When is the Right Time for Therapy for My Child?

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan-Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

Does your child’s emotional health appear fragile to you or are they having a tough time coping?

Perhaps they’re anxious or experiencing low mood?

Mental health issues amongst our younger generation have risen during and post pandemic and parents can be left feeling at a loss about what to do for the best.

It can be a lot to process for parents and a question that is likely to come up is, “When is the right time for therapy for my child?”

If you have concerns about your child and need support in addition to your own, you might consider getting some professional help for them. 

But, when is the right time? 

In this article, I’ll give you my practitioner and parent view of how to approach the question and what to consider when making any decision.

serious thoughtful teenage girl

The Right Time for Intervention 

When is the right time for therapy for my child?

It might be tricky to know when to suggest or seek intervention from professionals. You might feel confused or have fears about consequences or have a hard time accepting help is needed.

However, if you notice frequent and concerning behavioural problems or dysregulated emotions or dangerous & risky behaviour in your child, I highly recommend seeking targeted support.

Early intervention (child therapy) in young children can be profoundly beneficial because:

  • It can identify early developmental delays or difficulties in a child
  • It can help children to develop and support their social skill development where they learn empathy and how to form healthy relationships
  • It can help to identify any learning difficulties or differences
  • Where therapy involves parents or caregivers, often a child’s needs are better understood
  • It can support a child in the early stages of coping with a traumatic event or major life changes such as parental separation or absence, or moving away from established friendship groups

In younger children, be aware of signs & symptoms that your child is struggling or having mental health difficulties.

Signs that therapy may help your child might include:

  • Sadness
  • Social withdrawal or isolation
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in your child’s behaviour
a little girl talking to a therapist

Whilst Waiting for Child Therapy or Getting the Ball Rolling: What Can You Do?

My top tip is to adopt the 3 C’s ‘Communicate, be Compassionate and be Calm’

If your child is struggling, there are several ways you can support them.

  • Listen & talk
  • Give them reassurance
  • Maintain routines
  • Understand where their ‘safe pace’ is
  • Model healthy coping behaviour

Some of the signs of mental distress in your child may be temporary. 

They may be associated with developmental milestones and transitions and not necessarily indicate a mental health concern.

So, when is the right time for therapy for my child?

The time to seek intervention from a mental health professional is if your child’s mental distress persists, affecting their daily functioning. 

It’s OK to ask for help and often the best outcomes are when parents continue their supporting role in tandem with professional input from a child therapist.

Spotting mental distress in older kids can be more challenging as they may not find it easy to express their emotions and communicate their needs.

They may be secretive, finding ways to cover up the pain or distress and brushing off others’ concerns.

Watch Out for Red Flags

By this I mean where their demeanour, behaviour or development patterns are a departure from what is normal for them.

Red flags might include:

  • Changes in academic performance
  • Adopting risky behaviours
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches or exhaustion, poor sleep or a change in eating habits
  • Sudden changes in peer relationships
  • Substance use/misuse
  • Socially withdrawing or isolating
a teenage boy talking to a therapist

Understanding Your Child’s Therapy Needs 

Valuable therapy & support for your child will require an understanding of what your child’s specific needs may be.

Mental health treatment approaches will differ depending on your child’s age and what they are struggling with.

To ensure the therapy is what your child needs, your insight and understanding will be important as well.

A child’s therapist will listen to your concerns and build a picture of the challenges being faced.

I recommend you trust your instincts as a parent. After all, you know your child better than anyone.

Following an assessment, a treatment plan with treatment goals are usually put into place and shared with you and your child.

Specific goals such as learning coping skills or improving your child’s communication skills can contribute toward making positive changes ​in their life. 

Common Misconceptions About Child Therapy 

There are some common misconceptions about the child therapy process. 

Here are some examples:

  • That your child can only have therapy if their difficulties are severe
  • Children are too young to understand or benefit from therapy
  • The therapist will ‘fix’ any problems
  • Therapists will judge your parenting
  • Therapy is a sign of weakness or failure

When is the right time for therapy for your child? In fact, there are many benefits of therapy and it isn’t just about supporting mental health conditions once they have reached a crisis point.

It can be a pro-active, collaborative process which supports the growth and development of your child.

Therapy can also help them through stressful situations, changes, and adjustments.

Understanding these misconceptions will help you to approach the therapy process with an open mind, helping you to engage in supporting your child in the best way possible.

a young boy in a bright therapy room talking to a counsellor

Choosing the Right Therapist 

There are lots of different kinds of therapists and it’s important to choose some-one who is a good fit for you and your child.

In my counselling practice, I always have a telephone conversation with a child’s parent prior to them booking in. It gives parents the opportunity to ask questions, assess experience and credentials and consider practical factors.

Wherever possible, I would recommend having a conversation with the child therapist you are booking in with. 

You should always be able to access details about the type of therapy a practitioner provides on the internet or through any referring body (such as your doctor, hospital or health insurance provider).

With your child’s needs in mind, here are some common types of child therapists who specialise in providing therapy for children and teenagers:

  • Child & adolescent psychiatrists are medical doctors who are specialists in diagnosing and treating mental health disorders. They are not automatically trained as therapists, but many do extra training so that they can offer therapy.
  • Family therapists work with families who may be experiencing difficulties with communication, trust, conflicts and fractured relationships.
  • School counsellors work in the educational setting to support students academically, socially and emotionally.
  • Play therapists specialise in using interventions that help children to express their thoughts and feelings and experiences. Whereas many types of therapy involve talking about your problems, play therapy can be perfect if a child is too young to express themselves verbally, or struggles with verbal communication. This therapy can be particularly beneficial if your child has experienced trauma.
  • Cognitive-behavioural therapists specialise in helping young people understand how their thoughts, feelings and behaviours are all interconnected. They typically use a goal setting approach to challenging and adapting these.
  • Group therapy for children and teens is ideal for those who benefit from peer interactions. It provides a space where they can share experiences and learn from others with similar issues. This type of therapy can be more effective than individual therapy for some, as it boosts social skills and provides a community feel, helping with problems like social anxiety.
  • Licensed clinical child psychologists are trained to assess a wide range of mental health issues and will use therapeutic approaches that are age and stage appropriate for the child or teenager. They will often try to involve parents in the therapy process, for example by giving them support strategies to use at home in tandem with the child’s therapy.
  • Art therapists use different mediums such as painting, sculpture, sand play where children can explore and express their emotions and reduce stress. Just like play therapy, talking is not required.
  • Counsellors are talking therapists who may specialise in a particular modality of therapy.
a little boy painting a colourful art work

Preparing Your Child for Therapy 

How should you prepare your child for therapy?

Well, preparation in most things can be really helpful. We prepare for meetings, client visits, or perhaps a complicated journey and we prepare ahead of difficult conversations too.

Preparing your child for therapy is important because you want your child to have a positive experience. 

To avoid adding anxiety or worry, here are some helpful ideas:

  • The first step is to explain what is happening & why. It’s important to be honest (age appropriate) and let them know why therapy might be important and beneficial. Your child’s mental health is just as important as their physical health.
  • If possible, involve your child or adolescent in making a decision about choosing a therapist and involve them in any goal setting. Even young children can understand the concept of owning or having responsibility for what they do or how they behave. This is often achieved with visual aids.
  • Normalise the idea of therapy. It’s a safe place where they can talk, learn new skills and get support from a professional who will understand them the best. If your child is OK with the concept of going to the doctors or dentist, use this example as a reference.
  • Validate: Acknowledge any fears or worries your child might express and reassure them that it is OK and very normal to feel nervous.
  • Most practitioners have information or websites you can share with your child which might show a photograph of them, or a layout of the clinic space they will be going to. This can help alleviate anxious thoughts about what to expect.
  • It’s a good idea to talk about confidentiality. This can be especially important for teens who can feel inhibited or don’t want anyone knowing they need therapy. Generally, everything they say in a therapy session will remain confidential unless the therapist feels that there is a risk to them or to someone else.
a group of young teenagers in group therapy

Case Study: Social Anxiety – Alex’s Quest to Find The Right Child Therapist

Alex is a 14 year old boy who has experienced social challenges since primary school.

He finds social situations overwhelming, often too noisy and doesn’t find it easy to join in with others’.  Alex struggles to start conversations and make friends and often, sustaining relationships is really tricky.

Since starting at high school, Alex’s social difficulties have affected his self-esteem and he often feels lonely and anxious.

Alex’s parents have noticed some significant changes in Alex recently, particularly emphasised by his isolation and preferring solitary activities. 

On a recent holiday, Alex told his mum that he would like more friends and knows that his lack of social skills are proving to be a barrier. But, he doesn’t know what to do and where to start.

Mum suggests Alex could try to find a therapist who could help him, but he isn’t sure what kind of therapist would be best. She knows it’s important to find a good match.

They do some research based on criteria that are important to Alex.

Alex would like someone who:

  • Has experience with teenagers.
  • Specialises in social skills training. Alex wants to learn practical skills that are tailored to work for him. He wants to learn how to start conversations and keep them going.
  • Is warm and understanding and is non-judgmental. Alex has tried some strategies before but they haven’t worked for him.
  • Will involve him in any decision making or goal setting.
  • He feels comfortable with and able to relax talking to.
  • Will help him build up confidence and reduce his feelings of self-doubt and isolation.

Alex and his parents decide that a CBT practitioner with social skills training experience would be the right fit. 

After a few phonecalls, Alex books an appointment with a therapist who meets all of his criteria.  

With the support of his therapist over a 6 month period Alex learns about his social challenges. He develops skills to face and address them and builds the confidence he needs to navigate social situations more effectively. 

Through practice, Alex learns to control his levels of anxiety and overwhelm in social settings. He finds ways to make genuine connections with peers, build meaningful friendships and join in social activities.

Alex’s improved social skills and self-esteem have helped not only his relationships, but his progress at school and his ability to embrace new opportunities.

When is the Right Time for Therapy for My Child? My Final Thoughts

Deciding on whether therapy would be beneficial for your child, be guided by your child’s individual needs, their age, circumstances and the severity of their challenges.

Remember to trust your own instincts as a parent when considering whether additional support is needed.

If your child has persistent or increasing difficulties or has suffered from a big life event, their daily functioning may be be impacted. If this is the case, it could be a good time to consider therapy.

Related Articles

3 “Quick Wins” to Support Your Child’s Mental Health

Overcoming Anxiety Together: How to Help Your Child With Anxiety

How To Improve Child Mental Health: The Lifestyle Connection

Hayley Vaughan-Smith is a Person-Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling & Psychotherapy Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care for four years.

Hayley is mum to 3 grown up girls, and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy. Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

UK parents, looking for expert parenting advice?

Dr. Lucy Russell’s Everlief Parent Club offers a clear path towards a calmer, happier family life. This monthly membership includes exclusive workshops, direct support from child psychologists, and access to our private Facebook community.

Together, we can move towards a calm, happy family life and boost your child’s wellbeing. Become a member today!