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Kids and Therapy: When to Go and What to Expect

Kids and Therapy: When to Go and What to Expect

by Jessica King , LCSW

We want to see our kids happy, healthy, and enjoying new life experiences each day.  We want our children to achieve their highest potential and reach for their dreams.  Most importantly we want our children to be resilient.  We want them to be able to meet challenging experiences and have the skills needed to cope and eventually thrive despite stressful life experiences.  The work of being a parent is knowing how to support the growth of resilience in our kids.  This work is twofold: knowing when our kids are struggling and then knowing what to do in response. 




Children experience stress just as adults do.  Some stressors can be helpful to building a capable and resilient human being.  Stressors in which the child has all the resources needed to meet the challenge can provide motivation to a larger goal.  This can in turn provide the child with a sense of agency and empowerment.  When a child meets a stressor in which they do not have the resources necessary to successfully complete the task then they may become overwhelmed and the distress involved can impact overall functioning.  These are the times that a licensed therapist can help you and your child build a system of resources that will support them in meeting the everyday stressors of their life.  Children often do not have the language to verbalize how they feel or what they need.  In these situations, we have to be attuned to our children and recognize the distress and overwhelm by our own observations.  Children typically present distress in two ways:  externalized behaviors or internalized behaviors


Externalized behaviors often look like

  • temper tantrums
  • verbal aggression
  • getting in trouble at school
  • problems with peers
  • unsafe or risky behaviors


Internalized symptoms are often harder to see and may be masked by another perceived problem.  Things like:

  • difficulty sleeping
  • nail biting
  • chronic stomach aches
  • withdrawing from activities
  • Dramatic changes in mood


These behaviors and symptoms are red flags that our kids may need extra support to navigate a difficult situation.  Part of this support system may be therapy.  Individual and family therapy can help kids gain important skills including identifying emotions in themselves and others; social skills to meet new friends and get along better with others at school; conflict resolution skills to manage problems at home and school; effective communication skills; anger management; and, managing anxiety effectively.  Additionally, parenting support can help you feel more confident in supporting your child as he or she navigates life’s changes.




When you reach out to a therapist for support, you should expect a brief phone consultation to make sure your needs will align with the therapist’s skill set.  Just because you schedule the appointment does not mean you have to stay with this therapist forever.  Know that you and your child are in the driver’s seat and if the therapeutic relationship does not seem to fit, you can always try a new therapist.  The connection and relationship is often the most important part.  


In your first appointment, the therapist will want to hear from both you and your child about your perspective of the problems, things that are going well, and gain a clear understanding about the goals you both have related to therapy.  Some therapists meet with the whole family to start and others explore goals individually.  After knowing your goals, the therapist will then make some suggestions in regards to frequency of appointments and style of therapy that could be helpful.  


There are different types of therapy that your therapist can explore with you and your child.  Some of these are:


  • Child Centered Play Therapy – Play therapy helps children to address and resolve their own problems, and builds on the natural way that children learn about themselves and their relationships in the world around them.
  • Cognitive Behavioral TherapyCBT is grounded in the belief that it is a person’s perception of events – rather than the events themselves – that determines how he or she will feel and act in response.
  • Art Therapy – Art therapy can allow you to access and express yourself without the limitations of language
  • Trauma Focused Therapies – Trauma focused therapies like TF-CBT and EMDR can be helpful to the child or family who has been through a significant adjustment or experience in their life that has left them feeling hopeless, helpless, or out of control
  • Mindfulness based skills – Learning skills of present moment awareness can help decrease anxiety, improve mood, and enhance focus for children


Finally, know that as the parent, you are essential to the therapeutic process.  The therapist may want to meet with you individually or with your child to support their growth and development of insight.  If needed, skills such as positive parenting or conscious parenting may be taught and practiced with you so that you become your child’s greatest resource for when things get hard again.  


It is never easy to see your child struggle.  It is helpful to know that you do not have to be alone in this parenting journey and developing your child’s ability to recognize and receive help when needed is a gift you can give them that they can use for the rest of their lives.