Not all children grow from infancy to adolescence without experiencing emotional "bumps in the road." And when these negative experiences occur, they adversely affect a child's well-being, but they are not able to move beyond the problems and live normal lives.1
Helping children make sense of problems they are not ready to understand, like divorce, the death of a loved one, or even moving away and leaving behind everything and everyone they have ever known, requires an approach to counseling that breaks things down in ways to which they can relate.
Counseling children is a specialized area of psychology that focuses on helping children with a mental disorder or emotional disturbance. Depending on the age and maturity of the children involved, sorting out a traumatic event or facing a difficult family situation, may not be possible on their own, or even with well-meaning family members.
“Child Counseling can help kids interpret issues in a way that they can understand.”
Child counselors are equipped to offer insight into the inner workings of children’s minds and hearts that are not readily visible or easily discernable. Making this effort all-the-more difficult is the fact that children often lack the vocabulary to even begin to describe what’s going on inside them. Not only do they most often not know how to tell what they are thinking and feeling, they don’t have the words to do so.
Because it is children that are involved does not mean they need not be treated…on the contrary, all the more and as soon as possible. Left untreated until they are older and better able to participate in more traditional forms of counseling could well jeopardize their opportunity at present to live out their childhood without fear, confusion, anxiety or depression, and lay the foundation for long-term problems when they become adolescents and then adults.
Signs Your Child Needs Counseling
“The kids are doing great. It’s like they don’t even notice we’ve broken up.”
A child who acts out in ways that are not considered normal, or even those who do not act out at all, may be telling the world he or she needs help that is beyond what is considered normal. Any type of significant trauma or sudden change can cause great mental and emotional disturbance for a child. The signs are not always apparent, but you just have to know what to look for.
Experts say that the following might be signs your son or daughter needs to see a counselor: 2
- Aggression out of the blue
- Avoiding others
- Nightmares and/or difficulty sleeping
- Excessive worry
- Drop in school performance
- Loss of appetite
- Obsessive routines
- Lack of enjoyment doing anything
- Complaints of phantom aches and pains
- Sudden alcohol or drug use
- Excessive grief
- Acts of self-harm
- Thoughts of suicide
- Hearing voices in his/her head
- Deep depression.
Common Examples of Counseling Children
Moving to a new home or changing schools can be stressful for children. They may experience feelings of insecurity, anxiety or worry, or even anger. While these are normal reactions to significant change, many children have a hard time moving past these feelings on their own. Child Counseling can teach them to cope with change through learning to focus on the positive and stable aspects of their life, positive self-talk, deep breathing exercises when anxiety arises, and understanding that change is natural and will not last forever.2
Traumatic events happen that deeply disturb children, experiences that they should not have had to witness. Afterward, they may feel shocked, disbelief, numbness, or even a strong desire to avoid anything related to the traumatic event. Common are flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, and fear of going to sleep. Child Counseling will help them talk about the trauma, encouraging them to “get it out,” rather than “bottling it up inside.” Providing words to express what was experienced and ultimately felt, along with other “framing” and deep-breathing strategies
When parents divorce, often without children seeing such in the making, children typically lapse into the self-blame game. With everything else that comes along with parents splitting up, like custody and learning to live in separate homes, children can feel guilt, not only for the divorce but in many cases also for having to choose one parent over the other. Child Counseling teaches children how to appropriately deal with sadness, fear, and guilt. Positive self-talk, deep breathing, journaling and art therapy serve to complement open talk with a trusted adult.
And while the death of a loved one is deeply distressing, for many children, understanding it is absolutely unfathomable. Child Counseling helps kids understand that death, while extremely painful, is, after all, a natural part of life. It also can give them coping strategies that they can use to channel their grief positively through.
Top Approaches to Child Counseling
Cognitive-Behavior (Talk) Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps children change negative ways of thinking and behaving by correcting the thought process toward more positive responses to problem situations. CBT challenges the internal beliefs a child has about themselves and teaches them to view themselves and their situation through a more positive lens.2
Trauma-Focused CBT (Talk) (TF-CBT)
TF-CBT helps children overcome the paralyzing and ongoing effects of trauma. As with traditional CBT, children are taught to see events more realistically, but also they are taught how to deal with flashbacks when they occur, and for as long as necessary.
A form of counseling where play and games are used to help children express or communicate their thoughts and feelings.
A counseling approach involving free-expression through drawing, painting, or modeling for the purpose of expressing emotions.
Counseling that involves the use of horses to re-shape or re-build problematic human relationships.
Activities for children to participate directly with their families helps counselors to better understand perspective and how families typically interact.
The Earlier the Better
When parents first become concerned about their children’s behavior is the time to get a Child Counselor. When children first express emotional or behavioral problems, the earlier they get help, the easier it is to help them.2
There are times when it’s clearly not a good idea to postpone getting your child counseling, for instance: when the disorder involves eating or obvious self-harm. Another time is when mental illness runs in your family. In this case, especially, it is best to act promptly.
If your child’s behavior is causing chronic trouble in school or is seriously disrupting your family life, get help right away.
If your child is unusually anxious or sad or irritable for a long period of time and it’s interfering with her ability to do things that are appropriate for kids her age, seek help
It’s also important to realize that the longer your child lives with something like anxiety or deep depression, etc., the more likely it is to shape long-term behaviors in harmful ways.
The Just-Right Child Counselor
There are two primary considerations to keep in mind when looking for the “just-right” child counselor.2
1. The counselor must be a good fit for your child. Your child must feel comfortable being with and talking to them.
2. The counselor’s training and qualifications must include a specialization in Child Counseling. There is no substitute for this training and experience.
How to Find the Just-Right Counselor
Talk to fellow parents, caregivers, teachers, and physicians about your child and what Child Counselors they know. The go meet and talk to those recommended counselors.2
1 "Facts for Families Guide," American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
2 “Child Counseling,” find wellness, Child Mind Institute.
3 Association of Child and Adolescent Counseling.