- Lydia was diagnosed with bone cancer after her 8th birthday. She is sad that her classmates avoid her. They fear that her cancer is contagious.
- Paul is 6 years old. After his parents divorced, he started spending most of his time alone.
- At age 9, Danny says that he cannot get rid of “bad thoughts” in his head. Every night, he counts all his toys before going to sleep.
These children are struggling with mental health issues. Child therapy may help.
Unresolved problems or disorders can affect a child’s development. They can also affect the parents and the family. If not treated, the effects of problems can last a long time. They can even shape future work and social relationships.
There are many problems that can affect children's mental health. Examples are divorce, bullying, illness, or any type of trauma. Therapy can help children resolve current problems and cope with challenges later on.
When Does Your Child Need a Therapist?
You may be the first to notice changes in your child's behavior. Here are some signs that your child may benefit from therapy:
- Changes in school—such as dropping grades, missed homework, and skipping school
- Excessive worry or anxiety
- Loss of interest in usual activities
- Changes in sleeping or frequent nightmares
- Mood changes, such as temper tantrums, depression, anger, and aggression
- Excessive focus on activities or objects
- Dangerous and/or illegal behavior, such as:
What Happens In Therapy?
For children ages 4 to 11, therapists may offer play therapy. In play therapy, children use dolls, art, and games to express their thoughts, experiences, and feelings. The therapist may watch and/or interact with the child during play. They will use talk or play objects to communicate.
For older children talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy may be used. It depends on the child's abilities and maturity.
How Should You Prepare Your Child?
If you have decided on child therapy, here are some ways 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 exam 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 also be helping you and your family.
- Reassure older children and teens that what they say in therapy is private. It cannot be shared unless the child agrees. It cannot even be shared with the parent—most of the time.
What If Medicine Is Needed?
Some mental health problems also need to be treated with medicine. Examples are:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Bipolar disorder
Any medicines should be used with care. Medicine should be prescribed by a mental health doctor. The doctor should have experience treating children and teens. Discuss the risks and benefits of treatment with the doctor. You and the doctor need to monitor the effects of the medicines.
How Should You Choose a Therapist?
There are many things to consider when choosing a therapist. Examples are cost, insurance, schedule, and location. You and the child should also be comfortable with the therapist. You may find a referral to therapy from:
- Your doctor, a trusted friend, or family member
- Regional or local mental health centers
- Human service organizations
Mental Health America
National Institute of Mental Health
Canadian Psychiatric Association
Canadian Psychological Association
Depression in children and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/depression-in-children-and-adolescents. Accessed November 2, 2021.
Oppositional defiant disorder. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/oppositional-defiant-disorder. Accessed November 2, 2021.
Taking your child to a therapist. KidsHealth—Nemours Foundation website. Available at: https://www.kidshealth.org/en/parents/finding-therapist.html. Accessed November 2, 2021.
When to seek help for your child. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry website. Available at: https://www.aacap.org/AACAP/Families_and_Youth/Facts_for_Families/FFF-Guide/When-To-Seek-Help-For-Your-Child-024.aspx. Accessed November 2, 2021.
Last reviewed November 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Last Updated: 11/2/2021