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why see a shrink?

When to Bring Your Child or Teen to a Psychologist

Parents often ask me when their children’s issues are severe enough to warrant a visit to a psychologist. It can be hard enough gauging when your own concerns are “big enough,” let alone those of your children. It can be uncomfortable or embarrassing to talk to a stranger about distressing things in your family’s life. Parents sometimes worry they will be blamed or treated like bad parents because their child is struggling.

Nevertheless, people often find it easier to tell their problems to someone they do not know and who has no presuppositions or expectations of them. In addition, child psychologists are trained to recognize the type and severity of psychological problems and healthy ways of coping with them.

Before making a decision, it is important to remember that you are an expert regarding your child. You know her baseline behaviours, the trends and escalations in concerning behaviour, and the like. So when do you seek psychological therapy for your child? The simple answer is this: when your child’s issues are persistently blocking her or him from happiness or healthy functioning, it may be time to seek help. Common reasons for children seeking a psychologist are difficulties with behavioural or emotional regulation, anxiety, traumatic experience, suicidal thoughts or actions, running away, cutting or injurious behaviour, eating disorders, physical or sexual abuse, excessive anger or withdrawal, a family change or death that results in an ongoing emotional reaction, drug abuse, and large, rapid changes in the child’s behaviour or emotional experience.

It is usually wise to rule out medical complications first. Consult with your child’s doctor to determine whether the concerning behaviours may be rooted in something biological. A pediatrician will often help you to make a referral to the right psychologist or another specialist.

If you are ready to seek help for your child, be aware that there are often many options. One of the first stops might be a school counsellor. This is a service provided to students by most schools, in which students may seek counselling regarding personal issues from a confidential professional, usually a social worker. These counsellors often have Bachelor’s degrees in Social Work or related helping fields. Their training and expertise on student mental health and behavioural concerns can help your child get back on track, without additional monetary cost to you. The downsides are that your options are usually limited (there is seldom more than one counsellor per school), and these professionals are often so busy that your child may not get to see them often enough, if at all. A school counsellor will make a referral to a private counsellor, or to a psychologist if the child’s issues are pressing enough. Private counsellors work through agencies or private clinics and charge their own self-determined rates. They will often have Bachelor's or Master's degree in counselling. You would do well to ensure the counsellor is registered with a licensing or regulatory body, such as the Canadian Counselling Association.

Comparatively, a psychologist is trained over 6 to 8 years, has a Master’s and/or Doctorate degree in psychology, and has extensive experience and knowledge in the specialized areas of assessment, treatment, and prevention of a wide range of personal and family issues. In Alberta, psychologists are registered with the College of Alberta Psychologists, and are required to maintain a standard of continuing excellence and competent care.

Often, a quick phone call to a psychologist will help you make a decision. You will usually get a good “feel” in your first conversation whether this professional is a good option for your family. Ask the psychologist what the expected treatment and outcome is for your child’s concerns. You should be given a solid understanding of what you’re in for before you sign up.

Finally, check with your child or teen. Often, if they are well informed of the purpose and process of psychological help, children will let you know if they feel it would be a good idea or not. Though you may not win them over immediately, they will usually let you know their own level of distress. Repeat this dialogue with your child after his or her first session with the psychologist.