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Does my child need therapy?

A bout of low self-esteem, a new habit of throwing tantrums… at age 10. A behavior you could ignore once or twice but are suddenly confronting daily. Slipping grades. Friends are fewer and your child is not herself. Is it just a phase? Or is it time to take the plunge and get your child some therapy?


After a few years of this parenting gig, you think you know what you’re doing. More or less. Most days. High fever and vomiting? No problem. Tooth or ear pain late at night? You’re covered. You can make snacks while coordinating the used book sale for your child’s school. You can drive carpool while calling into your quarterly sales meeting. You are a pro.

And then one day, you look at your child and think, “Did she always look so worried? Did she always cry so easily? Didn’t she have more playdates last year? What’s going on?”

So you go to your spouse and voice your concerns. If you are married to a man, unless he happens to be: (a) really enlightened; or (b) a psychiatrist, psychologist or counselor, he probably laughs at you. Or he tells you that “crazy” is clearly from your side of the family.

But a day or so later, you’re still bothered and you’re still asking yourself if your child needs therapy.

Get past the stigma

A stigma is still associated with therapy, which is a darn shame. It prevents a lot of kids and adults from getting the help they need. Frankly, as a parent, you have a responsibility to your child that outweighs your need for social stature or any desire to keep your head down and not make waves. If you suspect your child needs help, it’s your job to see that she gets it.

But how can you tell the difference between a normal phase in child development — albeit one that might not be pleasant or easy to deal with — and a more serious problem that needs professional help? There aren’t any hard and fast rules, but here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  1. Are you seeing this behavior daily or almost daily? Or just occasionally?
  2. Is your child aware of the behavior? If so, is she able to control it?
  3. Do other kids the same age act this way?

Your answers to these questions can help guide your gut feelings and let you know if you should be seeking help or not.

Get your spouse on board

If you’re clear that therapy is something your child needs, get your spouse’s support. That doesn’t mean you mention to your spouse, “I booked Junior an appointment with a shrink” as you head out the door in the morning. Rather, schedule a time to talk when you won’t be interrupted for at least 30 minutes. Then lay our your concerns:

“I’ve noticed these changes in Junior’s behavior over the last three months. I’m concerned because…And I think this is something we should address now. I don’t know how to do this on my own. So I think a therapist could help us figure it out.”

If your spouse objects, try to get to the underlying concern. Is it money? Look at what your insurance covers and remember that many therapists offer sliding-scale fees. Is it the stigma? Talk about your responsibility as parents and why that matters to you more than what people say or think. Is it simply that your spouse doesn’t believe in therapy? Tell him he doesn’t have to believe in it — he just has to believe that you think it might work.

Get going

Making the decision to put your child in therapy isn’t something to take lightly — but it’s also not something so big it should immobilize you. If you think it will help, start making calls and get an appointment. Get the process started, and start helping your child.

Read more about kids and counseling

Helping shy kids come out of their shells
Toddlers and tantrums: Why they have them and how to stop them
Real Moms Guide: How to be a friend and a parent

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