Therapy for Kids and Choosing the Right Child Therapist

therapy for kidsThere is a frightening feeling that creeps up when realizing that your child needs more help than you can provide.

Some parents even feel guilty, wondering if it was something they did or didn’t do that is showing up as emotional distress for a child. Guilt isn’t helpful. All that matters is finding the help that will make a difference in your child’s life.

Mental health problems can feel like you’ve been blindsided when your child is showing signs of struggle. Not all kids’ therapists offer the same services, and they aren’t all built the same. So how might a parent or family navigate the process of finding help with therapy for kids to ease the pain for a kid in crisis?

Read on and get some clarity on what to expect from kid’s therapy, determining whether it is needed, and how to support your child.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will explore fundamental aspects of positive psychology including strengths, values, and self-compassion, and will give you the tools to enhance the wellbeing of your clients, students, or employees.

What Does a Child Therapist Do?

Children don’t think the way adults think. Their brains are not fully developed until around the age of 25. Parents nowadays are facing more complex problems than making sure their kids eat their vegetables and get enough rest. The issues parents are facing in the modern world would have Dr. Spock, author of Baby and Childcare, scratching his head.

Sometimes parents need additional support. A child’s behavior or emotional distress can become so disruptive to daily life that it’s time to bring in professional help. Knowing what a therapist does without scaring yourself into thinking your kid is about to be lobotomized is pretty helpful.

A child therapist is specially trained to handle emotional changes and the difficulties that might arise across developmental stages. Child therapists are trained in better understanding and teaching children to comprehend their emotions and to appropriately and healthily convey them. Through teaching and active listening, counselors help kids overcome obstacles in mental health.

One of the most helpful services a therapist can offer is providing the vocabulary for what a child is exhibiting. Most parents are not mental health professionals and may see behaviors that seem like “just being a kid,” when, in reality, they could be exhibiting symptoms of the development of generalized anxiety disorder or some other pervasive problem. Parenting is tough!

Helping a child to understand their emotions better, and their autonomy in how they handle their thoughts can change lives. There are different approaches for different ages and various presentations of behavior. Child therapy is typically more interactive and fun than what might be expected in traditional therapy.

Child therapists usually focus on behavior change through interaction and play with younger kids. Attention spans vary, and making a session interesting and sometimes physically active for a kid can help them better understand how their emotions are manifesting in their little bodies. A good therapist will actively include parents and other caregivers in developing strategies to take home and build after leaving their office.

What Types of Child Therapy Are There?

There are different types of therapy for different ages and different types of emotional difficulties. Standard talk therapy isn’t as helpful to children as it is for adults.

Therapy for kids helps in a forward motion, allowing kids to develop strategies for showing up as confident, adjusted, and fully capable humans.

Here are some of the many approaches that are available and some explanation of how they could help your child.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy and Cognitive Behavior Play Therapy

This type of therapy has proven to be very effective in helping children overcome various forms of behavioral disruption. From anxiety to substance misuse, this approach supports children in developing new patterns of thought, resulting in new patterns of behavior. The main idea of CBT is that beliefs around thoughts create behaviors, which result in consequences.

CBT can benefit kids in a variety of ways. Helping kids understand how thoughts can influence emotions and behavior can serve kids who aren’t experiencing disruptive symptoms too. Teaching kids how to be “in tune” with their thoughts can help with self-regulation and a variety of other areas of developmental growth.

Cognitive-Behavioral Play Therapy is typically utilized by a therapist working with a younger patient. Many therapists and school-based counselors have adapted CBT to fit into various developmental groupings to provide effective interventions. Through play and interaction, children can learn and develop more effective coping skills and behavior when facing adversity.

Here are some other areas of child behavior that can and have been treated with CBT and CBPT:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • ADHD
  • eating disorders
  • oppositional defiant disorder
  • sexual abuse
  • separation anxiety
  • processing divorce
  • self-harm
  • issues with self-esteem
  • bedwetting
  • bullying

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

Dialectical Behavior Therapy is another type of cognitive-behavioral therapy. The term “dialectical” merges the therapeutic opposites of acceptance and change. Therapists use acceptance to reassure patients and support them in creating behavior change.

Through individual counseling, group therapy, crisis interventions, and collaborative care, DBT supports patients in a broad capacity. The approach is commonly used in high-risk patients presenting with multiple diagnoses.

DBT counselors help clients that are at risk for suicidal behavior and other challenging disorders that produce high-risk behaviors. The approach was initially developed to serve patients suffering from borderline personality disorder.

DBT therapists utilize coping skills training for their patients in addition to individual and group counseling for better handling distressing and extreme emotions. There are certification standards for DBT providers. They must regularly practice and utilize the strategies introduced during counseling to keep their skills sharp to provide the most beneficial care for their patients.

Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied Behavior Analysis therapy is the ‘new’ behavior modification. It has grown as an approach from one that attempted to change behavior to one that thoroughly assesses the environmental impact on one’s behavior. This approach has worked in many age groups but is particularly relevant for children in early interventions for autism spectrum disorder.

ABA teaches socially significant behaviors in real-life settings, which can be difficult for some children to understand. This intervention addresses effective strategies for communication, self-management skills, and cognition. In younger children, these learning concepts help children to develop and improve pre-academic skills too.

Family Therapy

Family therapy offers people in intimate groups improvement in communication and positive interactions. This approach emphasizes that how a family interacts is a significant factor in psychological health. It provides sessions that typically last 60 minutes and are usually short term.

Improvements in how a family interacts improve all members. In the case of children, family therapy is typically offered in addition to the child’s individual needs. The approach provides families with the opportunity to learn how the child needs to be supported in times of struggle. Learning how to better understand in a place of trust is beneficial and a family therapist fosters calm comprehension.

Group Therapy

Group Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses one or more providers working with several people at the same time. Group therapy is available at a variety of locations and helps people facing a variety of emotional difficulties. It can be intimidating at first but it can be very beneficial for many reasons.

People in group therapy receive built-in peer support and a sounding board within its circle of trust. In a setting where increased trust and accountability provide an incubator for growth, people can find new hope. This type of therapy differs from self-help and other support groups.

With a specially trained psychologist at the helm, a group can be taught strategies and skills to help move the group forward. In a group setting, additional perspectives and diversity of solutions are beneficial. This approach is sometimes looked at as an add-on to individual psychotherapy.

Interpersonal Psychotherapy

Interpersonal Psychotherapy is an approach utilized in many mood disorders. It aims to help clients improve their interpersonal relationships to reduce distress. By focusing specifically on a client’s maladaptive thoughts and their importance during interpersonal interactions, a therapist can help improve their social environment, in turn decreasing symptoms of depression or other behavioral disruptions.

This therapy is structured and time-limited. Therapists send their clients home with activities that aid them in making real-time adjustments in their interpersonal interactions. Research (Weisman, 1994) in the area of Interpersonal Psychotherapy has shown efficacy in comparison to administered antidepressants.

Child Coaching

Though not therapy, coaching can provide an additional resource to help your child. The benefits of coaching can add to a parent’s arsenal for battling behavioral distress. Coaches have special skills to support kids in developing resilience and other personal skills that will serve them throughout their life.

Here is another excellent resource for a deeper understanding of child therapy.

When to Seek Advice and Get Counseling?

Knowing when it’s time to seek help is one of the most important lessons to learn when you are parenting a child who is having behavioral and emotional difficulties.

Approaching the goal of finding a therapist with the understanding that they are there to help your child, not to judge your parenting, is a great place to start your search. Behavior is not easy to judge when a child is ever-changing and growing. Give yourself grace in the process.

One of the main signals that a child may need additional help is when behavior becomes disruptive to daily life. When a child shows signs of distress across all life areas, it may be time to ask for professional help. Trusting your gut as a parent is incredibly important.

Here is a rough guideline for symptoms that might warrant seeking professional help for your child:

  • pervasive sadness or hopelessness
  • excessive worry or fearfulness in average situations
  • panic attacks
  • constant anger or overreactions
  • loss of interest in previously joyful activities
  • hearing voices that don’t exist
  • expression of suicidal thoughts
  • difficulty concentrating
  • obsessively washing hands or excessive need for organization
  • preoccupation with physical illness
  • preoccupation with appearance
  • self-isolation
  • disruption in sleep patterns or experience of regular nightmares
  • changes in eating habits

General Advice for Parents Taking Their Child to Therapy

Lose the stigma from the start. Fully understanding that your child is not broken is a mindset shift that has to happen before beginning to search for help. Our negativity bias can lead us to try to fix weakness. With children, helping them become aware of their strengths and how to use them is a far more efficient and productive life long approach (Waters, 2017).

As parents face the uncharted waters of finding the right therapist to help their child, a broader understanding has to be met. Parents may have to change too, which may spark some discomfort. Allowing vulnerability to lead is a source of strength that lets a parent be fully present for the child and his or her road to a life with ease.

Parents will need to build their own toolbox of coping skills too. When a parent is better informed and prepared for the changes that are required through interventions in therapy, a more positive outcome can be reached. A great quote may resonate with parents beginning a mental health improvement journey with their kids. “When you become a parent, you stop being the picture, and become the frame.

Parents should always insist on an open dialogue with their child’s therapist, while also understanding that sometimes a child may not want to share intimate thoughts in front of a parent. A therapist who has a team approach to helping a child is strongly encouraged. No therapist wields a magic wand to create behavior change automatically.

Therapy is hard work. Change is challenging, and a parent fully engaged in supporting their child through that change is vital.

Sometimes things come up in therapy that can be distressing for parents — utilizing an open-minded listening stance when first starting out in therapy is necessary. There will be challenging moments. Self-regulating is an essential skill for supporting children in their healing.

Download 3 Free Positive CBT Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will equip you or your clients with tools to find new pathways to reduce suffering and more effectively cope with life stressors.

How to Explain Therapy to Kids

Coming from a supportive space is where to start when explaining therapy for kids. Talking with kids about therapy at a time when things are calm will allow for kids to better understand.

With younger kids, using vocabulary that is easy for them to comprehend is very important. Kids are sometimes frightened by the uncertainty of meeting with a therapist. Reassuring children that they are whole and capable is important to include in the conversation.

Explaining that therapy is a safe place to meet a new friend and talk about their life is a great place to start. Helping children better understand the types of things they’ll be doing in therapeutic sessions can ease any concerns they might have. Letting your child know that they’re not alone in the process is important.

With younger kids, talking about the toys and games that they’ll get to play with can paint a fun picture of what they’ll learn in therapy. Letting your kid know that you’ll be learning too will connect you in the way you can show up for each other. Therapy is a healing process, so looking forward to the healing can bring a wonderfully positive perspective for the process.

Older kids can be more resistant to entering the realm of therapy. For teens, especially, vulnerability is viewed as risky from their vantage point. Teenager’s brains are going through massive neurological restructuring.

The limbic system is growing at a more rapid pace than the frontal lobe as teenagers. This can result in increased emotional behavior. Impulsive behavior can be troubling for parents because consequences come along with missteps.

As their cognitive abilities are more advanced than younger kids, explaining therapy from a compassionate and collaborate stance will help your teen feel held and heard when facing the new realm of meeting with a therapist.

Speaking in a positive and hopeful way when discussing therapy is extremely important. Offering the safety of the counselor’s responsibility for ethical conduct can help a kid realize that they won’t be judged, and their secrets will be kept can be comforting.

Many kids having behavioral disruptions can be afraid of hope. Helping them understand that the expectation of therapy is for them to figure out how they want to show up in the world. Allowing them to explore what they are facing in a safe and supported environment from a neutral party might ease the fear of being vulnerable.

Giving your child permission to be human is a way to normalize what is happening inside of them. We all face emotional difficulties. We all face areas of growth. Helping kids see that including therapy as a tool in parenting is an act of love.

How Do I Find a Therapist for Kids Near Me?

Finding the right fit for a therapist that works with children is an important process. The first step is fully understanding the needs of your child. Many times the start of therapy can be in a crisis, which can feel overwhelming for parents. Try not to panic. Awareness that a problem exists is helpful and means that help is on the way.

Many families start the process of finding a therapist by meeting with their child’s school counselor. There are many resources in place to serve families in a variety of ways. Parents can view school counselors as a part of a larger team of people available to serve their children in the healing and growth process.

Attending events like parent workshops and lectures is a great way to find a local provider. Events like these can introduce parents to new skills and a new network of support. Many people in this network of parents could be great resources for answering questions and offering experiences with providers.

A great resource for finding a provider by zip code is Network Listed here are mental health providers, national hotlines, along with a resource center. A parent can use their zip code to locate local providers, the type of services they provide, and even the types of insurance that are accepted.

Another great online resource for finding a child or adolescent counselor is Psychology Today. It offers a list of providers, by state, and by popular cities. It offers profiles of local providers and their expertise, along with contact information.

Before making a decision about hiring a provider, it is suggested to have at least three separate consultations. Be prepared before the consultations with questions about the provider’s approach to therapy and what to expect as a parent. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the chemistry that is present or not present between parent and provider.

A Take-Home Message

It is crucial for parents to know that they are not alone. All parents want their kids to be happy and healthy. Mental health difficulties can be scary and confusing, and it helps to know that fear and uncertainty drift away when the realization of hope and optimism becomes visible.

Being a parent of a child facing a struggle means that there is a new bandwidth to supporting your child. Educating yourself with coping strategies and increased emotional resilience will serve your family in more ways than one. Let love win by navigating this new world of mental health care with an open mind and open heart. Find the support you need in addition to finding the best way to support your child.

Thanks for reading!

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.


What our readers think

  1. Quentine G Butler

    I need help with my son my wife and I 8034657071 and 8039770675

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Quentine,

      A great resource for finding a provider by zip code is Network There, you can use your zip code to locate local providers and the type of services they provide. Another good directory is that on Psychology Today.

      Hope this helps, and all the best.

      – Nicole | Community Manager

  2. Alex Glassey

    Thanks for sharing these informative tips! I learned how important child psychologists are. Being a parent, we should be aware of our child’s behaviour. Children nowadays tend to keep silent even if they were abused or bullied. If we need the help of professionals, we shouldn’t hesitate to ask them.

    • Nicole Celestine

      Hi Alex,
      Glad you took something valuable away from this article. Indeed, being a kid has never been more complicated, so it’s important seek the help of psychological professionals when needed.
      – Nicole | Community Manager

  3. Why Can't I Talk To Girls

    i love what you have completed here. keep up the great writing!

  4. Alec Burns

    It’s good that you point out that a child therapist can help children understand and deal with their emotions. My son has some behavioral issues and I’m considering having him see a child therapist. I’m going to look for a good child therapist in my area.

    • Kelly Miller, BA, CAPP

      Therapists are helpful people. Well trained and ready to handle emotions whether they’re light or heavy. I wish you luck in your search.

  5. Ben Sherman

    Thanks for tips, we just start looking for a therapist

    • Kelly Miller, BA, CAPP

      I wish you luck in your search. Ask lots of questions. It’s good to be well informed.


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