As a parent, I don’t think anything ever prepares you for the anguish of seeing your child unhappy. I just wanted to love their unhappiness away like I did when they were babies. I felt that I had fallen short as mother, powerless to help.

I suspect my experience is shared by many other parents. Amongst all this angst, I guess what most parents want to know is whether their child’s behaviour is in the “normal” range or a sign of a more serious issue that would benefit from counselling.

With public concern at an all-time high about children’s mental health and scary statistics flying around, parents and carers can feel confused and worried. Nobody wants their child to suffer unnecessarily, but counselling costs valuable time and money.  So how can parents and carers tell if their child would benefit from therapy?

As anybody with several children will tell you, they are all different; what is usual behaviour for one child may not be for another. You know your child and if you’re noticing changes in their behaviour that worry you and aren’t temporary, such as increased anxiety, withdrawal or sadness, you could first talk to their teachers who can often shine a light on what is happening at school and help you decide whether counselling is appropriate. They may even approach you first with concerns.

There may have been a sudden change in your family’s circumstances such as a separation, bereavement or move. If you notice that your child or young person is having unexplained or unusual head or stomach aches, sleep problems or their behaviour regresses, such as bedwetting, you could  talk to your GP who may be able to tell whether the cause is physical or emotional. Then you will have a better idea if therapy is a sensible option.

If you become aware that your child’s issue is affecting their ability to function day to day or their behaviour is adversely affecting other relationships in the family, this can be a worry. Children’s wellbeing is as much about their mental health as it is their physical health. Counselling or therapy can help children and young people to develop resilience and ways of coping so that they can cope better with whatever life throws at them. In my experience counselling is very beneficial for children with low self-esteem and low confidence. They can realise their strengths and learn ways of quieting the self-sabotaging monster when it roars. 

However, I would suggest trusting your instincts. You know your child better than anyone and what is usual behaviour for them. If you are concerned about your child’s behaviour, talk to them about the idea of seeking therapy. They may not be open to the idea and counselling won’t be as effective if they don’t subscribe to the idea. However, if they are open to the idea of therapy and are old enough you could even look through together and they could help choose their potential therapist, giving them a bit of control in what may seem to be an overwhelming situation and boost their self-worth.

Earlier rather than later

There are some issues which are obviously more clear-cut than others and need the help of a therapist. I personally believe that all behaviour is communication, so if your child is behaving in an anti-social way, they are crying out for help even if it doesn’t seem that way. Behaviours such as self-harm, disordered eating, stealing, developing compulsions and many others are your child reaching for help. Research shows that early intervention yields more successful results (Geldard, 2010) so the earlier you get help for your child or young person the better. It must be said that if your child discloses suicidal thoughts, they need to see a doctor immediately. This is an emergency.

Is there any stigma?

Even when the need for therapy is obvious, some families are hesitant for several understandable reasons. They may be very private and unwilling to share personal details with anybody outside of the family. They may feel that by seeking therapy others may think their child is mentally ill. Families may also worry that they will be judged for being bad parents or carers. And there is the worry about the cost.

The beauty of getting therapy privately is that it is confidential, no-one need ever know, unless you tell them. You may be worried that someone will see you going in. If this is a major concern for you, ask the counsellor about the privacy of the location. Similarly, what is said to the therapist is confidential unless it is a child protection issue or a serious breach of the law.

Some people may be worried about being judged as “bad” parents and worry about the stigma of “going to therapy”. I would never judge a client or their parents and neither would the vast majority of counsellors and therapists. I’m very aware that I’m not perfect and I know my children would agree that I am not a perfect parent! So who am I to judge?

I do think that the stigma around therapy is lessening. The celebrity world and public figures like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are using their high profile to try to reduce the stigma around the issue too. Mental health does not discriminate, the “great and the good” are just as susceptible to this as everyone else. To put mental health in perspective, the mental health charity Mind, approximates that in the UK each year 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem and 1 in 6 people experience a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week. So your child is certainly not alone.

So, perhaps you’ve decided on therapy for your child or young person, what next? One of main reasons that I joined is that you can ensure that the therapists and counsellors recommended for you are suitable and experienced in working with children and/or young people. No time wasting by contacting counsellors who don’t work with children.

Then there’s the cost…another advantage of is that all the fees are stated on the therapists’ profile. They do vary so shop around. Counselling may cost money, but I see it as investing in the emotional and mental wellbeing of your loved one. I don’t think you can put a price on that.