Child Therapy: A Comprehensive Guide
It’s hard enough for us adults to understand, sort through, and communicate our feelings. Now, imagine what it must be like for a child or teenager. Or, maybe you can time travel and plop yourself right back into your childhood shoes.
Did you experience anxiety as you moved from one grade to the next? Were you bullied? Did your parents go through a tough divorce? Were you a victim of trauma? We all had our fair share of difficulties growing up — but many of us didn’t receive the help that a child or adolescent therapist can provide.
Fortunately, therapy is more accepted and widely used than ever before. This goes for adults and kids alike. If you think that your child could benefit from talking to a mental health professional because they are struggling mentally and emotionally in one way or another, don’t hesitate to schedule a child therapy appointment.
But first, you might want to know a little bit more about what child therapy is and how it can help.
What Is Child Therapy?
Child therapy, also known as counseling for kids, helps young individuals understand and manage challenges that affect their mental health. These challenges include mental health conditions, behavioral issues, traumatic events, and bullying.
Child therapists and child psychologists are well-equipped to work with kids and teens, as they’ve gone through the proper training and acquired the necessary experience to understand how their young minds work. And, more importantly, how to best help them. These professionals break down the given problem in a way that’s easier to understand, discuss, and address.
At What Age Should a Child See a Therapist?
There is no age limit for which children can or can’t receive counseling. All are welcome, from toddlers in preschool to teenagers in high school (which is why it is sometimes referred to as child and adolescent therapy).
That said, the reason a child or teen might work with a therapist and the therapist’s therapy methods do vary for different age groups. Here’s a simple breakdown:
- Toddlers (1-3 years): Address concerns like developmental delays or disruptive behaviors, with parent participation and play therapy techniques.
- Kids (3-13 years): Address concerns like learning disorders and anxiety, using hands-on activities as well as verbal communication.
- Teens (13-18 years): Address bullying, depression, social pressures, stress, and more — with counselors providing coping tools as well as unbiased guidance and support.
What Is the Most Effective Therapy?
There’s no single, most effective approach for children and teens when seeking out child or adolescent therapy services. But there are specific effective approaches that are used to treat certain mental health conditions, concerns, or circumstances. In child therapy sessions, your child’s therapist may use one or more of the following:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Therapists teach children how thoughts cause feelings that affect behaviors. They help children identify distorted and harmful thinking patterns and replace them with more appropriate ones to improve their mood and behavior. Trauma-focused CBT is a specialized form of CBT. It helps children cope with traumatic experiences.
One 2020 clinical trial found that trauma-focused CBT reduced post-traumatic stress caused by a parent’s death. Similarly, a 2021 trial found that CBT was effective in treating prolonged grief disorder in children and teenagers.
- Behavior therapy: Behavior theory is a therapeutic approach that views all behaviors as learned—and because they’re learned, they’re changeable. Behavioral therapy approaches also believe that when undesirable/bad behaviors (whether actions or thoughts) are rewarded, it actually reinforces that behavior, which becomes a habit. Therefore, a behavior therapist will encourage and reward new, healthier behaviors while aiming to reduce undesirable ones in children.
- Humanistic therapy: Humanistic therapy, or person-centered therapy, views the client as the expert in their own life; in other words, your child knows themselves better than anyone else does. In this method, a child therapist plays a more supportive role. A child therapist who implements a humanistic approach will offer an emotionally and psychologically safe environment for your child to process their experiences and reflect on their past, present, and future.
- Play therapy: Play therapy is a highly popular play-based intervention for younger children between the ages of 3-12. Play therapists use playrooms as safe spaces where children can process their feelings through symbols and play. Child therapists can help children to explore issues with play therapy by using toys and a physically and mentally engaging play environment, which assists in leading them through their own
age-appropriate healing process.
- Dialectal behavior therapy: Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) is a form of behavior therapy that works particularly well for teens struggling with depression, self-harm, and aggressive behavior. And according to Christine Ridley, Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) at Thriveworks. “DBT may be used as a strengths-based approach for those who find social interactions challenging.” DBT can also be used in both individual and group sessions to teach teens to develop the coping strategies they need to handle conflict and extreme emotions. DBT teaches interpersonal effectiveness, mindfulness, distress tolerance skills, and emotional regulation skills.
- Family therapy: Family therapy assists relatives in recognizing and understanding their interactions and communication patterns. Family therapy can support and educate families, helping siblings and parents to better meet the needs of children who find coping with emotional distress challenging or who are neurodivergent.
- Parent-child interaction therapy: Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) helps parents interact with their children and manage both their child’s behavior and their own. Parent-child therapy may also improve the relationship between a parental figure and their child. Parents typically interact with their child on their own in a separate room and may receive coaching from a child therapist through an earpiece, or by meeting both before and after a session. A 2017 meta-analysis indicates that PCIT significantly reduces stress in children and parents alike.
How Do I Know if My Child Needs Behavioral Therapy?
In general, behavioral therapy aims to correct a child’s actions, while helping them to recognize both harmful and beneficial behaviors and habits. Through increased awareness, children are better equipped to cope with challenging circumstances, both situationally and emotionally. Your child may be especially suited to behavioral therapy methods if:
- Your at-home discipline strategies and parenting methods aren’t appearing to help
- Their behavior interferes with school, extracurricular activities, or family life
- Their behavior impacts their social life and ability to make friends with other children
- Their behavior is not developmentally/age appropriate
Behavioral therapy, like the methods offered by the child therapists at Thriveworks, can be a helpful interventive method for parents and caregivers—and especially for their children.
How Can Child Therapists Help?
Therapy can help kids in many different ways, just like adults. The above section provides a brief snapshot of how it might help different age groups. But from a broader sense, child therapists can help with both problems that are traditionally seen as more severe like mental illness as well as those that aren’t considered quite as serious, such as difficult feelings around moving to a new town.
The bottom line is that many children and adolescents can benefit from talking to a counselor. Child therapists can help by working with children to identify and treat their concerns or mental health conditions, as both the therapist and child work together to treat issues at the root. If your child is suffering or you think they should talk to a mental health professional, they will likely benefit from therapy.
When Should a Child See a Therapist?
It isn’t always easy to tell when your child or teen might need therapy—even if they are dealing with one of the issues mentioned earlier. But just as with adults, children often benefit from counseling and other forms of mental health services when they’re:
- Mental illness, such as depression or anxiety
- The death of a loved one and other difficult losses
- Abuse (sexual, emotional, physical, mental)
- Addiction in the family
- Parents’ divorce
- Behavioral issues
- Developmental delays
- Learning disorders
- Traumatic events
- Moving to a new town
Younger children may exhibit behaviors that are more difficult to detect or understand, but may still benefit most from child therapy. Some of these signs include:
- Separation anxiety or clingy behavior, such as being afraid to attend school, play dates, or spend time with other relatives
- Bedwetting behavior at a developmentally inappropriate age
- Agitation, physical violence, or irritability that can’t be explained
There are countless subjective reasons as to why a child could need (or want) to see a mental health professional—and all are equally valid.
What Are Some Signs Your Child Might Need Counseling?
Here are some signs that your child is, indeed, having a difficult time and should see (or could benefit from talking to) a therapist:
- Noticeable weight loss or gain
- Difficulty sleeping and poor sleep hygiene
- Aggression toward others
- Difficulty eating consistently, or conversely, overeating
- Anxious thoughts, actions, or behavior
- Academic struggles, whether they’re behavior or grade-related
- Antisocial behavior, such as social isolation, extreme introversion, trouble communicating with others
- Alcohol or use of prescription or illicit drugs
- Thoughts or actions related to self-harm
Some of the signs above are scary and might feel overwhelming for you and your child. But remember: Child therapists are equipped with the skills, training, and experience to help these young individuals. And they will tailor treatment to the child’s specific needs.
How Does Child Therapy Work?
At its core, child therapy work by targeting the individual’s problem and helping them to better manage or resolve it. Now, there are many different approaches to child therapy, including play therapy, emotionally-focused therapy, art therapy, narrative therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and dialectical behavioral therapy, to name a few. Different therapists specialize in different modalities; however, they will take your child’s age and needs into consideration and then deploy the best methods.
To give you a better idea of what child therapy might look like, here are a few examples of how a therapist might tackle some of the common issues mentioned earlier:
1) Dealing with divorce
Divorce doesn’t simply affect the couple that is separating—it often affects all of those close to them, especially their children. Children of divorce can experience a broad range of emotions, but often they feel unloved, confused, guilty, depressed, or simply distraught about their parents’ split. And these feelings can worsen as time goes on, custody battles worsen, and tensions rise.
A counselor can help them manage all of their thoughts and feelings. They might use play therapy and other techniques to help them communicate these emotions. They can also teach children that it’s okay to feel however they’re feeling, whilst showing them how to better manage those feelings.
Effective techniques include journaling, crafting, deep breathing, and simply opening up about their emotions.
2) Managing change
It’s easy to forget how impactful change can be on children, but the truth of the matter is that they’re sensitive to significant changes like big moves or school changes. Kids often experience major stress and anxiety due to these changes, which can stick around for an extended time, unless properly addressed.
Child therapy teaches them how to cope with change by shifting their focus from the negatives to the positives. Techniques like positive self-talk are learned and the children begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of change being a normal part of life.
3) Building self-confidence
More often than not, children suffer from low self-esteem, which can lead to bigger issues down the road like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Counseling helps them to see their value and also teaches them how to develop more positive thought patterns.
For example, a teen’s feelings of worthlessness may lead him to believe that he doesn’t deserve the love of his friends and family; a therapist will help him recognize this negative self-talk and turn it into positive self-talk and thoughts.
4) Understanding mental health conditions
Mental health conditions and all of the harmful symptoms that come with them are difficult for anyone to comprehend. But children have a particularly tough time accepting and understanding a diagnosis
A child therapist allows them to ask questions and learn about their disorder, whether it be obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, or any other given illness. Counselors help them understand their diagnosis and also cope with the harmful effects that come with it.
5) Coping with trauma
When children experience a traumatic event, be it abuse or a natural disaster, they often emerge fearful, confused, and upset. And they may even go on to develop post-traumatic stress disorder, which comes with distressing memories, thoughts, nightmares, and flashbacks.
Child therapists can help kids in these situations talk about what they experienced. They learn that it’s okay, helpful even, to talk about the traumatic experience, and they also adopt coping mechanisms. Family therapy might also be beneficial if relatives are involved in the trauma.
If you are worried about your child’s behavior, a child therapist can help. Consider scheduling a therapy appointment for your child where they can open up in a safe space.
Have you ever heard of online therapy for kids? If you’re worried about finding the right time to take your child to therapy, online mental health services for kids are a great option. Some counselors can offer online child therapy services—a convenient, comfortable option for many people, including kids. Connecting with a child therapist online could be an effective solution for your child’s challenges.