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Child Therapy

How can I help my child?

dad and daughter cleaning dishes togetherIn my nearly 20 years of practice in child therapy, I have heard this question over and over again.  Everyone struggles with certain things, but when kids struggle, it looks much different than when adults do.

When was the last time you were on a zoom call and your co-worker was spinning around in their chair blowing raspberries?  When was the last time you hit your friend when they wouldn’t share their snack with you?  Or when was the last time you saw a grown-up laying on the floor at the grocery store screaming and yelling in the candy aisle?

Now hopefully, you don’t see these sorts of behaviors very often in your co-workers or other adults, but if you have kids, these behaviors may be pretty commonplace. You might feel unsure why kids are acting a certain way and likewise, they are not always sure what to do about it.  Kids often come to child counselors because their parents simply aren’t sure where else to turn when they need help managing, understanding or redirecting their child’s behavior.

When kids experience anxiety or depression (or a number of other issues), they don’t always have the words to explain it. They may refuse to go to school because they are afraid to be away from home. They might throw fits about homework because they don’t think they are capable of doing it correctly. After a particularly stressful or traumatic experience, they may struggle with getting to sleep or managing their anger.

No parent can solve all their kids’ struggles alone

Unfortunately, parents and caregivers don’t automatically understand everything that’s going on in a kid. We all wish there was a magical parenting handbook that came with each child to give us the answers we need. But since none of us have all that knowledge, we go to doctors, dentists, teachers, child counselors and more. It truly does take a village to raise a kid.

Getting extra help and insight from a trained, unbiased, third-party is increasingly common. According to the CDC, 10% of all school-age kids in the US received counseling or therapy 1 from a mental health professional in 2019. Of kids aged 3-17 years old, 7.1% (approximately 4.4 million) have diagnosed anxiety, and 7.4% (approximately 4.5 million) have a diagnosed behavior problem.2 Please know that whatever your child is dealing with, they (and you) are not alone. Luckily, with a compassionate and experienced child therapist, kids can get back to being kids and feeling good about themselves. Over time in kid’s therapy, those who couldn’t get along with their peers start to make friends, kids who were frequently removed from school begin to experience success, homework gets done without tears, and getting ready to go out isn’t a battle.

Therapy with a specialist can help your child succeed

virtual play roomI (Jennifer Mahaney) truly believe that “toys are children’s words and play is their language”3 and I have been using dynamic and expressive activities with children in session for more than 15 years. I have almost completed a 2+ year program to become a registered play therapist. This training teaches me to track a child’s language, behavior and feelings in session, as well as set limits and provide education. Kids are using inappropriate or negative behaviors because they don’t know what else to do in certain situations. By practicing other behaviors in play, I find that kids are often more willing to make changes. I’ve worked with kids of all ages (starting at age 3), and help parents understand their behaviors and manage and redirect them. Kids that young can’t usually tell us what is going on, but by picking up on repetitive themes and experiences we can hope to understand things better. Read more about my experience and trainings here.

What to expect

Typically, when I begin working with a new family for child parent psychotherapy, I speak with the grown-ups individually for a 15 minute telephone consultation. This is just a time for me to get to know the family a little bit and find out how I can help. Parents or caregivers get the opportunity to ask questions about my skills and experience and we can decide if it would be a good idea for us to work together.

After that, we set up an intake session. The intake session is a time for me to get a comprehensive history of the child and the concerns. Some children want to participate in this session, so that they can explain some of their struggles, but other times it is more beneficial for the grown-ups to meet with me separately. Afterwards, I meet with the child for their first child counseling session. Our first meeting is all about building rapport. I don’t usually talk about any “big issues” at this point. I introduce myself, talk a little about my role and introduce the virtual playrooms and how to use them if we are meeting online.

For our ongoing sessions, I tend to split my time between talking and thinking about some recent challenges and learning and practicing skills through games and art. If there are issues that the parents or caregivers need to let me know about, I ask that they email me beforehand or take a few minutes to speak to me privately, before their child joins the session.

You’re interested in child therapy, but you still have some questions…

How do you handle therapy with children during COVID-19?

Most of my professional experience has been with seeing children individually, in person.  However, since Covid-19 began, I have been utilizing telehealth sessions, as well as in-person sessions to support the kids that I see in therapy.  Most children are very comfortable meeting virtually, and if not, we still have the opportunity to meet in person.  For virtual sessions, I use a secure, HIPAA compliant platform to facilitate our visits.  I also have created several “virtual playrooms” to share during our sessions.  Here, kids are able to view stories about various issues (anxiety in children, how to handle anger, etc.), they can select games to play or use various online programs to make therapeutic art or learn and practice coping skills.

“My kid plays (online) all day, how is this any different?”

Well, the difference is the training and experience that I have as a child therapist. When kids are engaged online or in-person with their friends, themes of conflict, problem solving and knowledge of coping skills are rarely incorporated. My role is to not only follow the child’s play but to reflect on what I see and help the child make sense of it. As your child begins to make sense of confusing situations and practices alternative behaviors, you will begin to see change.

“But therapy for children is so expensive and we have so much other stuff to do!”

It’s true, therapy can be expensive and it does take an investment of your time, but consider the cost of not addressing mental health concerns. As kids age, they are influenced more by peers, social media and other sources. Essentially, the role of the primary caregiver decreases over time.  If your child is struggling with anxiety or depression now, and they are not given the opportunity to learn effective coping skills, what will it be like when they are teenagers or young adults?

The truth is, you have to work and your child has school, possibly sports or music and more. Think, however, about how much time you spend arguing about getting homework done, or trying to get ready to go somewhere, or convincing your anxious child that you will be right back; that time can be shortened if your child had some effective coping skills. Additionally, from a practical standpoint, telehealth has made participating in mental health services easy and convenient.

You can help your child with therapy

I want to provide the best experience for the children and families that I work with. Please schedule a free 15 minute consultation with me, Jennifer Mahaney, if you have questions about your child, their behavior or counseling for children. I find that kids really do want to make good choices and they usually don’t want to struggle with behavioral problems or in stressful situations. Supporting children in therapy is different than working with adults, but I believe in meeting kids where they are and helping them find the answers they need.

1 Mental Health Treatment Among Children Aged 5-17 Years: United States, 2019 h

2 Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health

3 Axline, V. (1947). Play therapy: The inner dynamics of childhood.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

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