Getting Help

How To Choose A Mental-Health Professional For Your Child

Interviewing a pediatrician is one thing, trying to find the right person to tend to your child’s mental wellbeing is another, in my experience. Here’s what to ask.

There's a mental-health crisis among young kids. Many parents must hire a therapist, counselor, or o...
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When it’s time to hire a counselor or a therapist for your child, you know. Either you recognize that your kid is struggling, or you’ve been flagged by the school that they’re exhibiting signs of needing help. Inviting someone into your child’s inner world feels like a big deal because it is. How do you choose the right expert for the job?

Ideally, Get a Rec

If your child’s pediatrician or someone you trust can point you toward a counselor, therapist, or psychologist for talk therapy, that’s a great start. You’d also want a trusted recommendation if what your child may need is a psychiatrist, a doctor who can prescribe medication. Many families start with talk therapy and then move to a psychiatrist if it looks as though that is what’s needed.

Insurance Is A Factor

“Do you work with insurance?” may well be your first question. Sadly, in my experience, the professionals with five-star reviews are seldom the ones in insurance networks. But I’ve been enormously grateful for therapists and doctors who give me easy-to-file paperwork that I then submit to our insurer for out-of-network coverage. One particular person did the filing herself, and that, to me, was golden.

Also key: Take advantage of any free counseling offered at your child’s school. In my experience, the quality of care has varied widely from school to school, but I’m always glad to know there is someone in the building who is familiar with my kid’s struggle. Often we’ve gone with the free school counselor and a paid professional both, and that’s worked well.

Initial Questions

In this time, with so many kids in crisis, it can be hard to find anyone who can even take your kid. So learn from my mistake and don’t describe your child’s suffering for 10 breathless minutes, not letting the person on the other end interject, “I can’t take new patients right now!” Just ask, at the outset, “Can you take a new patient?” and if you got a recommendation, tell them, in case that gets you in the door.

As far as trying to get across your child’s presenting problem, Jeanne Davis, PMHNP-BC, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner who treats all ages at Manuel Astruc, M.D. & Associates in Saratoga Springs, New York, suggests, “Sum up your problem into a phrase. For example, “I think my daughter has severe anxiety,” or “Can you work with an 8-year-old who has an excessive fear of germs?” or “I caught my child self-harming.” Don’t try to get into their entire history in your first phone call. That’s for the next step.

Set Up The Intake

The first get-to-know-you meeting is an intake, which isn’t about treating the problem, it’s about discovering the scope of what the problem could be. In my experience it means a pretty thorough interview with you, and also a long one with your child. You fill out paperwork with lots of nosy questions, and then you answer even nosier ones in person or over the phone. Oh, and all of this costs more than a regular treatment session, so learn the intake cost in advance.

This is not my favorite part, and not just because of the cost, time it takes, and how vulnerable it makes everyone. No, it’s the hard part because sometimes you end the intake knowing you are in the wrong place. Several times, I have realized, at this point, that the expert is going somewhere that I don’t agree with — they suggest far more work than I think we need or can afford, or they draw conclusions about my child after a one-hour interview that I don’t agree with.

If after the intake you want to cut ties and find someone else, it’s crucial to do so. A match that starts wobbly does not usually get better. But, the unfortunate thing is, it means going through the interview and intake with the next person in line.

Get Rolling

When you find someone who you believe will be a good fit, you can finally get to the logistics. Davis suggests asking, “How soon can you fit us in?” knowing that some therapists save time each week for new clients, and others are booked months out. Find out early on if you can have an evening or weekend slot if that’s what you need, Davis says. Because appointments are hard to find, you might have to rearrange schedules to accommodate mental healthcare.

Appreciate What You Have

Mental healthcare is necessary and valuable. Make sure to get your kid to appointments on time. Really listen to anything the therapist has to say. But also give your kid some space to have private conversations with the professional that stay private between the two of them. Trust that you’re helping lay a foundation for them to be healthier for decades to come.