What is Child Counseling?
Child counseling is a specialized area of psychology focused on working with children who have a mental illness, have experienced a traumatic event, or are facing a difficult family situation. Child counseling often deals with many of the same issues that adults do, such as anxiety or grief, but this type of therapy focuses on breaking these problems down so that children can understand and make sense of them.
Child counselors are specialists who can offer insight into the inner workings of your child’s development that are not necessarily visible to even those closest to the child. Most important of all, your child may not be able to tell you what sort of help they need, so your judgment is critical in ensuring your child receives the therapeutic intervention that is best for them.
Child counselors and therapists are highly trained in the thought processes of children so they can help kids and youths to interpret issues or trauma in a way that they can understand. When a child’s emotional issues are left untreated, it’s likely that they’ll impact the child’s educational and development and can also persist into adulthood.
Children of all ages can attend counseling sessions, from young preschoolers to teenagers. Every age within this range falls into the realm of child counseling until they are adults and no longer need children’s counseling techniques.
Child counseling aims to help children work through their emotions so they can live normal healthy lives without fear, confusion, anxiety or trauma in their lives.
Why Seek Child Counseling?
When dealing with the mental and emotional health of your young child, sometimes the guidance of a professional can illuminate the underlying issues your child is experiencing. Many children are unable to express the complexities of having emotional or mental problems, so counseling can be an excellent option to explore the causes of your child’s issues.
In many cases, children who have a mental illness such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, or general anxiety disorder. Parents and physicians may seek the services of a child counselor to help determine a diagnosis, or counseling may be part of a key part of a treatment plan for mentally ill children.
Child counseling unites your concerns with the knowledge of a therapist who has the tools and experience to help your child through difficult times. Parents want the best for their children, but the situation may be too challenging to handle on your own, especially as you are emotionally involved. When you seek child counseling, a third-party professional can help your child with strategies that are designed with their well-being in mind, first and foremost.
Issues Addressed by Child Counseling
If your child has experienced tragic or unsettling events in his or her life, such as the unexpected loss of a loved one or an abusive episode, the stress of the situation may be difficult for them to understand. Some of the most common issues that child counseling addresses are:
- Death of a loved one and grief
- Witnessing or experiencing a trauma
- Mental health diagnoses, including anxiety and depression
- Sexual, emotional, or physical abuse
- Relocating schools or cities
- Substance abuse or addiction in the family
Signs Your Child May Need Counseling
A child who displays developmental problems or acts out in ways that are beyond what’s considered normal can likely benefit from counseling, especially if there has been a recent trauma or significant event that impacts their lives, like a death or divorce. Some of the signs that your child is in distress and could need counseling include:
- Unwarranted aggression
- Difficulty adjusting to social situations
- Frequent nightmare and sleep difficulties
- Sudden drop in grades at school
- Persistent worry and anxiety
- Withdrawing from activities they normally enjoy
- Loss of appetite and dramatic weight loss
- Performing obsessive routines like hand washing
- Expressing thoughts of suicide
- Talking about voices they hear in their head
- Social isolation and wanting to be alone
- Alcohol or drug use
- Increased physical complaints despite a normal, healthy physician’s report
- Self-harm such as cutting
Goals of Child Counseling
Child counseling addresses major issues in a child’s life with the intended outcome being that they can learn tools to deal with stress or trauma. Some of the common goals of child counseling include being able to cope with difficult situations such as:
Children who attend counseling are encouraged to learn techniques to deal with emotional distress and anxiety on their own. Children can learn to prevent panic attacks or cope with anxiety in a variety of ways, which they will learn in their counseling sessions. Some strategies they will learn may include breathing exercises, changing negative self-talk, muscle relaxation, talking to a trusted adult about their feelings instead of keeping them inside, and asserting themselves by knowing when to remove themselves from a stressful situation. Teaching these techniques to children gives them a toolbox of coping mechanisms that they can use when they become anxious or experience a panic attack.
Unfortunately, some children experience traumatic events and are exposed to disturbing situations that they should not have to witness or be part of. After a trauma, a child may experience shock, disbelief, detachment or emotional numbness, fear, and may develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of PTSD include strong desire to avoid the people or places where trauma was involved, vivid and distressing memories or flashbacks, nightmares or insomnia or fear of going to sleep, and being easily angered or agitated. Child counseling aims to help children talk about the trauma that they faced, rather than keeping their experiences and emotions inside. Many children who experience trauma develop trust issues and may have a difficulty finding the words to express their feelings and may blame themselves for what happened.
Child counseling teaches children that it’s okay to talk about their experiences and that they can use a variety of coping mechanisms. When a child has a flashback to their trauma, child counselors teach them tools such as deep breathing, seeking out an adult to talk to, relaxing their muscles, and correcting the misinterpretation of traumatic events.
When a marriage dissolves, it can be very challenging for children in the family to cope with. Many children blame themselves for their parents splitting up or have feelings that they are unloved. With divorce often comes changes in custody, and in some cases, there are tense custody battles between parents. Children can feel guilty about choosing which parent they want to live with and feel distress if their choices or feelings don’t align with their siblings. Child counseling teaches children to deal with feelings of sadness, fear, and guilt by giving them techniques to use such as deep breathing, journaling or art therapy, practicing positive self-talk, and talking about their feelings with their parents or another trusted adult.
A death of a loved one, whether it’s a family member, peer, or friend of the family is distressing for anyone; however, children often cannot cope with death in the same way that adults can. For children, it may be difficult to understand their feelings of loss, despair, sadness, and missing the person who died. Often, children may have irrational thoughts such as the fear that they will also die, thinking that the death was their fault, or believing that they could have prevented it. Child counseling helps children understand the grieving process and teaches them that it’s okay to experience the emotions that arise after losing a loved one. Coping strategies may include being able to talk about their feelings, channeling grief through creative pursuits like journaling or art, and allowing themselves to speak or think about their loved one through sharing personal memories. Teaching children the stages of grief is another technique that helps them understand that how they feel is normal and natural.
For many children, events, like moving to a new city or changing schools, can be stressful. Many adults can accept these changes as part of life, so you may not realize the impact it has on your child. Children who have difficulty dealing with change can experience feelings of insecurity, anxiety or worry, or anger towards their parents. While these are normal reactions to significant change, many children have a hard time moving past these feelings on their own. Child counseling teaches children 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, understanding that their feelings are temporary and will fade when they adjust to the situation.
Self-Esteem and Confidence
Many children struggle with poor self-esteem and low confidence which can lead to depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, or thoughts of self-harm. When a child has poor self-esteem, they may feel unloved, worthless, and their friends and family would be better off without them. Child counseling can help children improve their self-esteem in a variety of ways, including digging deeper into underlying issues that may have caused these beliefs, recognizing negative self-talk and turning it into positive thoughts, using affirmations to gain confidence and self-acceptance, and talking to a trusted adult when troubling feelings arise. If a child’s low self-esteem has developed into something more serious, like an eating disorder, child counselors are equipped to help children overcome those issues.
Types of Child Counseling
Cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT)
CBT focuses on helping children change negative styles of thinking and behaving by correcting or re-purposing the thought process toward a more positive response. CBT challenges the automatic internal beliefs a child has about themselves and teaches them to view themselves and their situation through a more realistic and positive lens. CBT provides children with practical tools for coping with difficult or stressful situations that they can learn to use on their own.
Trauma-Focused CBT (TF-CBT)
TF-CBT is designed to help children overcome the effects of trauma. As with traditional CBT, children are taught to see events more realistically without blaming themselves. TF-CBT teaches children strategies that they can use when they experience a flashback so they can work through the memories from a place of control and understanding, and gives them the ability to use these tools on their own.
Children respond well to alternative types of therapies like art therapy, music therapy, movement therapy, equine therapy, mindfulness, or aquatic therapy.
What to Look for in a Child Counselor
When seeking a counselor for your child there are several considerations to keep in mind. First and foremost, a child counselor must be a good fit for your child. Chances are, your child will be uncomfortable with their initial counseling sessions, but it’s important that they work with a therapist that they are a good interpersonal match with. If your child is not comfortable with their counselor after several sessions, you may consider looking for another person who is a better personality fit for your child. Another important consideration is what the counselor’s training and qualifications are. It’s imperative to use a counselor who specializes in child counseling so they can apply therapy techniques to a young mind. Since you’re dealing with your child’s mental well-being, don’t hesitate to check references, credentials, and meet with a potential therapist to gauge your comfort level. Often therapists offer free consultations in which they can explain how beneficial counseling will be for your child.
How to Find a Child Counselor
Choosing to seek child counseling is not an easy decision, and finding the clinician who matches your needs may seem like a daunting task. When researching prospective therapists, fellow parents, caregivers, teachers, or physicians can often offer a personal recommendation. Search the TherapyTribe directory to find a child counselor in your area.
Additional Child Counseling Articles
Exploring the benefits of play therapy as a complementary type of therapy for children’s psychological issues.
About CBT, it’s guiding principles, and what to expect from CBT sessions.