In the wonder years of childhood, no parent is anticipating bringing their beautiful, perfect child to see a therapist. I sure wasn’t. You see the other children at school, happily playing. You hear the other parents talking about their children’s incredible accomplishments, and you feel so alone. You swallow hard because you know something is wrong.
I watched my son and I worried. I thought I had been a sensitive, caring mother, doing the best I could, but something was not right with him. I talked to his teachers and to other mom friends. They tried to reassure me, but no one really seemed to know what to do to help. He was only 7 and he was expressing a lot of worries to me at bedtime. He couldn’t fall asleep unless I was right next to him. He had tics. He would blink his eyes constantly. He licked his lips until it was red all around his mouth. (Kids were always asking him if he’d eaten a popsicle.) He couldn’t focus at school because he worried that I’d forget to pick him up. I reassured him, and I hugged him a lot. I gave him all of the support that I could, but still it seemed he was really struggling inside. He did not seem to enjoy anything anymore. This was out of the range of normal parenting. I didn’t know what else to do.
Making the call to the therapist for the first time was so difficult. Is this really necessary? I kept hoping my son would grow out of it, but the worries and the tics persisted and seemed to be getting worse. I felt terrible that I did not know what to do for him. What kind of parent was I? I agonized over what I might have done wrong to cause his distress. Did I not hold him long enough right after he was born? (There must be some way to blame myself.) I finally scheduled an appointment.
At the intake meeting, my husband and I shared our concerns. The therapist was warm and kind. He took a family history and asked details about what we were noticing. We knew little about child therapy. He explained that children may communicate through play or actions or with words. A child therapist is specially trained to read these communications and provide the support the child needs. He explained that we may not be able to trace our son’s difficulties to any specific experiences or parenting. He told us that over time, with consistent therapy, our son’s anxiety should lessen as he learns to manage his feelings.
When I told my son that we had found a doctor to help him with his worries, his face actually brightened up. He wanted to feel better. After the first session, with a small smile, he asked when he could come back. I felt like I could breathe again.
Several years after this first experience with my son in therapy, I began to study child psychology, earning my Ph.D. in 2015. I trained in an outpatient clinic in Los Angeles where I worked with children of all ages with a variety of issues. I also worked with their parents to help them with how to best support their child at home.
If your child is struggling, know that there are licensed therapists who practice in a wide range of styles, with different backgrounds in training and education, ready to help. You’ll want to find a good fit for both you and your child, and this may come down to who you feel can best understand the needs of your family. Your family doctor or school counselor can help you with referrals.
In my office, the child takes the lead. They can explore and show me what interests them. I may need to take a creative approach to put them at ease and help them engage with me. Time with a therapist is a unique kind of experience for a child, in which they have the full attention of an adult who is highly attuned to their emotional state. In my work with the parents, I help them to understand their child’s needs from a psychological perspective. Parenting a child who is struggling psychologically may not be intuitive. The child can feel the support from me, and as carried out at home, and over time, this can provide the relief they need.
Most children don’t need a therapist. But for a child who is struggling with excessive worries, sadness, anger, peer relationships, or other difficulties at home or at school, a child therapist can help you to determine the best course of treatment. Having a professional on your team can help your child (and you) to feel better, and this may be just what your family needs.
Karen S. Makoff, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical child psychologist in West L.A. She completed the fellowship in clinical child psychology at the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center at Vista del Mar where she worked with children ages 3½ to 19, and provided parenting support. She has three young adult children of her own.