Find a Therapist for Your Child

Concrete steps to finding the right therapist for your child or teen

Finding a therapist for your child or teen can seem like a daunting task. We demystify the process below.

When Lisa Mills’ husband died suddenly in 2004, she sought counseling for her 13-year-old son Steven, who’d begun acting out, displaying behavioral issues. The Brookhaven, PA mom searched online and, after two or three office visits that didn’t feel quite right, found the ideal therapist for her son, someone with whom he felt comfortable opening up.

Daughter Erica, 4 at the time of her father’s death, seemed to be adjusting appropriately until she started having panic attacks several years later. Mills once again searched for a therapist, this time looking for somebody who’d click with her daughter. “Luckily with Erica, we got it right the first time,” she says.

Therapist or psychiatrist?
When lining up therapy, “Don’t jump right to a psychiatrist,” says Essrog.
A first-line therapist will recommend a psychiatrist if and when it’s necessary.

Psychiatrists deal primarily with medication management, and the preference is that children be treated with therapy rather than drugs. “Typically you would start
with a therapist or a PCP [primary care physician] and let that person assess the situation,” says Dr. Wiles.


Finding the right therapist or mental health professional for a child can be a daunting task. “Truthfully, it’s not always that easy to find a therapist,” says Cynthia Wiles, PhD, a licensed psychologist at Christiana Care Health System in Wilmington, DE who sees both children and adults in her practice. She has heard the frustrations of parents unable to locate a therapist who specializes in children, accepts their insurance or has appointment slots readily available. And because parents tend to remain mum about the problems their children are experiencing, friendly peer advice on the subject may be scarce.

Starting the search

Before seeking a therapist, first talk with your child, says Dr. Wiles. Ask what’s bothering him or if something is wrong at school, keeping in mind that younger children may not be able to articulate what’s going on. Rena Essrog, director of counseling programs at Samost Jewish Family & Children’s Service in Cherry Hill, NJ suggests asking the child to rank how upsetting the problem is on a 1 to 10 scale. Next, she recommends seeking a third-party opinion from a professional who has some regular contact with your child — someone like a teacher, guidance counselor or school nurse. “We know parents struggle with this,” says Kevin Siegel, 7th-grade counselor at Northley Middle School in Aston, PA who keeps a list of counseling resources handy. “We’re here to help.”

Are you covered?
While private insurance does cover some mental health and counseling services, plans vary and parents may end up with some out-of-pocket costs. There are two types of insurance your child may qualify for to help pay for services.

Medical Assistance (MA) is a non-income-based program that covers most diagnoses, says Kevin Siegel.
In Delaware
In Pennsylvania
In South Jersey

• Most states also have some form of CHIP (Children’s Health Insurance Program), an income-based program for children whose parents may not be able to afford services.
In Delaware
In Pennsylvania
In South Jersey

Dr. Tynan says parents shouldn’t assume that their child has a deep-seated problem requiring extensive therapy. “It may be a really simple fix,” he says. Many cases can be resolved in only a few sessions, a situation that’s less likely to break the bank.

The pediatrician is your next stop. Before you head to the doctor’s office, though, call the number on the back of your health insurance card and get a list of mental health providers covered by your plan, suggests Doug Tynan, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at A.I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington. This list will likely not distinguish between therapists who treat adults and those who treat children. While most mental health providers are equipped to handle almost any problem, Dr. Tynan emphasizes the importance of finding a therapist specifically trained to work with children.

Locate a child or adolescent therapist in your backyard:
In Delaware
In Pennsylvania
In South Jersey

Take the list of covered providers to your pediatrician and ask for an informed referral based on your insurance coverage and the type of problem your child is having. A visit to the pediatrician will also rule out medical issues.
When it becomes evident that therapy may be needed, Lisa Mills advises parents not to wait on getting help. “Take care of the problem right away,” she urges, speaking from experience. “Don’t wait for it to escalate.” 

Suzanne Koup-Larsen is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Health