There are various reasons and problems for which parents contact a psychologist, psychotherapist, or other mental health professional. In practice, common reasons for seeking help are:
- changes in children's behavior, especially when they stand out from child's usual ways of responding and behavior
- some life events that disrupt family functioning such as parental divorce, problems in (family) relationships, health problems of the child or a family member
- moving to another school or city
- experience of traumatic events
- peer violence
- losing a loved one
- difficulties in learning and functioning in the school environment
- a disorder like ADHD and other developmental disabilities
- problematic behaviors, particularly emphasized aggression
- poorly developed social skills and fitting into peer groups
- difficulties in coping with emotional states such as depression, anxiety and stress
In clinical practice there is an increase of parents seeking support not only for their child but also for themselves in order to reduce parental stress, find a place and a person with whom they can talk about their parenting, approach and how they build relationships with their children to make them feel more satisfied and competent in their parental role.
The answer to the question of when to seek professional help for a child or yourself as a parent is actually simple, but making that decision and doing it (often prevented by our fears and prejudices in our society) is not always easy. The clearest criterion for seeking help and professional support is when we see that a child cannot cope alone with problems he/she has or experiences he/she goes through. Often in these situations, parents also feel that what they are doing is not enough in terms of support for the child. Parental concerns, preoccupation with certain behaviors of a child or aspects of their own parenting, feelings of dissatisfaction and concern are good reasons and motives to seek professional support and advice. Sometimes the whole family needs support to communicate better, to learn new ways of behaving and being together. Practice shows us that it is often children who "raise an alarm" with their behavior or symptoms, which signals that it is time for a change in the family. In doing so, they do an important job for the whole family, and it's up to adults to see, hear, and respond to this alarm.
When certain changes in a child happen, often the parents receive a message from their environment, and sometimes even from experts, "just let it go, this is just children being children", "be patient, this is a phase that will pass by itself" or "everything will fall in its place in time". In some situations, this is a good and useful. It is true that some life events such as moving, starting kindergarten or school, birth of a younger sibling or parental divorce cause changes in the child's behavior and functioning, which can sometimes be overwhelming and disturbing, and are part of the process of child's adjustment to new circumstances. With good family support and natural environment filled with understanding, accepting and encouraging the child to express their feelings, most of these symptoms and changes recede and normalize over time.
However, it is important to be careful and keep in mind that we adults often think that children easily and quickly adapt to different changes and circumstances because they don’t know how to verbalize their emotions or they don’t verbalize them because they can’t for different reasons. Because of this it’s important to "open your eyes and ears" well and observe your child's behavior to gain a better understanding of how the child is adjusting, how he/she really feels, and how to evaluate whether the situation is calming down or not
Parents often wonder how long to observe child's symptoms, behavior or condition that worries them. The answer to that question largely depends on what parents actually think is happening and how upset they are with the change they are seeing, as well as the duration and intensity of the child's behavior that is worrying them. It is important to get help as soon as possible when changes in children are more abrupt, pronounced or when they stand out from child's usual behavior. Also, when parents are more worried, anxious, or burdened with child's symptoms and behaviors.
However, there are conditions and difficulties that require an immediate professional help. These are primarily situations involving some form of self-destructive behavior. When we see a child that cuts or physically injures itself, when they have intense eating disorders, when they say or write comments on social media such as "I wish I wasn't here" or "No one would care if I were gone" or speak explicitly about suicide. Such reactions can represent child's way of dealing with serious emotional states and difficulties, which can be dangerous and require an immediate response of the adults.
Some of the signs for when to ask for help can also be:
- situations in which a child shows difficulties in functioning in many areas such as family and friendship, academic achievement and leisure activities
- when a child starts to think badly about himself, have low self-confidence and is less effective in their activities
- when a child shows strong concern and fears that interfere with his daily functioning and expresses helplessness
- when a child has a problem that is interfering with his daily activities, which they have been able to do until then, whether it is socializing with friends, school tasks, family life, etc.
- when a child shows signs of depressive mood, or withdraws from family and others and stops engaging in things he previously enjoyed
- a more pronounced presence of problematic behaviors, more aggressive and more frequent conflicts with others, engaging in risky activities such as theft, running away from home and drug and alcohol use - very often disturbing, explosive and dangerous behaviors may be associated with traumatic experiences, depression, but also anxiety and frustration that may stem from unrecognized difficulties
- continuous and intense ''gut feeling'' in parents that something is wrong with the child
When we connect children's experiences to disabilities and understand what is it that makes their functioning harder, we can understand better what they need to overcome the difficulties they face and teach them new coping skills. When it comes to difficult and traumatic experiences that the child and the family have gone through, professional help is almost always needed in processing those experiences, feelings and thoughts that the child associates with the event in order to successfully integrate the experience into his own life experiences.
The sooner a child receives the support he needs, the professional support is likely to be more effective and be able to prevent the development of more serious disorders and conditions. The longer a child lives with difficulties and exhausting emotional states, such as anxiety, the more likely he is to form self-image and a behavior based on those difficulties, experiencing and defining himself solely through the difficulty he is going through at that moment.
It is important that parents trust their instincts, especially if they have a feeling or concern that something is wrong. It is definitely better to seek expert evaluation and see what is happening. Even when problems are not serious and "big", counseling can help children and families in better understanding feelings and conditions they are going through, offer them a new perspective on observing specific reactions and seeing problems, and learn new coping strategies and problem-solving skills. Whatever it is happening, seeking support very often makes our lives easier and more enjoyable.
It is sometimes easier for children, at least in the beginning, to talk about their problems with someone they don’t know, instead of their parents. Many parents find this situation very difficult because they feel like they have failed as parents. It is important to know that this doesn’t have to be the reason, and that children most often don’t want to talk to their parents about problems because they feel the need to protect them, because they are afraid that they will hurt, disappoint or burden them (very often in divorce situations and in families dealing with other difficulties), that their parents will punish them or will no longer love them. Unfortunately, sometimes, in some families this happens, but in most cases, if the relationship between parents and children is good, such situation can be resolved and a satisfying communication for all can be restored. To be able to do this, first we must know what is going on.
After deciding to seek professional help parents often intensively thing about how to prepare a child for a visit to a psychologist and psychotherapist. The most common questions parents ask are: Should I tell my child that we are going to a psychologist? How do I explain to my child where he/she is going? Do I have to say the real reason why we are going to the professional? How early should I tell my child? What if the child refuses to go to a psychologist?
Parents are very often, just like children, anxious about seeking professional help. A thoughtful preparation for the child and the family can be a good way of showing that seeking help is a normal and good way of coping when we have a problem and are not feeling well.
When preparing a child, it is advised to consider several aspects.
Be honest and tell your child the exact reason why you are taking them to a professional with as little responsibility giving to the child as possible for that decision. Seeking professional help is decision of the parents, especially when it comes to young children. Honesty and clear information on where the child is going helps the child to adapt to the situation faster and gain confidence in the expert.
Tell your child that it is okay to talk to the expert openly because that way they can help the best. Introduce seeking professional help as a way to make you all feel better and find new ways to solve problems. Explain to the child that each family has some problems and things that we sometimes have a hard time managing and that there are times in life when we need the help of others, including experts.
What should never be said is that the child is guilty or that going to a professional is some form of punishment. Don’t talk about the decision to seek professional help during an argument or at the end of a difficult day when you are exhausted and tired of “fighting” with your child. Choose a quiet moment when you have enough time to talk and answer child's questions.
Explain to your child that it is the job of psychologists/psychotherapists to help children and adults to better understand their feelings and thoughts, how things that happens to us affect our experience and behavior. They help people find new ways to cope with unpleasant events and how to solve problems especially when everything we normally do to feel better doesn't help anymore.
Give your child a permission to talk to the psychologist about what he wants to and what matters to him, as much as he is willing to share. Reassure your child (make sure you actually believe in it) that it is okay to talk about yourself and your experiences and that they will not be punished for it. Many children, especially older ones, worry about whether it's okay to talk outside the family about some family problems and experiences, they worry about whether their parents will get in trouble for what they say. You can also tell them openly that you will also talk to the psychologist about these topics and issues.
If a child shows anxiety or concern about going to see an expert, calm them down and say that it is normal to feel this way especially when it is our first experience and when we do not know the person. If necessary, discuss similar situations when they felt uneasy (such as when they had their blood taken or started new activities) and help them understand what helped them in those situations.
YOU CAN ALSO ASK US
There are also some additional guidelines which depend on the specifics of the family situation, child's age, type of difficulty that the child and family are experiencing. For any additional and specific questions you may have, it is best to contact your chosen expert and ask for specific child and family preparation tips.
Once we have made the decision, the question arises of how to choose a psychologist/counselor/psychotherapist that is good for my child and/or me as a parent. Who is this person I will contact with confidence and who can help me deal with problems and crises we are going through in our family? The answer to this question is not always easy to find, especially today when a large number of different advices, forms of support and therapies are offered, based on different theoretical foundations and approaches, and the number of training in helping and counseling professions is becoming more and more diverse.
Most often, parents turn to family members, friends, acquaintances, and often a pediatrician and family physician to get recommendations on where and who to contact for professional support. Recommendations from people we trust can be a good source of support and information, but it's important to carefully consider them, check the information we've received, and gather some other information that can help us make the final decision.
When looking for referrals from people we know and wanting to know about their counseling experiences, if they have them, it is important to hear what was helpful and useful in the process, how they felt in contact with their counselor, what they liked about the way of work and the approach the counselor practiced. It can also be helpful to ask them what they didn’t like, if there was something they avoided talking about with the counselor and when did they feel that way.
Sometimes people have some bad experiences and don’t get the professional help they expect and want. There are many reasons for such experiences. Some of the reasons may be sought in the lack of professional competencies, knowledge and experience of experts, especially related to some specific difficulties and experiences that clients face. Even some personality traits of the expert or emotional state he/she is currently going through, because of which it is difficult to achieve the relationship of trust that is necessary for efficiency and healing of the counseling process.
Sometimes the reasons for unsuccessful treatment are on client's side and are related to their resistance to accepting difficulties and their own responsibility for situations and problems in which they find themselves or don’t really want to bring the energy, time and patience into the changes that are necessary to solve them, of which they are often not aware. For this reason, it may be useful to try to understand what is the source of dissatisfaction, what is the basis of unsuccessful support, or what expectations your acquaintances had coming to counseling and how the expert has reacted in such a situation of dissatisfaction and stagnation. You may get some useful information, although it may seem like a negative and dismissive recommendation.
It is also important to verify expert's qualifications, which are sometimes visible through CVs, though often they may not be well known and understood by laics. When contacting a potential counselor, it is a good idea to ask them to clarify what their formal education is and the professional career they have behind them, in what places and through what forms of education they developed as an expert. It is a good idea to ask about work experience of a potential consultant. This is particularly important when it comes to treatment work with children and young people, where knowledge of developmental psychology and specificities of a particular developmental age is shown to be very important for adequate support and assistance to children and families. Certainly, multi-year training organized by professional associations doesn't lead to the same level of expertise and professional competence for a particular approach as attending several days of a seminar.
Of course, an important question is whether they have a license for the title and profession they represent and who issues that license, since many professionals present themselves as counselors/therapists, although they don’t have necessary licenses and recognitions. You can ask a potential consultant about additional educations they attended or other sources of support they use to make their work with clients better. Experts who are open to continuous learning, who admit when they don’t know or are unsure, who don’t shy away from consulting with older colleagues when they encounter difficulties in working with clients, certainly instill more confidence, show that they care about their clients' well-being and invest in the development of their professional competences.
Once you have decided who you will contact, it is advisable to call and arrange an appointment in person whenever possible. Most people feel nervous when they first call to make an appointment, which is a normal and expected reaction. It is when we acknowledge our powerlessness and vulnerability in a certain way and agree to put ourselves into the hands of someone we don't really know yet, which can be difficult. At the same time, in direct contact with a potential counselor, we have the opportunity to check what difficulties are that person's area of expertise, what experience they have and ask other questions that are important to us for the final decision (such as their availability and how long is the waiting list for an appointment, the price of the service, the location where they work ...). Here we also have the opportunity to get some information about how that person makes contact, how open they are for a conversation, and we create first impression which we evaluate and continue to form in person.
When you arrive at your appointment, be sure to pay attention to how you feel with your chosen counselor and how your child reacts in their presence. Notice how the specialist makes contact with you, how they approach the child, and how well they adjust to that interaction.
Make sure you give yourself time after the appointment and pay attention to your impressions, observe how you feel afterwards. Ask your child, especially if they are older or adolescent, how was it for them, how they felt, what they liked, and if there was something that was difficult. If you or your child have any other questions, write them down and bring them to your next appointment. Consider your child's reaction to a therapist or to seeking professional help, but make sure that, especially if your child is young, it is you who takes responsibility for the final decision.
Sometimes it happens that, despite good recommendations, we don’t "click" with the counselor, we don't establish a relationship of trust for working together. In these situations, it is important not to give up from professional support, especially not thinking that there is no help available for us. Similar to other situations in life, it is sometimes important to knock on multiple doors before finding the person who is best for us and our child.