• Lydia was diagnosed with bone cancer after her eighth birthday. After enduring three years of cancer treatments, she is sad that her classmates avoid her, fearing that her cancer was contagious.
  • Paul is six years old, and he became very withdrawn after his parents separated. Struggling with a learning disability, he seldom speaks, but expresses his feelings through vivid crayon pictures.
  • At age nine, Danny complains that he cannot get rid of “bad thoughts” in his head. Every night, he compulsively counts all his toys before going to sleep.

These children are grappling with psychological issues. Can child therapy help?

Why Therapy?

Unresolved problems or disorders can impede a child’s development or trigger emotional states that cause trauma for the child, the parents, and the family. The effects may be long lasting.

Child experts agree that significant childhood problems—including poor bonding with parents—shape future adult work and social relationships if not treated. “Children who do not get the attention they need in the early developmental years may have a limited capacity for intimate attachments, or an inability to commit or empathize as adults,” notes Dr. Ana Badini, a psychotherapist who has treated adults and children for over 18 years.

Therapy can help children resolve current problems, as well as provide tools to cope with life challenges later on.

When Does Your Child Need a Therapist?

As a parent, you are likely to be the first to recognize changes in your child’s behavior. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, there are warning signs that indicate that your child is having difficulty and may benefit from a psychiatric evaluation. Some of these signs are:

  • Changes in school performance, such as dropping grades, missed homework, and skipping school
  • Excessive worry or anxiety
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Change in sleeping habits or frequent nightmares
  • Mood changes, including temper tantrums, depression , anger, and aggression
  • Dangerous and/or illegal behavior, including:

Sometimes, the symptoms are vague. “Often a parent brings a child to therapy because he knows there is a problem, but is not sure what it is,” says Lorenzo Colon-Monroe, Director of the Den for Grieving Kids in Connecticut. “The minute you notice a change, sit down with your child and talk. If you need more help, it is never too early to start therapy.”

What Happens Inside the Therapist’s Office?

A common therapeutic approach for children ages 4-11 is play therapy. In play therapy, children use dolls, art, and games to express their thoughts, experiences, feelings, and conflicts to the therapist. The therapist may observe and/or interact with the child during play, using talk or play objects to communicate.

Depending on the child’s verbal abilities and maturity, talk therapy or cognitive-behavioral methods may be used with children aged 12 and older.

How Should You Prepare Your Child?

If you have decided on child therapy, Colon-Monroe suggests that you prepare your child before the initial session. “If they do not understand why they are here, children may be fearful, anxious, or may interpret therapy as punishment,” he says. “This interferes with the initial bonding process and can adversely affect the process.”

When talking to young children, explain that a therapist is a “talk doctor” with “no needles,” and emphasize to the child that he is free to tell the therapist any problems. Badini also suggests that parents present the therapy as “teamwork”— something that “we” are going to do together to help “us.”

What If Medication Is Needed?

Certain psychological or behavioral disorders may be treated with medicine as an adjunct to other types of therapy. Some conditions treated with medicine include:

Although medicine can help reduce or eliminate symptoms, it should not be prescribed lightly. All psychiatric medicine should be prescribed by a doctor experienced in treating psychiatric problems in children and adolescents, and the course of treatment should be monitored very closely by both parent and doctor. If medicine is recommended for your child, discuss all pros and cons of the treatment with your doctor.

How Should You Choose a Therapist?

There are many factors to consider when choosing a therapist, such as financial/insurance arrangements, scheduling, and location. But most importantly, you will need to choose a therapist with whom you and your child are comfortable. Good places to find therapy referrals include:

  • Word of mouth from a doctor, trusted friend, or family member
  • Regional or local mental health centers
  • Hospitals
  • Human service organizations