Anxious about your son’s anxiety? Sad about your daughter’s depression? If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, you might be thinking about therapy. If you are, you’re in good company.
Your child’s physical and mental health are both part of the same package. Mental illnesses, like depression, can increase the risk for physical health problems, like diabetes and heart disease. And although we might like to think of childhood as a time of carefree happiness, that’s often not the reality. About 17 percent of children and teenagers have a mental health disorder, according to JAMA Pediatrics.
If you’re concerned about your child, trust your instincts—and seek help. “Therapy can absolutely be helpful in a child’s life,” says Miyume McKinley, LCSW, a clinical social worker and child therapist in Los Angeles. “Children and teens are still developing and coming to understand their emotions. Working with a therapist gives them an opportunity to express their feelings with a professional who can help to steer their lives in a healthy direction.”
Finding the right treatment for your child can feel like a big undertaking, and you might have so many questions that you find your head spinning. This guide will help you make sure your child is getting the mental healthcare that they need.
Start with Your Pediatrician
Next to you, that’s the person who knows the most about your child’s health. Plus, the pediatrician is a professional who can spot behavioral health disorders.
“Pediatricians are trained to treat the whole child, and they can screen for psychological problems,” says Mark A. Stein, PhD, a psychologist at Seattle Children’s Hospital and a Genomind Scientific Advisory Board member. “Mental health problems don’t happen in isolation, and there are lots of physical issues, like sleep disorders and poor nutrition, that can contribute to behavioral issues.”
Consider your pediatrician as your primary resource. “If the behavioral problem turns out to be clear-cut, pediatricians can often treat your child, at least initially,” says Dr. Stein. “And if it’s more complex, they’ll know if it’s time to call in a mental health professional. Pediatricians have connections with behavioral specialists and keep lists of referrals at their fingertips.”
Partner with Your School
Your child’s teacher and guidance counselor are also great resources for finding good behavioral healthcare. Kids don’t live in a vacuum, so if you’ve noticed some behavior problems at home, it’s possible that school staff have also noticed issues. Arm yourself with information, and find out what the teachers and counselors have to say.
While you’re there, ask for recommendations for good local therapists. But be cautious, suggests Dr. Stein, and ask for criteria for success and a timeline for reevaluation. “If there seems to be a school-related issue, school districts are required to evaluate the need for educational services. But don’t depend on the school to diagnose a psychiatric disorder in a school environment.”
You may be able to ask the school psychologist to do a psychoeducational assessment to determine your child’s learning style, strengths, and areas of need. Sometimes this type of testing uncovers learning disabilities your child might have.
Find a Mental Health Practitioner
Don’t be alarmed by the alphabet soup of mental health titles. Therapists who may be able to help your child come in lots of different varieties, including licensed clinical social workers (LCSW); psychologists (PhD or PsyD); psychiatrists (MD or DO); and licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT) – learn more about the differences between these mental health professionals.
“All of them can provide mental healthcare for your child,” explains McKinley. “The real question is not so much the letters after their name, but their experience and their specialty. They might focus, for example, on depression and anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Find out if the therapist can provide services for the issue that you’re concerned about. And definitely find someone who works with children.”
Even so, it is still good to understand the difference between social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists. It mostly comes down to education.
A social worker has received their master’s degree by completing two or three years of coursework with a concentration in an area of interest to them, such as community mental health, policy development, or children, youth, and families. They’ve also completed supervised training in a clinical setting and passed a licensing exam to become a LCSW.
A psychologist has also earned a master’s degree as well as a PhD or PsyD degree. This entails another two to four years of studying human behavior, development, psychotherapy, and assessment, as well as research, statistics, and ethics, and one to two years of a full-time internship. In some states, they may be able to prescribe medications.
A psychiatrist usually holds an MD or DO degree, meaning they attended medical school and studied biological functioning. In addition, they specialize in mental illness and its treatments, including medications.
In all cases, any of the above can practice psychotherapy. You want to find someone who has experience with your child’s age group or issue. In some cases, they may accept health insurance. Ultimately, the best therapist is one you and your child feel comfortable with.
Get a Diagnosis
There’s no blood test or scan that can provide an instant mental health diagnosis. Instead, there’s a process that good therapists follow to determine exactly what your child’s issue is. Though there are some variations from office to office, these are the steps you can expect.
Meet with the Therapist
You’ll have a session with your child and the therapist, or the therapist may ask to speak to you alone. When you sit down together, be prepared to discuss your concerns, including any warning signs you may have spotted and any school reports that may shed light on your child’s situation. The therapist will also ask about your child’s general health and development.
“Sometimes the diagnosis is really straightforward,” explains McKinley. “The therapist might be able to say pretty quickly, for example, ‘Your child’s symptoms indicate depression.’ But sometimes, more information is really critical.”
When that happens, your therapist will schedule another appointment to get more information or observe your child.
The Therapist Will Recommend a Treatment Plan
Based on the information you provided, the therapist will share your child’s treatment goal with you and will keep you informed of your child’s progress in treatment. Depending on the reason for treatment, the therapist may ask you to be a part of your child’s therapy sessions.
Your therapist may also ask for or provide additional information. “When appropriate, I keep communication open so I am always aware of what is happening outside of sessions,” McKinley says. “In addition, I always educate the parents on their child’s diagnosis and what they can do to support their child.”
Important: Do not sign off on a treatment without a diagnosis. If anything, this is a red flag that this is not the mental health professional you should be seeking care from.
Decide on a Treatment Plan
You’ve got a diagnosis. Now it’s time to figure out what to do about it. That’s where the treatment plan comes in.
Therapists vary in their training, experience, and approach to treatment. There are lots of approaches to choose from. This can include:
- Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) or talk therapy
- Group therapy sessions for teens
- Training to help parents address behavior problems
“Very few disorders are treated with just one kind of therapy,” explains Dr. Stein. “Typically, we combine treatments to achieve the best response and for the child or adolescent to learn new skills. With ADHD or depression, for example, we often use both medication and therapy. I’d be really wary of a provider who suggested only medication.”
If your clinician suggests medication along with therapy, ask them about using the Genomind pharmacogenetic test to help inform their treatment decision. The Genomind test looks at 24 genes related to mental health treatment. It provides guidance across 10+ mental health conditions and 130+ medications to help your clinician determine:
- Which medications may be more likely to be effective
- Which medications may be more likely to have side effects
- How you metabolize medications for personalized dosing guidance
The Genomind test requires a prescription. Wondering if it can help your child? Learn more about Genomind testing and services here.
Treat Your Child for a Mental Health Condition
Even though therapists don’t have a crystal ball, they do have a pretty good idea of how long it’ll take for your child to begin to experience some improvements.
“At the very beginning, when your child is given a diagnosis and offered a treatment plan, parents should know at what point they can expect things to get better,” says Dr. Stein. “What was the problem that your child started out with? Will they see changes in four weeks or ten weeks? Be concerned when therapists say they can’t predict a timeline.”
Here are some tips for keeping therapy moving along successfully—and helping your child become a healthy, happy kid.
The key to a successful therapy experience, says McKinley, is good communication between the therapist and the parents. Not seeing results as fast as you expected? Let the therapist know.
“Pick up the phone and say, ‘I’m just not seeing improvement at home,’” McKinley advises. “The therapist might help you sort through just what progress looks like—there may have been some changes that you haven’t noticed. That’s why it’s important to keep the lines of communication open.”
And be sure to keep the therapist posted about any changes at home, such as a family illness or a new school.
Do the Homework
Not all the treatment happens during the 50 minutes of your child’s appointment. There may be times when your child has therapy “homework” assignments as well, which might involve practicing new behaviors, doing mindfulness exercises, or even writing in a journal.
“Every case is different,” says McKinley. “However, it is helpful when you support your child in incorporating at home what they’ve learned in the office.”
Talk to Your Child About Treatment
A big part of successful therapy is your child’s good working relationship with their therapist. It is important that your child feels comfortable in their session—it is their safe place. Ask your child:
- Are you comfortable talking with the therapist?
- Are you able to open up and share your problems and concerns?
- Do you feel like this is a good fit?
Be Prepared to Make Changes
At the very beginning of treatment, your child’s therapist talked to you about when you can expect to see significant improvement in the symptoms that brought you there in the first place. So, check your calendar.
“If you’ve exceeded that time frame, it might be wise to seek a second opinion,” advises Dr. Stein. “This might not be the right fit, and you’ll want to find a different therapist. But don’t give up on therapy.”
Be honest with your child’s therapist about the reasons you’re thinking about looking elsewhere, and ask for recommendations on other providers. You can also go back to your pediatrician to fine-tune your search for a new provider.
When you consult with potential new therapists, be open about your past experience. Explain what you and your child liked—and didn’t like—about the previous therapist. Share with the new therapist the changes you hope to see in your child. As always, clear communication is key.
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