So You Think Your Child Needs Therapy. Now What?

Boy exercises putting fingers with therapistPsychotherapy with children can sometimes present a few more challenges than working with adults. Very young children may have difficulties expressing what is going on in their lives, while older children or adolescents may be more reluctant to talk about their issues.

Finding alternative ways of working with children can therefore be helpful in the therapeutic setting. Symbolic methods of communication tend to be more effective for understanding what children might otherwise be trying to express through acting out behaviors.

Parents of children who have been referred for therapy are often confused about what type of therapy would work best for their child. The following are different types of techniques that are frequently used when working with children:

  • Art therapy: This type of therapy utilizes artwork as a means for children to depict family or social dynamics that are occurring in their lives. They are able to demonstrate in picture form how they see themselves in relationship to family members and/or peers. Drawings can be used to open up discussions about problems that are happening at home or elsewhere that may be upsetting for the child.
  • Play therapy: Using play as a means of expression can be helpful, especially for young children, who tend to enact through their play any difficulties they may be dealing with. Therapists who utilize play therapy should be well versed in symbolism and able to engage young children in a discussion related to the themes being acted out.
  • Sand tray therapy: In this type of therapy, children or adolescents create a scene with various figures or toys in a box or tray filled with sand. The scene generally depicts what is going on for children symbolically on an inner level. After the scene is set, therapists ask the child to explain what he or she has created, which opens up a dialogue regarding the issues going on in the child’s life. This is frequently a good way to engage kids who might otherwise have difficulties articulating the issues they are struggling with.
  • Visualization techniques: When children have experienced traumatic events, having them visualize a safe, inner space that they can access at any time can be helpful in their healing process. Therapists using this technique will ask kids to close their eyes and imagine an inner room or happy place where the child feels safe and at peace. The child can then use this method on his or her own when feeling anxious or upset. Please note that in cases where trauma has occurred, the therapist will also need to first make sure the child is no longer in any danger or being abused in any way.
  • Talk therapy: Combining talk therapy with other modalities, such as art therapy or sand tray therapy, can be very effective with teens, especially when they are otherwise reluctant to open up about their problems.
  • Family therapy: Including the parents and/or other family members in therapy can be helpful when working with children. Children tend to be very sensitive to others’ emotions and can react to tension between parents or other family members through acting out behaviors. Their actions can sometimes diffuse the tension and divert the focus from the real source of the problem to themselves. Resolving any family difficulties can therefore be critical in making lasting changes within the family system. Even when the problem is not in the home, including family members in the child’s therapy can be extremely beneficial.

Whatever therapeutic modality you choose for your child, make sure you find a therapist who has experience working with children. Some psychotherapists work exclusively with adults. Others work only with adolescents or children above a certain age, so you should ask about the therapist’s expertise in working with children who are your child’s age. The therapist should also have experience with various therapeutic modalities that are effective with children, and understand the developmental stage of your child and the symbolism inherent in his or her play.

Initiating therapy for your child may feel a little scary, but the rewards can be considerable.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Wendy Salazar, MFT, therapist in San Diego, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Daphne

    August 20th, 2015 at 8:29 AM

    It frustrates me to see when there is a child or even a family who is clearly in need of help from someone educated in the field and fr some reason they refuse to get it. I am not sure if they are afraid of what might happen or if they are simply uneducated about working with a counselor, but I would beseech everyone who feels that they need some help to step up and ask for it. It isn’t a scary experience, it can actually be a wonderful thing that can bring all of you closer together.

  • Mills

    August 20th, 2015 at 1:50 PM

    So I assume that after making that decision you then have to do some research into the types of therapy that are out there and available and start talking with some professionals about what the best approach will be for your child. This isn’t something that is a one size fits all, this is very individualized and should be catered to meet the specific needs of your child and address your concerns as a parent.

  • Mally

    August 21st, 2015 at 7:56 AM

    How would I find someone who specializes in art therapy? That’s something that I think that my chlid could thrive with

  • Wendy Salazar

    Wendy Salazar

    August 21st, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    It’s always important to find a therapist who has experience working with children and that both you and your child will feel comfortable working with. Additionally, most therapists list their areas of expertise on their profiles or websites. To find a therapist who specializes in art therapy or another area that you’re interested in, I would recommend starting with the GoodTherapy.org website and looking for someone in your area who specializes in that area.
    Best regards,
    Wendy Salazar

  • Casey

    August 21st, 2015 at 1:52 PM

    My thoughts are that if you can get a child in any way to either act out what they are feeling, or draw it or sing it or whatever it may be, this is going to be something that is so beneficial to them. You are right, for many the words are often not there but the feelings and the emotions most definitely are and they need a safe way that they can express themselves and communicate what they are feeling.

  • Lisa O

    August 22nd, 2015 at 10:30 AM

    My daughter has been working with a therapist for some time now and they do all sorts of little things that really have made the whole school experience so much easier for her. I am not sure that at first I was comfortable with the concept wither, but after we found R then everything has really just fallen into place in such a positive way for her. I am so glad that we have taken this step.

  • Jayson

    August 24th, 2015 at 7:53 AM

    You could talk with your child and see if this is something that they will be open to trying?

  • karin

    August 24th, 2015 at 10:40 AM

    I know that all of these tools can be great when working with children, but I also think that for adults who may have tried the more traditional approach and have not found the success that they would like to experience, some of these approaches could work for them as well. I don’t think that there has to be an age ,limitation on what will work for you and what won’t. I think that it more has to be about what speaks to you as a person and what will allow you to get them most out of your therapy sessions.

  • Rob

    August 25th, 2015 at 11:30 AM

    When you describe then as art or play or even sand therapy, I think that for a lot of people you would have a hard time convincing them that this could actually be more worthwhile than simply being play time. I know that they can be very valuable but I think that in some cases you sort of have to be careful with their descriptors lest someone think that this is not valid.

  • Campbell

    August 27th, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    My thoughts are that if the child needs some help, then it could probably be beneficial for the whole family to commit to the process and work on getting some help together. That does not mean that there is something that is wrong there, but that maybe you can all learn something from each other if you go through the therapy process together and take this as a learning opportunity.

  • Ms. Grounds

    August 28th, 2015 at 10:35 AM

    As long as the work will be age appropriate then what is the harm?

  • Miri

    August 29th, 2015 at 2:07 PM

    So you think that they need therapy and you start looking for help on that front.

    Not too much to wait on with that if you ask me.

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