How a counselor or therapist can help your family

Learn how to find a counselor or therapist who can help your family deal with emotional problems.

By Ann Christen, M.A., M.F.T. , Linda Broatch, M.A.

Emotional and behavioral issues are often "part of the package" when you havepul a child with learning or attention problems. When your child's low self-esteem, lack of social skills, or discipline issues start to interfere with your family's everyday life, it may be time to call in a professional counselor or therapist to provide help. Below are some basic questions you might have about engaging a therapist, followed by information and suggestions.

What are some ways that a professional counselor or therapist might help our family?

It's hard to watch your child struggle unsuccessfully with difficult feelings or behaviors. A good therapist is skilled at helping your child identify and address feelings and behaviors that are keeping her from doing well at home or in school. In addition to addressing immediate issues, a good therapist can also offer your family some broad, long-term benefits, such as:

How do I find a good therapist?

Your choices and access to therapists may depend on the size and location of your community, your health (or behavioral health) insurance coverage, and your financial resources. One of the best ways to look for a skilled, experienced therapist is to get recommendations from people you know and trust. For example, the psychologist who sees your child at school may also work with children in private practice. Or he may know of other therapists who have a history of working successfully with children with learning and/or attention problems and their families. A pediatrician, or a prescribing physician for a child taking medications, are other sources of recommendations. Therapists may have any of several types of college degrees and licenses, including:

Just as important as his degree or license, however, is the therapist's track record with children like yours, as confirmed by people in your community whose opinions you trust.

If you can, it is obviously best to engage a therapist who has training and experience with children with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). If your child attends a public school, a therapist's experience with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) and/or 504 Plans is also very useful. With this specialized background, a therapist knows intimately the environments in which your child and family function daily. If the therapist available to you does not have experience with IEPs and 504 Plans, be prepared either to spend some time "educating" him, or to deal with these processes without his help.

What questions should I ask myself before contacting prospective therapists?

Before you start interviewing prospective therapists, ask yourself a few questions to help clarify your goals and expectations for your child's therapy. Questions such as the following may be useful:

Finding and interviewing therapists

Once you' ve thought about goals for your child's therapy and how to manage the logistics involved, make some calls to friends, school staff, or community service agencies to get the names of therapists they recommend. When you are ready to interview the therapists in person or over the telephone, you may find our " Questions to Ask Counselors and Therapists- pdf worksheet useful. In-person interviews can give you a feel for whether you have "good chemistry" with a therapist. The worksheet includes several suggested questions to ask therapists and provides a way to organize your notes, such as:

Finding the right therapist to help a child with emotional or behavioral problems may take a little time. When you begin working with a therapist, be alert to how helpful and supportive the sessions seem. From your first appointment, you should feel that you are getting emotional and practical support you need to deal with your child's issues. As therapy progresses, your child should become more comfortable with the process.

You may begin work with a therapist, decide the therapist is not working out well, and have to start your search again. But if you persist, the benefit to your child and family can make the effort well worth it.

© 2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation

Linda Broatch has worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that serve the health and education needs of children. She has an M.A. in education, with a focus in child development.