Although it is my belief that therapy should be a mandatory requirement for all school-age children and their parents, I am readily aware that this could be an idealistic belief. Like adults, children can greatly benefit from having an objective and empathic listener to help mentor and provide them with direction.
Most children face problems in some form or another as they develop and navigate life’s journey. A therapist assists a child with important problem-solving skills, with the added benefit of responsive exploration and much needed validation for their issues. A proactive approach could deter minor problems from exacerbating later in a child’s personal and academic life.
Working with children and adolescents, I’ve observed the pattern and progression of emotional responsiveness that commences in early childhood. A child’s mind is like a sponge, soaking up both positive and negative experiences. Sometimes these experiences are internalized and can affect the child and/or adolescent’s mental, emotional, and relational life. What makes these events unique for children is their lack of expressive language and insight which are fundamental tools that give adults a motor outlet for inhibited thoughts and feelings. As a consequence, children can bottle up negative thoughts, feelings, and emotions that can result in a variety of contexts which can lead to symptoms of depression, anxiety, and acting out behaviors.
Significant life events, such as a parent’s divorce, forms of abuse, abandonment, death of a family member or pet, a parent leaving on military deployment, trauma or a major illness in the family, can greatly impact a child’s sense of well being and safety and could lead to psychological problems. Parents often pick up on signs that something is wrong with their usually well-functioning child and should trust their instinct if they notice anything that might be creating angst.
Clues that your child may be struggling include:
- Social withdrawal or isolation;
- Episodes of sadness, tearfulness, isolation, or depression;
- Behavioral problems (excessive anger, aggravation, shutting down);
- Diminished interest in previously enjoyed activities;
- A significant drop in grades;
- Sudden change in appetite (particularly in teenagers);
- Insomnia or hypersomnia;
- Signs of alcohol or drug use;
- Bullying behavior or being the victim of bullying
If your child is displaying such symptoms, your next questions may be ‘how do I choose a therapist?’ and ‘what type of therapy is most appropriate?’
While experience and education are important factors in making your decision, it is equally important that your child feels comfortable with the therapist. It’s normal for a child to have some trepidation in sharing their thoughts and feelings with a stranger, but a well-trained therapist has specialized strategies for building rapport and facilitating a nurturing, validating and positive therapeutic relationship.
Many different styles of therapy are utilized according to a child’s age and level of maturity. Some clinicians employ play therapy or art therapy, while some elect to use a classic talk therapy method. When the therapist explains the confidential relationship to the child, the child should feel more comfortable and safe while sharing with the therapist. Once in therapy, it’s explained to the child and parents that some limitations are necessary to maintain the safety of the child or others.
Just remember, from a small seed, a sturdy trunk may grow. Let’s nurture our children into adulthood, ensuring sound mental health and success for their future.
Ari Regar is a licensed marriage and family therapist working with individuals, teens, families and children. Ari can be reached at (760) 348.8677.