For Families > Seeking Professional Help > Choosing a Mental Health Professional

Choosing a Mental Health Professional for Your Child: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How

by Glenn S. Hirsch, MD

Choosing a MF Prof

Why should you get help?

It is estimated that over 15 million children and teens have a mental health or substance abuse problem. Sadly, only one in five children with a mental health problem gets treated – a figure far smaller than the number of children being treated for a medical ailment. Many factors account for this disparity: parents may not recognize their child's symptoms as a mental health problem; they may feel embarrassed or ashamed and think they should handle the problem on their own; they may feel the situation is hopeless or disagree when others suggest the need for outside help; or they may dismiss or misunderstand their child's problem. Just like with physical problems, however, the prognosis for treating mental health problems is much improved when the concerns are addressed early on, and it is therefore essential to seek guidance from a mental health professional as soon as a concern arises.

When should you seek help?

Many physical and emotional signs suggest a possible mental health problem. Problems can range from those of serious concern -- for example, when a child or adolescent has lost touch with reality or is in danger of harming himself -- to those of less concern -- for example, when a child or teen experiences a change in eating or sleeping, feels frustrated or is particularly fearful of something. But any problem that is personally bothersome warrants evaluation. Further investigation may be warranted when a child seems out of step with peers or exhibits changes or problems in any of the following areas:

  • Eating/appetite
  • Sleeping
  • School work
  • Activity level
  • Mood
  • Relationships with family or friends
  • Aggressive behavior
  • Return to behavior typical of a younger child
  • Developmental milestones such as speech and language

In general, any of the above symptoms would first be evaluated with respect to the:

  • Intensity
  • Duration
  • Age appropriateness
  • Interference with the child's and family's life

Where do I start?

Looking for information is a crucial first step and will often ease many of the questions and hesitations you may have prior to learning more about your child’s need for treatment and treatment options. Whether you are concerned about the stigma of seeking mental health care, your child’s willingness to participate in his or her own treatment, the cost of treatment, or how your child’s treatment will reflect on your family or you as a parent, you are not alone and a mental health professional will be able to address and ease these and other valid concerns. If you don’t know any mental health professionals, start by asking your pediatrician or family physician for recommendations. You can also contact local clinics and hospitals, national or local professional organizations, or ask a trusted friend or family member.

Who provides the treatment?

There are several types of mental health professionals who will be able to provide help for your child specific to his or her needs. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who can prescribe medication in addition to providing other therapies. Psychologists are trained to conduct psychological testing and provide therapy. Other types of mental health professionals include social workers, licensed mental health counselors, marriage and family counselors, and pastoral counselors. When selecting a mental health professional, it is important to consider the person’s professional training, credentials, areas of expertise, and experience. Importantly, the best therapeutic relationships exist when the patient is comfortable with the treating person or agency; the right ‘fit’ may entail someone or something different for any given child or family.

What are my treatment options?

Treatment for your child will depend on what his or her specific needs are, but may include pharmacotherapy (medications), cognitive and behavioral therapies, family counseling, and/or group therapy. A mental health professional will work with you and your child to determine what will be most effective and helpful.

How do I decide if this is the right professional?

Once a parent has decided on a therapist, it is important for the child or teen and parents to feel comfortable with the treating professional or agency. Having confidence in the person is essential for establishing a positive working relationship and important when facing difficult moments or decisions. Parents often benefit from having an initial consultation or one or two sessions before making a decision about ongoing treatment. The "fit" must be right in order to establish a good working relationship. What may work for one person may not feel right for another. However, if the parents or child feel uncomfortable after a few sessions, this should be discussed in order to assess the source of the problem. For example, is the difficulty due to embarrassment about discussing the problem, a child who is resistant because of anger at the parents for suggesting treatment, or is it incompatible styles between the professional and the patient?

What is the role of the parent?

The initial session in treatment is usually used to evaluate the problem. This is typically done by interview and may also involve questionnaires. During this step, the professional will need information from you about your family history, home environment, your child's physical and emotional development and friendships, and may consult other relevant medical and educational professionals for information. Soon after the evaluation phase, the professional should discuss the assessment with you and outline a plan for treatment. He or she should inform you about your role in treatment, the preferred method of communication with the professional, the schedule for feedback and updates, coordination with outside resources or professionals, strategies for helping your child participate in treatment, alternative treatments, risks, and goals.

Successful therapy usually requires an investment of time and energy on the part of the professional, parents, and child. The therapist may act as a guide, instructor, cheerleader, sounding board, and/or confidante. The parents and child, however, must also participate and take responsibility for putting the learning into practice. Treatment is most successful when everyone involved helps monitor change and progress.

Updated October 2014.