What is Child Therapy?

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Child therapy (also called child counseling) is similar to therapy and counseling for adults: it offers a safe space and an empathetic ear while providing tools to bring about change in thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Just like adult clients, child clients receive emotional and goal support in their sessions. They can focus on resolving conflict, understanding their own thoughts and feelings, and on thinking of new solutions to their daily problems.

The only big difference between adult therapy and child therapy is the emphasis on making sure children understand what is happening, and how they are not alone.

Child therapy can be practiced with one child, a child, and a parent or parents, or even with more than one family. It is often administered by a counselor or therapist who specializes in working with children, and who can offer the parents and/or guardians insights that may not be immediately apparent.

The therapist and client(s) can cover a wide variety of issues that include:

  • Divorce or separation;
  • Death of a loved one;
  • Trauma;
  • Bullying;
  • Sexual abuse;
  • Emotional abuse;
  • Physical abuse;
  • Family or child relocation;
  • Substance abuse or addiction in the family;
  • Mental illness, like depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive behavior (TherapyTribe, 2018).

Good therapy will be present and forward-oriented (meaning there will be little looking back or digging up the past) and will likely utilize non-verbal modalities like play, games, art, etc.

In addition, the therapy sessions may focus on five important goals on top of any situation-specific goals:

  1. Building the child’s self esteem.
  2. Helping to improve the child’s communication skills.
  3. Stimulating healthy, normal development.
  4. Building an appropriate emotional repertoire.
  5. Improving the child’s emotional vocabulary (Walker, 2014).

To summarize, child therapy is quite similar to therapy for adults in terms of the purpose, goals, and problems it can address, but it differs with the focus of explaining these topics to young children.

Techniques and exercises offer ways that are appropriate, for the child’s age, to understand themselves in the world.

See our article on CBT Therapy for more information.


When is Child Therapy Effective?

If a parent or guardian is not sure whether the child needs counseling or not, the list of symptoms below can be a good indicator. If the child is experiencing one or more of these symptoms, coupled with the parent’s concern, it’s a good idea to take him or her in for an evaluation.

The following are symptoms that may indicate a problem that therapy can correct or help with:

  • Unwarranted aggression;
  • Incontinence;
  • Difficulty adjusting to social situations;
  • Frequent nightmare and sleep difficulties;
  • A sudden drop in grades at school;
  • Persistent worry and anxiety
  • Withdrawing from activities they normally enjoy;
  • Loss of appetite or dramatic weight loss/gain;
  • Performing obsessive routines like hand washing;
  • Expressing thoughts of suicide;
  • Talking about voices they hear in their head;
  • Social isolation and wanting to be alone;
  • Alcohol or drug use;
  • Increased physical complaints despite a normal, healthy physician’s report;
  • Self-harm such as cutting (TherapyTribe, 2018).

In addition to these issues, the child may be dealing with:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness;
  • Constant anger and a tendency to overreact to situations;
  • Preoccupation with physical illness or their own appearance;
  • An inability to concentrate, think clearly or make decisions;
  • An inability to sit still;
  • Diets or binging behavior;
  • Violent acts such as setting fires or killing animals (Thompson Jr., 2010).

If parents decide to bring their child to therapy, they need to stay engaged throughout the therapy process.

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry suggests asking the therapist or counselor the following questions:

  • Why is psychotherapy being recommended?
  • What results can I expect?
  • How long will my child be involved in therapy?
  • How frequently will the therapist see my child?
  • Will the therapist be meeting with just my child or with the entire family?
  • How much do psychotherapy sessions cost?
  • How will we (the parents) be informed about our child’s progress and how can we help?
  • How soon can we expect to see some changes?

Similarly, there are some suggestions on how to talk to a child about going to counseling. It can feel uncomfortable to both the parent(s) and the child to talk about mental health treatment, but following these tips can help make it approachable:

  • Find a good time to talk and assure them that they are not in trouble. Listen actively.  
  • Take your child’s concerns, experiences, and emotions seriously.
  • Try to be open, authentic, and relaxed.
  • Talk about how common the issues they are experiencing may be.
  • Explain that the role of a therapist is to provide help and support.
  • Explain that a confidentiality agreement can be negotiated so children—especially adolescents—have a safe space to share details privately while acknowledging that you will be alerted if there are any threats to their safety (Wells, Sueskind, & Alcamo, 2017).

There are many effective forms of child therapy with evidence to back them up, including Applied Behavior Analyst, Behavior Therapy, Cognitive Behavior, Cognitive Therapy,Family Therapy, Interpersonal Therapy, and Organization Training (Society of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, 2017).

Younger children may also benefit from Therapy, and older adolescents may benefit from

Dialectal Behavioral Therapy, Group Therapy, or Psychodynamic Therapy (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 2017).

These therapies may be administered on their own, in combination with other therapies, or as a hodge-podge of techniques and exercises from several different types of therapies. In addition, it may or may not be accompanied by medication, depending on the situation.

One of these therapies may work for a child far better than the others, and the type chosen will depend on the issue(s) the child and family are dealing with. Like with any form of therapy, it is most effective when everyone involved is on board, supportive, and contributing to its success.