How Social Workers Help Children With Emotional/Behavioral Problems

July 17, 2005 at 2:49 pm  •  Posted in Early Childhood Development by  •  0 Comments

Introduction How Will a Therapist Help My Child?
Should My Child See a Therapist? How Do I Find the Right Therapist?



Lately, your child has been extremely irritable and sad, even when playing with friends and favorite toys. Other parents you know have suggested that it may be “a stage,” but your child’s behaviors and emotions aren’t improving and your gut tells you that something’s wrong.

What can you do to help?

The most important steps to take are to recognize that it may be an emotional or behavioral problem your child is having and to intervene as quickly as possible. In many cases, finding a good therapist will be key in recognizing the problem and in treating it effectively.  Trust your instincts if you believe there is a problem.

Should My Child See a Therapist?

If you’ve asked your child about what’s bothering him or her and your child is reluctant to express herself or himself, a therapist can often bridge the communication gap. Child and family therapists are specifically trained to work with young children and adolescents, helping even the most timid to open up and share feelings.

On the other hand, maybe your child has shared his or her feelings with you, but you’re not sure how best to handle a particular problem or situation. Or, maybe you and your child haven’t been getting along lately, and heated arguments or disagreements have replaced the usual dinnertime chatter. In all of these situations, a therapist can offer an objective view and a variety of solutions that may be useful for your family.

Your child’s doctor should examine your child if you have any concerns that he or she may be depressed or experiencing other emotional problems. Your child’s doctor will perform a complete physical exam and may order tests to evaluate whether a medical problem could be contributing to your child’s symptoms.

Children who aren’t yet school-age could benefit from seeing a therapist if there’s a significant delay in achieving developmental milestones such as walking, language development, and toilet teaching.

In older children, the best indicator of emotional difficulty may be their school functioning. Behavior that may be tolerated within a family is sometimes recognized as inappropriate when the child enters a school setting.

Although what’s considered normal or acceptable behavior can vary a great deal depending upon your child’s age and level of maturity, some of the signs that your child may benefit from seeing a therapist include:

  • developmental delay in speech, language, or toilet teaching
  • behavioral problems (such as excessive anger, acting out, or eating disorders)
  • a significant drop in grades, particularly if your child normally maintains high grades
  • episodes of sadness or depression
  • social withdrawal or isolation
  • decreased interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • overly aggressive behavior (such as biting, kicking, or hitting)
  • sudden changes in appetite (particularly in adolescents)
  • insomnia or increased sleepiness
  • excessive school absenteeism or tardiness
  • mood swings (extremely happy one minute, crying the next)
  • development of or an increase in physical complaints (such as headache, stomachache, or not feeling well) despite a normal physical exam by your child’s doctor

It’s also helpful to speak to caregivers and teachers who interact with your child on a regular basis. Is your child paying attention in class and turning in assignments on time? What’s his or her behavior like at recess? Gather as much information as possible to determine the best course of action for your child.

How Will a Therapist Help My Child?

Therapists can help your child handle a variety of emotional problems. Many children need help in coping with school stress, such as homework, test anxiety, or peer pressure. Others may need help in discussing their feelings about family members, particularly if the family is undergoing a major transition, such as a divorce, move, or serious illness.

A reputable therapist can also help your child cope with the following psychological concerns:

  • depression
  • learning disabilities
  • developmental disabilities
  • anxiety or phobias
  • life changes
  • eating disorders
  • attachment disorders
  • self-esteem issues
  • stress
  • anger
  • chronic illnesses or conditions, such as

In addition, research suggests that therapy helps children to have higher and better problem-solving skills as adults. Therapy can also help your child understand the value of asking others for help.

How Do I Find the Right Therapist?

You’ve determined that your child would benefit from seeing a therapist, but how do you find a qualified clinician who has experience working with children and adolescents? The therapist’s experience and education is important, but you must also find a counselor with whom your child feels comfortable.

A good starting point is getting a referral from your child’s doctor. Most doctors have working relationships with mental health specialists such as child therapists. The right therapist-patient clinical match is critical in a therapeutic relationship, so you may need to meet with a few before you find one who clicks with your child.

You can also ask friends, colleagues, or family members for referrals – word of mouth is often a good way to get helpful information.

As with other medical professionals, therapists may have a variety of credentials and specific degrees. As a general rule, your child’s therapist should hold a professional degree in the field of mental health (psychology, social work, or psychiatry) and be licensed by your state. Psychologists, social workers, and psychiatrists all diagnose and treat mental health disorders.

Although experience working with young patients is beneficial, it’s also wise to know what those letters that follow a therapist’s name mean.

Psychiatrists (MDs or DOs)are medical doctors who have advanced training and experience in psychotherapy and pharmacology. They’re the only mental health providers who can prescribe medications.

Clinical Psychologists
Clinical psychologists (PhDs, PsyDs, or EdDs)are therapists who have a doctorate degree that includes advanced training in the practice of psychology, and many specialize in treating children and adolescents and their families.

Clinical Social Workers
A licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) has a master’s degree, specializes in clinical social work, and is licensed in the state in which he or she practices. An LICSW is also a licensed clinical social worker. A CSW is a certified social worker. Many social workers are trained in psychotherapy, but it’s important to note that credentialing requirements vary from state to state. Likewise, the designations (i.e., LCSW, LICSW, CSW) may vary from state to state as well.  To locate a clinical social worker in your area, please click here.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Association of Social Workers or its members.

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