When it comes to seeking the support of a child psychologist, there can be many different driving forces for families. Because of the complex and dynamic nature of children’s development, however, it can be challenging for some parents to identify when it may be time to seek help and contact a psychologist. Although there will always be variability in when parents choose to obtain psychological services for their children, the following points aim to offer parents guidance about some (though not all!) instances in which a child psychologist may be able to offer support.
Crisis mode: When daily functioning is impacted. Very often, parents will reach out to a psychologist when their family or their child is in crisis mode. In particular, there may be a highly impactful issue that is placing strain on how a child, and possibly the entire family unit, is able to cope day to day. In some cases, crises arise suddenly, with no obvious triggers. Other times, a life event may result in crisis or a previously manageable issue may escalate and become much more challenging to navigate. As an example, a child who is experiencing sudden panic attacks or whose separation anxiety is impacting functioning at school may require strategies and support. Parents should consider contacting a psychologist when there is an acute issue that is detracting from how happily and successfully a child is able to operate within their environment.
Coping strategies: Building a toolkit. While the previous point outlines seeking support in response to crisis, psychologists can also assist with general skill building relating to social and emotional functioning. In some cases, even when the issue at hand is not causing acute stress, parents may identify basic domains in which a child may require specialized strategies and support. Examples may include a child who is easily frustrated or a child who struggles to exhibit positive social skills during play with others. While these challenges may not place the child or family in crisis mode, they do indicate domains in which a child may benefit from learning helpful strategies. Further, if left unaddressed, it is possible for minor skill gaps to transform into intensely stressful issues. As such, parents may wish to proactively consult with a psychologist if they notice areas of emotional, social, and behavioral functioning in which their child is experiencing mild to moderate challenges and may require additional coping tools.
A life change or stressor. Although children may not always be visibly affected, many parents will choose to consult a child psychologist when families are navigating significant life changes. Examples may include bereavement, parental separation or divorce, or relocation to a new city or school. In these circumstances, psychologists are able to check in with children, support them in developing healthy coping mechanisms, and help them to navigate their thoughts and feelings.
A safe space to talk. Particularly as children grow older, they may benefit from a consequence and judgment-free zone in which to share their experiences, thoughts, feelings, and concerns, even in the absence of a particular issue or stressor. Parents play a critical role in helping children to navigate their increasingly complex worlds as they enter into adolescence, and the parent-child channel of communication is irreplaceable; however, the perspective and suggestions of an objective third party can be a valuable supplement to the adult support that a child or teenager is already receiving.
A need for further assessment. In addition to counseling, many psychologists offer psycho-educational assessment services. Psycho-educational assessments are comprehensive evaluations designed to investigate all aspects of a child’s intellectual, academic, social, and behavioral functioning. Assessments are particularly important when families are seeking to understand the ‘why factors’ underlying their child’s challenges at home, at school, and in the community, and to determine if there are clinically significant issues impacting their child. A completed assessment will be able to offer a thorough overview of a child’s strengths and needs, as well as an informed series of recommendations for parents and teachers. Assessments are also critical in identifying any relevant clinical diagnoses, including learning disorders, attention deficit disorders, and social communication disorders. If parents are noticing learning, behavioral, or developmental patterns, or a teacher raises such concerns, it may be beneficial to speak to a psychologist about assessment services.
When children ask. In some cases, children will express general feelings of discontent to their parents and may even ask to talk to somebody who can help. If a child indicates that things “just don’t feel right” and requests support, this is a powerful indication that parents should contact a child psychologist. As children develop increasing self-awareness, supporting their instincts and obtaining support when it is requested is highly recommended.
Ultimately, each child is unique and not all families will choose to enlist psychological support for the same reasons; families may have different metrics for what happy and successful daily functioning looks like for their children. A good rule of thumb is to remember that if children and/or parents are discontent, concerned, or confused with how life is progressing and family dynamics are operating, a child psychologist may be able to help. Many psychologists are happy to offer a complimentary initial consult to talk with parents about whether they can offer support.
As a final consideration, many parents are concerned about how to talk to their child about seeing a psychologist and fear that meeting with a child psychologist will make their child feel as though their family wants them to change; however, parents can frame a meeting with a psychologist as a positive opportunity. In particular, talk to your child about how all of us, as human beings, have strengths and skills that we are working on. Let them know that, by working on mastering difficult skills or navigating complicated feelings with the help of somebody like a psychologist, it helps each of us to become the happiest and most successful versions of ourselves. Not only can this positive spin help your child keep an open mind about their visit with the psychologist, it can powerfully and favorably shape your child’s long-term perceptions of seeking therapeutic support and teach them that asking for help is always okay.
Soraya Lakhani is a registered psychologist and the Clinical Director of Yellow Kite Child Psychology in Calgary. Soraya is a thought leader on parenting and child psychology, and her work has frequently appeared on CBC, Global, and other major media outlets. For more information, visit yellowkite.ca.
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