If you think your child may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, working with a psychologist is an integral step in helping your child feel better. A licensed psychologist can do a formal evaluation to determine if your child is experiencing an anxiety disorder; if so, he or she can identify the type of disorder and work with you on long-term solutions to manage anxiety.
Consider your child’s psychologist part of the team dedicated to getting him/her on the road to recovery. Before making an initial appointment with a psychologist, it’s likely that you’ll have some questions about what to expect. Below, we walk through the typical process of working with a child psychologist, and offer ideas on how to introduce your child to therapy.
Note: As a first step, you may want to read Getting Professional Help for Your Anxious Child: When and Where to Find a Psychologist.
How do I know if this psychologist is right for my child?
Once you’ve determined that your child needs to see a psychologist, you’ll want to talk with a few of them (either over the phone or in person) before making an appointment for your child. You can find recommendations for a local psychologist through a variety of sources, including your child’s teacher, school counselor, or pediatrician. You can also use the APA’s Psychologist Locator to find vetted and licensed psychologists in your area. Once you’ve found a few that seem like a potential match, set up an initial phone call or in-person meeting with the psychologist to discuss your child’s issues. It’s important to be open and honest about your child’s symptoms and behavior to make sure the psychologist is equipped to help. Remember, anxiety disorders are relatively common in children, and the psychologist has likely seen many children with varying degrees of difficulties. Some questions you may want to ask include:
- Do you have experience with anxiety disorders?
If you have an idea, let them know specifically which anxiety disorder (or disorders) you think your child may be experiencing and offer examples of worrisome behaviors.
- Do you have experience working with children? What types of treatments do you use?
There are multiple schools of thought on treatments, such as cognitive or behavioral. Find out how he or she applies these to young patients. Do they play with toys, draw pictures, play games? Essentially, how will they put your child at ease during sessions?
- Do you allow parents to attend sessions? Depending on the age of your child, it’s important to establish the parental role. If your child is school age or younger, you may want to be in the room, while an older child may need privacy in order to open up. Either way, find out what the psychologist will and will not share with you and determine your comfort level with that.
- Can you work with my child’s teacher?
Consider the psychologist the quarterback for your child’s care. Supporting team members will include the parents, as well as teachers. It’s not always necessary, but it’s helpful to know if the psychologist will work with your child’s school to ensure a consistency of care.
- What is the evaluation process like?
Before starting regular appointments, a psychologist will likely want to evaluate your child. This could include talking to and observing your child, as well as providing a questionnaire for parents that helps outline your child’s various symptoms. Finding out what the initial process entails can help put you and your child at ease.
- Can you share any success stories?
Experience and credentials count, but it’s also helpful to hear real-world examples. A potential psychologist should be comfortable sharing how he or she has helped similar patients (while respecting patient privacy, of course) and should offer references.
What should I expect in the first therapy session?
If you are satisfied with the psychologist’s answers and you feel like it would be a good fit for your child, you’ll set up an appointment for an initial session. Session structure will of course vary from one psychologist to the next, but there are a few things you can expect. An initial therapy session should be thought of as a getting-to-know-you meeting. A psychologist will have an informal conversation with your child that may include seemingly innocuous questions (How old are you? What do you like to do in school? etc.). Since young children do not typically understand what anxiety means, a psychologist will also ask simple questions that will help your child convey their symptoms and feelings, such as, “Do you feel scared sometimes?” or “What kinds of things frighten you?” They’ll also likely ask about physical symptoms, such as, “Do you ever feel dizzy?” or “Does your stomach sometimes hurt?” 1
It’s important to be open and honest about your child’s symptoms and behavior to make sure the psychologist is equipped to help.
Once the psychologist has evaluated your child, he or she will talk with you privately about recommended treatment. This could include setting up regular appointments and creating an action plan. If the psychologist determines that your child would be better matched with a different specialist, he or she may recommend some alternatives. It’s also important to remember that therapy is a two-way street. It’s vital that both you and your child are comfortable with the psychologist. At the end of the day, therapy is a human interaction, and sometimes a match just isn’t right. There is nothing wrong with speaking up and moving on to another psychologist who is a better fit.
What should I tell my child about therapy?
Explaining therapy to a child can be a daunting task. Children may not realize that they have an anxiety issue or understand why they need to see someone they don’t know. You know your child best and know how to communicate in a way he or she will understand, but there are a few things to keep in mind that can help the conversation go more smoothly.2
1) Don’t surprise your child with a therapy appointment. While it may be tempting to simply go to the appointment to avoid any pre-therapy fears, this likely isn’t a good idea. You want to give your child time to ask questions and voice any fears before meeting with a new person. A candid conversation prior to the appointment will allow for this.
2) Explain therapy in terms they can understand. Doctors can be scary. They often mean shots or other poking and prodding. Let your child know that a psychologist is a “talking” or “feelings” doctor and isn’t like a pediatrician. Explain that this kind of doctor helps to make kids feel better by talking (and even playing!) with them, and they can also make the things that are difficult feel easier.
3) Keep it brief. As a parent, you may feel anxious about taking your child to a psychologist. It’s important not to let your own feelings influence your child. Explain in positive terms how the doctor is going to help.
4) Be loving, but firm. Even after offering a positive explanation of therapy, your child may still be hesitant. When it comes time to go, let him or her know this is non-negotiable, but that you’ll be there the whole time to make sure everything is okay. And there’s nothing wrong with the promise of a post-appointment ice cream outing!
Finding the right psychologist for your child and working as a team to help your child manage anxiety is an ongoing but worthwhile process. For more information on finding and working with a child psychologist, see the APA-approved books recommended below and on the Magination Press Bookstore page.
1 How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child, by Ellen B. Braaten, PhD, page 116
2 Adapted from Someone to Talk to: Getting Good at Feeling Better, by Paola Conte, PhD, Cheryl Sterling, PhD, and Larissa Labay, PsyD
Related Books from Magination Press
Some Bunny to Talk To: A Story About Going to Therapy
Little Bunny has a problem and he doesn’t know how to solve it. Sometimes things in a little bunny’s life can feel so hard. So Big Bunny has an idea.
“I have an idea. I’d like you to talk to Some Bunny. Some Bunny is a therapist.”
Some Bunny To Talk To presents therapy in a way that is simple, direct, and easy for young children to understand. Children will hear about what to expect from therapy and how therapists are very good at helping kids to solve problems. They will learn about the ins and outs of therapy and that therapy can be a positive and helpful experience!
Included is a Note to Parents and Caregivers that outlines how best to support children in therapy and what to do to pave the way for a positive therapy experience. (picture book, ages 4-8)
Someone To Talk To: Getting Good at Feeling Better
Therapy can be intimidating for anyone, and even more so for children. Someone To Talk To is a straightforward and interactive guide to help children through the therapy process. It is an invaluable therapy accompaniment that covers what to expect, how to prepare, and tips for wrapping up.
The pages are full of helpful activities to use before, after, and in conjunction with therapy, as well as useful everyday tools and coping strategies.
Also included are separate introductions for parents and caregivers and for children, with more information about therapy, and how and why to use this book and its activities.
Authors Paola Conte, PhD, Cheryl Sterling, PhD, and Larissa Labay, PsyD, are pediatric psychologists in private practice who specialize in providing cognitive–behavioral therapy to children, adolescents, and adults. (picture book, ages 6-11)
Feeling Better: A Kid’s Book About Therapy
As life gets more complicated, it’s not unusual for children to feel angry, lonely, upset, and sad. In their confusion, some kids may withdraw socially, perform less well in school, care less about their appearance, lose interest in the activities they once enjoyed, develop eating problems, sleep too much or not enough, express anger inappropriately — any number of changes that signal the need for some extra help. When these feelings become too strong or last too long, one of the things that can help is therapy.
Feeling Better is an information packed chronicle that will reassure children who are entering therapy by answering their concerns about what’s normal and what to expect. (picture book, ages 8-14)
How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child
In How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child, seasoned child psychologist and author Ellen B. Braaten offers clear and expert guidance to help anxious parents navigate the complexities of mental health care.
Divided into three thorough and well-organized parts, the book first provides an overview of the issues involved in diagnosing and treating children. It then gives detailed information on the most common childhood disorders and addresses key symptoms, possible causes, and treatment options. In the final chapters, Dr. Braaten discusses the primary treatment approaches in more depth, such as their typical course, what disorders they are used to treat, and how to determine their effectiveness.
Parents seeking the best mental health care for their child will learn what other parents did in real situations when confronted with similar problems and will be reassured, supported, and empowered throughout their journey.