counselor. The nerves are setting in and you are worried that your daughter might refuse to attend. Start with an honest, age-appropriate conversation discussing why you want your child to participate. Emphasize it is important to you and simply request she attend a couple of sessions. When approached in this manner, most will go—not necessarily without complaining—but they will honor your feelings.
Therapy is about improving the self and one can’t argue with the desired outcome. While counseling can be long-term, it also can be only a few, as-needed sessions. Imagine having a trusted professional on your speed dial whose only agenda is to help you and your child. Develop a relationship with an understanding therapist. It is a great place to process not only major issues, but also life’s unusual challenges.