Considering the different types of therapy available and asking the right questions can help you find the best fit.
Sometimes, children and teens need help with their feelings or problems. If you think your child or teen isn’t doing as well as they should be, consider whether they may need therapy.
- mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression
- trouble coping with learning disorders
- interpersonal conflicts
- problems with parents or friends
- stressful events like divorce or death
But how do you find the right therapist for your child? Vetting therapists requires a combination of taking your time and knowing what, and whom, to ask.
Does your child need a social worker? A psychologist? A psychiatrist? A combination?
Each of these therapists has a different type of training and provides different services.
Marriage and family therapists (MFT) and licensed professional clinical counselors have their master’s degree in counseling.
Counselors work with children and families to see into their dynamic. They look at environment, behavioral patterns, family function, and more to get insight into how children can adapt to live well.
Clinical social workers
Clinical social workers have a master’s degree in social work, and their goal is to help your child or teen succeed in their environment.
They will work with your kid to help them deal with problems they’re having at school. This can include feeling stressed, acting out, or being bullied.
They can also help your child build a better connection with family members.
Clinical psychologists have a doctorate degree in psychology, and they offer a variety of services for kids.
If your child or teen is struggling to keep up at school, or you think they might have a mental health condition like ADHD or autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a psychologist can provide educational and psychological testing.
They often take an research-based approach to therapy and work with youths who have more complex issues.
Psychiatrists and psychopharmacologists
These professionals have a medical degree.
If your child needs medication for anxiety, depression, ADHD, or any other condition, they will prescribe and monitor your child’s medication.
There are many types of therapy available for children and teens. Selecting the right one for your kid will depend on your child’s age and their reasons for therapy.
Here are some of the more common therapies:
This type of therapy is great for pre-K or elementary school-aged children who need guidance coping emotionally or have experienced a stressful event.
A therapist will use toys, dolls, games, or art to help your child express how they feel. While playing together, the therapist can help your child work through their emotions.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT is used with children who struggle with attention, mood disorders, phobias, and compulsions.
The therapist will work with your child to help them understand their thoughts, words, and actions. They’ll then work on better ways to respond in the future.
They’ll teach your child certain techniques, like meditation, to manage their behaviors. Or, they will gently unpack your child’s fears to help them overcome them.
Having someone who will listen to your problems and help you work through them can be pivotal.
In talk therapy, your child can:
- develop the skills they need to solve their challenges
- understand and express their feelings instead of acting them out
- form stronger, healthier relationships
- communicate their needs
If your kid is having a hard time socially, group therapy is an unmatched way for them to learn the skills they need to overcome their social challenges with others on their level.
Your teen or younger child can learn and practice the rules of socialization along with others who have the same challenges. It may also build their confidence, especially if they’re shy or have been bullied.
If your family is going through a difficult time (e.g., divorce, illness, death of a loved one, financial struggles), family therapy can help you better understand and support one another.
During your sessions, each person will have the opportunity to express how they feel about the situation and the other’s actions or reactions. You’ll learn how to communicate better, and you’ll reestablish your relationships with one another.
Once you know what type of therapist and therapy will be best for your child, it’s time to get recommendations.
The best way to find a good therapist is to ask around. You’ll want to interview at least three potential therapists, so asking a few different people is a good idea.
Hopefully, a few names will pop up over and over again. Put those therapists on your short list. Hold on to the other names just in case.
When looking for recommendations, consider asking the following people:
- The school’s psychologist, social worker, or guidance counselor. Schools usually keep a list of local therapists who have a good reputation.
- Your child’s pediatrician. Like schools, pediatricians usually have a list of therapists they know and trust. If they’ve known your child for years, they may narrow down their list to the ones they think would be the best fit.
- Trusted friends. If a good friend has shared their positive experience with a child therapist, you might want to talk to them about what they liked. If it seems like the therapist would also be a good fit for your child, you can ask for the therapist’s information and perhaps let the therapist know who referred you.
- Local community or parenting groups. Whether online or in-person, local support groups within the community, and for parents specifically, can be a wealth of information.
- Health insurance company. If you’d like to stay in-network, you might want to ask your health insurance for a list of therapists that take your insurance.
With your short list complete, it’s time to vet your potential therapists.
Therapists often offer a free 20- to 30-minute phone consultation with potential new clients. If you need more time, or if you can’t decide between two therapists, you can schedule an appointment to speak further before you decide to introduce them to your kid.
Most therapists have their own unique approach to how they work with children and teens, so it’s best to write up a list of questions to ask them when you speak.
As you create this list, think about what you’re looking for in a therapist. Make sure you know what’s non-negotiable so you can rule out anyone who doesn’t meet your criteria.
Screening questions parents can ask a potential therapist
Here are some general questions to consider:
- Do you have any days/times available for new clients? Are you flexible around school hours?
- Do you accept insurance or what is your hourly rate?
- What’s your background and training working with children?
- Do you have any cultural competency experience or training?
- What type of therapeutic methods do you do with children? And with teens?
- How often do you meet with parents?
- Will you be in contact with my child’s teacher or guidance counselor?
- How long do children usually stay in therapy with you?
If your child has been diagnosed with a learning disorder or mental health condition, or if they recently experienced a stressful event, you should ask specific questions about the therapist’s particular experience with this nuance as well.
Prompts when vetting a child therapist
Here’s a few starters to get the answers you need:
- Are you familiar with _____?
- How many years have you worked with children who have ____?
- How do you typically work with children who have _____?
- What is your experience like working with children in the _____ community?
- What range/overall duration for therapy, with children who have _____?
- What are your thoughts about medication?
According to Psychologist Cindy Graham, founder of Brighter Hope Wellness Center, once you think you’ve found the right therapist for you, schedule your first few sessions to further determine if it’s a good fit.
“Typically, the first one or two appointments will allow me to meet your child and understand their story,” Graham explains.“The next three to four sessions is just about me getting to know your child. And the fifth session will be my feedback session with you, the parent.”
After those first several sessions, you can decide if the therapist is a good fit for you and your child.
Before you go to your first session, make sure to talk to your child about why they’re going to therapy and how therapy can help them.
For older teens, you might also offer the option of finding their own online support group for an additional sense of community.
Finding the right therapist for your child and committing to the process can improve your child’s life as well as your own.
As the world continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that the last few years have impacted young people in unprecedented ways. That’s why Psych Central and Healthline Mental Well-Being have teamed up to create our Youth in Focus program to provide relevant, actionable content and resources for parents and youth to help navigate the curveballs life throws your way.
Leading with medical credibility, inclusivity, and empathy, we’re here to help answer the hard questions and cope when things get tough. Whether it’s supporting kids through mental health challenges, steering your family through crisis, finding the right therapist, or dealing with parenting burnout from juggling too many roles, we’re here for you.