Finding the right therapist: Children and Teens are not Adults
Children and teens, like adults, need therapy for a variety of reasons. Unlike adults, children and teens rarely seek out therapy. They rely upon parents and other caring, involved adults to listen, watch and act in their best interests. There are signs and situations in which parents may want to find a therapist for their child or teen. Significant life events like divorce, moving, changing schools, death of a loved one (or pet), illness, abuse or trauma often warrant therapy. In other cases parents may notice a change in their children. They may inexplicably become withdrawn, worried, sulky, regularly tearful or irritable. Other problems may arise. They may be excessively angry, have difficulty sleeping, or experience a change in appetite. School performance drops and old friends are no longer around.
Anytime parents are worried or concerned is the time to seek counsel from a mental health professional. So….who are mental health professionals? What education and training is required to practice psychotherapy? How do you find one that is qualified to work with children, teens and their families? What is important to know?
First, look for a person who is licensed to practice psychotherapy. In the State of Florida these are, Clinical Social Workers, Marriage and Family Therapists, Mental Health Counselors, Psychologists and Psychiatrists.
Psychiatrists (MD or DO) are medicals doctors who have advanced training and experience in psychotherapy and pharmacology. They can prescribe medications. Many are Board Certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology with a specialty in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Very few see patients or clients for therapy but instead prescribe medication and work in tandem with other therapists.
Psychologists (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) are therapists who have a doctorate degree that includes advanced training in the practice of psychology and may specialize in treating children, teens and their families. In addition, they are qualified to conduct psychological assessments using standardized intelligence, achievement and personality tests.
In the state of Florida, Mental Health Counselors, (LMHC), Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT) and Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) are licensed and regulated by the same board. All have Master’s degrees and post graduate experience, training and supervision that qualify them to evaluate, assess, diagnose, treat, and prevent emotional and mental disorders or dysfunctions. The bulk of mental health services in this country are provided by this group.
Within these groups, many have advanced credentials that demonstrate an expertise in work with children, adolescents and their families. One such advanced credential is the Registered Play Therapist or Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor. Conferred by the Association for Play Therapy, APT is a national multi-disciplinary professional organization whose purpose is to advance play therapy through research, training and credentialing and to educate the public about the benefits of Play Therapy.
Why is Play Therapy important if you are looking for a therapist for your child? Play therapy is to children what talk therapy is to adults. Children and many teens express themselves more fully through the medium of play. Emotions are often difficult to understand for children, teens and adults. Children and teens in particular may have more difficulty understanding, processing and expressing emotion because of their age and developmental stage. Play provides a non-threatening way for children and many teens to express themselves. In therapy, toys, games and activities are used like words. Children are provided toys in play therapy to enable them to say with the toys what they have difficulty saying with words. They can use dolls, puppets, paints, sand, games or other toys to say what they think or how they feel. Play therapy allows children the opportunity to work through, heal, and move past the difficult times in their lives.
While all these factors are important, it is essential to find the right match for your child, teen and family. Look for a therapist who not only has the right credentials and experience, but one with whom you and your children are comfortable.
Your physician is often a good referral source as they may have working relationships with qualified therapists. They also have a working knowledge of you and your family. Many times, school officials, friends, colleagues and friends are excellent resources and can recommend someone. If you have health insurance, check your policy to see what providers are in your provider network. However, don’t be afraid to look outside the network for a qualified therapist. If your network does not have therapists on their panel who specialize in work with children, teens and families if would be wise to look beyond the network.
Next, call the therapists. Ask about credentials, training and experience. Ask about their protocols and their approach to treatment. How do they communicate with parents and children? Do they seem friendly, warm and inviting? Do you think your child would feel comfortable with this person? In addition don’t be afraid to speak frankly and directly with therapists about fees, office policies and procedures for contact outside regular business hours.
Establishing and maintaining a therapeutic relationship is a personal and life-changing experience. Spending time finding a qualified mental health professional with the right, education, credentials, experience and ensuring a positive therapeutic relationship is well worth the time and effort.