Taking a child to a psychologist


You’re worried about your child’s behaviour, or her happiness. Or perhaps the teacher has suggested a child psychologist. What can you expect and how can you make the experience beneficial? A child psychologist explains.

You cannot take a child to see a psychologist like you take a child to see a doctor. Most often the problem is not in the child (like an earache or tonsils are in the body). It is a truism in psychology that the problem is often not the problem.

More likely, the response to the problem is where parents have become stuck. This simply means that what you have tried thus far does not work for that specific child. Your response may, unwittingly, even have added to the problem. Many problems arise simply because parents mean well, but what they do actually undermines their best intentions.

Seeing a psychologist means that you have to be willing to discover what you as parents should do differently with your child. If you want something in your life to be different, you have to behave differently. This is especially true for parenting.

What exactly does the child psychologist do?

Different situations will require different interventions, but here’s what a typical process might look like:

The first interview

The first interview is usually with the parents. Efforts will be made to get both parents to come (where both parents have contact with the child). Having the input of both parents helps with the understanding and planning of the intervention. If the problem is at school, teachers are also consulted.

Second interview and onwards

Thereafter, the child is usually seen on his own. Children do not naturally sit down and discuss their problems. Nor do they like to answer questions. To stay with the child’s natural form of expression, play and creative activities are used to facilitate communication.

Initially, children often respond in a defensive manner (“Nothing’s wrong”, “I have lots of friends”) or a defeated manner (“Nothing works”, “I’m just stupid”). It takes time to build trust and to build the child’s capacity to respond more constructively.

The aim of therapy is to build the child’s inner resilience; this is based on the premise that each of us has an intuitive capacity to cope. This capacity is evoked during therapy, where children play out their positive and negative feelings and experiences. The therapist provides calm acceptance of the good as well as the bad.

Working with you and your child

Slowly but surely, the child relaxes, shares more, and begins to act out healing alternatives. At this stage parents can be actively brought in so that they can join in the process. This will enable them to take over from the therapist. Parents are often frustrated when advice is not given right from the start. Early advice, no matter how good, rarely works, as the child is not yet ready to shift.

When should you take a child to see a psychologist?

  • If you have used your common sense, together with the advice of others and nothing seems to work.
  • If the relationship with your child has deteriorated and you no longer see yourself as competent and in charge, and do not know how to change this.
  • If your child is clearly unhappy and you have no clue how to shift this.
  • If a sudden change in your child’s behaviour has occured and he will not speak about it.
  • If your child cannot handle normal, everyday distress, such as not being chosen for a team.

What about in the case of trauma?

Research shows that it is not always beneficial to go for counselling immediately after a traumatic incident. Nature has a way of responding to trauma: we are afraid, seek closeness, think compulsively about what happened, blame ourselves, and so on. This is normal.

When in distress, a child naturally seeks out a caregiver. Should a child not do so, the child is in trouble. Should the child still seem hyper-alert, and overwhelmed, and not show signs of returning to normal (pre-trauma) behaviour, a month after a traumatic incident, seek help.

Should children of divorce see a psychologist?

Divorce, independent of the circumstances, is always highly stressful to a child. As parents are usually also strongly affected, children can feel overwhelmed by (and responsible for) the parents. The best interventions in divorce often support the parents, rather than the child. In our experience, when children are referred for post-divorce counselling, it is the parent who usually ends up in the consulting room.

In both trauma and divorce, recurrent nightmares or repetitive bedwetting are clear indications that a child is in need of help.

How do I choose a therapist?

Remember that therapists are human. As with hairdressers, doctors and lawyers, look for one with whom you feel you can have a supportive and trusting relationship.

Look for someone who:

  • Is trained to work with children.
  • Treats you like an intelligent and valid resource.
  • Makes you feel respected and worthy.
  • Shares professional knowledge generously.
  • Works to imrove the relationship between you and your child.

State clearly that your desire is to have an improved relationship with your child and to improve parenting skills.

Foster parents, for instance, often bring a child in to have their own traumatic histories “healed”.

Real healing happens within the relationship with a secure and committed caregiver, who has a long term relationship with the child.

All educational psychologists, as well as some clinical social workers and clinical psychologists are trained in child therapy. To find a psychologist or social worker in your region, contact a training institute closest to you, or ask your child’s school or local GP for a referral.

How will I know if it’s working?

Good markers for improvement are: increased capacities of resilience, competence, accountability, joy and warmth in your child. You should feel the difference, too. The best therapy makes the parents feel joyous, worthwhile and competent. This automatically spills over into your relationship with your child.

How long will therapy last?

There is no set period. Children who have not experienced protracted long term or severe early trauma should show significant gains within six weeks. Sometimes just a few sessions suffice. Generally four to six months is required to consolidate change.

About the writer: Elzan Frank works at the Child and Family Unit, a clinic for children and families, at the University of Stellenbosch. Before qualifying as an educational psychologist, she worked as a teacher, and as a marriage and youth counsellor. She has written and lectured extensively about child and adolescent psychology, parenting and sex education.

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