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JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page
August 2016

When Your Child Is Referred to a Therapist

Author Affiliations
  • 1Seattle Children's Hospital, Seattle, Washington
JAMA Pediatr. 2016;170(8):816. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.0978

Mental health professionals can include therapists, licensed counselors, psychologists, and social workers.

Therapy can help children and teenagers develop problem-solving skills and deal with stress. It can be beneficial for children or teenagers who are dealing with personal issues, such as bullying, or family issues such as divorce, as well as for problems at school such as a sudden drop in grades, learning, or attention problems (such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). Therapy is often an important part of treatment for teenagers with certain medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders and can be a helpful part of a treatment team for children or teenagers dealing with the stress of an ongoing or chronic illness. A mental health therapist can be a valuable partner in your child or adolescent’s health care team. In some cases, your pediatrician may recommend working with a therapist. In other cases, you as a parent may choose to seek a therapist to help your child.

How to Find a Therapist

There are several factors to consider in finding a therapist for your child. These include whether the therapist accepts your insurance, whether the office location is convenient for you, and whether the therapist has experience or expertise in working with your child’s age group or for your child’s condition.

A first step is to contact your insurance and ask for a list of mental health therapists in your insurance network. This step will help you avoid calling therapists who are not able to see your child for insurance reasons. If you have medical coupons or state insurance, you may be given a telephone number for a larger organization that serves your county or city. If your insurance requires you to pay a lot of money out of pocket before your insurance will pay medical bills (ie, a high deductible), you may want to consider going to a community agency that offers therapy options on a sliding scale of fees. If you are unsure which therapist to call, you can also contact your pediatrician’s office to ask if there are any therapists he or she has worked with in the past for similar conditions.

How Do I Choose a Therapist?

The next step is to start contacting therapists on your list to schedule a first appointment. Some questions to ask include:

  • Are you taking new patients?

  • When is your first available appointment?

  • What is your experience with children or adolescents dealing with similar issues?

  • Do you have flexible appointment times? For example, after school, weekends, or evenings?

What Happens in Therapy?

In the first few visits of therapy, the therapist will spend some time getting to know your child. In many cases, therapists will spend some time with your child or teenager alone at each visit. Most therapists today use cognitive behavioral therapy (also called CBT) to help children and teens build skills and strengths to address the condition they are facing. Because therapy often involves practicing skills, your child or teen may be asked to do “homework” in between sessions. Your role as a parent can be to support your child in going to therapy, offer praise when your child practices skills they are learning, and do check-ins with the therapist on how things are progressing. Most therapists cannot prescribe medicine but may work with your pediatrician if medication is recommended. You can provide permission to the therapist to communicate with your pediatrician so that your health care team is able to provide the best care for your child.

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The JAMA Pediatrics Patient Page is a public service of JAMA Pediatrics. The information and recommendations appearing on this page are appropriate in most instances, but they are not a substitute for medical diagnosis. For specific information concerning your child’s medical condition, JAMA Pediatrics suggests that you consult your child’s physician. This page may be photocopied noncommercially by physicians and other health care professionals to share with patients. To purchase bulk reprints, call 312/464-0776.
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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Megan A. Moreno, MD, MSEd, MPH, Seattle Children's Hospital, 6200 NE 74th St, M/S CW8-6, PO Box 5371, Seattle, WA 98195 (megan.moreno@seattlechildrens.org).

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.