Finding the Right Mental Health Professional for Your Child

Mental health is still taboo, or something nobody likes to talk about, but it’s often just misunderstood. We all have brains, thoughts and emotions, and we all have to take care of our mind the same way we take care of our body. One of the many ways we can improve our mental health (or our emotional wellness) is to get the help of a licensed mental health professional.

When you start looking for a mental health professional, the process can be confusing. Read on for information on common types of child therapy, common types of professionals and clinicians, questions you may want to ask, and what to expect at your first session.

When to seek therapy

Many people think you only need therapy if “something’s wrong with you,” or if “something really bad has happened.” However, nothing drastic has to happen for you to get help for your child.

“Therapy can be very helpful for a lot of people—even for seemingly minor challenges. There’s no right or wrong reason for seeking support. It’s up to you whether you think a professional could help, but it doesn’t hurt to try,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW.

“For those families who are going through a rough time, or who feel like they could use some help, finding the right therapist can be life-changing. And there’s no harm in trying therapy—even if you decide not to pursue it.”

Types of therapy for children and teens

There are many types of therapy and treatment options available for children, but here are some common types of therapies you may find:

  • Play therapy helps children express their thoughts, feelings and experiences through play.
  • Art therapy uses art and creativity to explore feelings and reduce stress by enhancing self-esteem, socialization and problem-solving skills.
  • Family therapy focuses on fostering a positive, constructive family dynamic.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) reshapes negative or unhelpful thought and behavior patterns and enhances coping skills. There is also a specific type of CBT for children working to overcome trauma.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) relieves emotional distress tied to past experiences.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) teaches skills to cope with stress, regulate emotions and improve relationships.

Types of child therapists and clinicians

It can be really confusing when you’re deciding which mental health professional to visit. One main difference between professionals is the ability to write prescriptions. It’s important to note that visiting a therapist does not guarantee a diagnosis and it certainly doesn’t guarantee your child will receive a prescription for medication. Many children (and adults) get the help they need through therapy treatments alone.

Here’s a brief overview of the different types of professionals you may come across and what they can and cannot do:

  • Licensed Professional Counselors (LPC/LAPC) have a master’s degree and are trained to provide individuals, families and children with therapy for mental, emotional and behavioral health conditions. They cannot prescribe medicine.
  • Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW/LMSW) have master’s degrees and provide a variety of emotional support, mental health evaluations, therapy and case management services. They can provide therapy and make diagnoses, but they cannot prescribe medicine.
  • Licensed Marriage and Family Therapists (LMFT/LAMFT) have master’s degrees and diagnose and treat mental and emotional disorders relating to marriage, couples and family systems. They can provide therapy and make diagnoses, but they cannot prescribe medicine.
  • Psychologists have a PhD or PsyD. They can make diagnoses with psychological testing and evaluation and provide therapy. They cannot prescribe medicine.
  • Psychiatric Advance Practice Nurses (PMHNP/PMHCNS) have a master’s degree or PhD in nursing with a specialty in psychiatry. They can provide medication evaluations, medication management and therapy.
  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors (MDs or DOs) who evaluate children to make a diagnosis, prescribe medication and offer medication management for mental health conditions. They sometimes provide therapy.

If you’re not sure who to reach out to, start with your pediatrician. You can also reach out to your child’s school to ask if they provide resources or referrals for mental health professionals.

Questions to ask before choosing a mental health professional

Before choosing a practice or mental health professional, you may find it helpful to create a list of questions to ask.

Here are some sample questions to help get you started:

  • Do you accept insurance? Which insurance plans do you participate in? Will you bill my insurance directly? If not, what is your fee structure? (Note: Not all mental health professionals accept health insurance.)
  • What type of therapy do you practice? What kind of license do you hold?
  • Can you describe your treatment style?
  • How will we communicate between appointments?
  • How involved will my family be in my child’s therapy?
  • My child’s parent and I are not together. What does this mean for therapy?
  • What should I bring to my child’s first appointment?
  • What is the length and frequency of sessions?
  • Are you available in case of an emergency? If not, who should I contact?

What to expect at the first therapy appointment and beyond

Deciding to seek professional help for your child is an important step to raising a healthy, resilient child (able to handle life’s ups and downs). You are already making a positive impact just by taking this first step.

Therapy isn’t always easy (talking about our feelings can be difficult!), but it can be very helpful at the same time. Here are some tips to make the most of therapy:

  • Be open and honest. The therapist should ask a lot of questions to better understand what you and your child would like to accomplish during therapy.
  • Allow your child to speak openly when you participate in appointments. This way, therapy will remain a safe space for expression.
  • Be patient with the process. Growth and healing take time.
  • Do any “homework” you, your child or your family are assigned. This is similar to physical therapy, when the PT teaches a patient exercises at the appointment to use at home.
  • Recognize therapists are not one-size-fits-all. If you find that something doesn’t click between your child and his therapist, it’s totally OK (and good!) to find a better fit.
  • Ask questions. If you are confused or concerned about anything that comes up during—or related to—a session, don’t be afraid to ask for clarity.
  • Be open and honest with your child, and make sure he is comfortable with the process. This is new to him, too.

How long will therapy last?

“There’s no objective answer for how long therapy will last. It depends on so many factors, including the type of therapy and the initial reason for seeking treatment,” says licensed therapist Kathleen Hill, LPC. “What’s most important is evaluating what brought your child there and asking whether or not you and your child have developed the coping skills necessary to handle any challenges going on in your lives. Plus, you can always go back to therapy in the future if needed.”

Therapy means different things to different people, and what works for one person may not work for the next. Keep trying. We all deserve to get the help we need to be emotionally well.