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Tips On How to Get Your Child or Adolescent the Mental Health Care They Need

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Early diagnosis and appropriate services for children and their families can make a difference in the lives of children with mental health disorders. However, caring for a child or adolescent with a mental health condition can be challenging. Parents and caregivers may experience feelings of stigma and shame, and the barriers to obtaining help are often overwhelming.

Two clinical counseling experts at Palo Alto University, which is dedicated to psychology and counseling, professors Rachel Jacoby and Szu-Yu (Darlene) Chen, have developed the following tips to support parents and caregivers on how to advocate for their child’s mental and behavioral health needs. 

Rachel Jacoby, PhD, LPCC-S (OH), NCC, CFLE, is the president of the Association of Child and Adolescent Counseling, and Szu-Yu (Darlene) Chen, PhD, LPCC (CA), LPC (TX), NCC, is a bilingual licensed professional clinical counselor and registered play therapist. Both professors have clinical experience working with children, adolescents, and their families in schools, community agencies, and private practice.


How to Get Your Child or Adolescent the Mental Health Care They Need

Parents and caregivers are increasingly concerned about how to navigate supporting their child’s mental health. They may experience newfound fears connected to their child’s new diagnosis. These fears are often coupled with added negative stigma surrounding the subject of mental health. The following tips have been developed to support parents and caregivers in how to advocate for the child’s mental and behavioral health needs:

1. Recognizing the Signs – Children can’t always articulate their problems. Here’s a list of signs you should look for:

  • Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions and social situations
  • Talking about hopelessness, hurting oneself, death, or suicide
  • Outbursts or extreme irritability
  • Out-of-control behavior that can be highly aggressive and harmful
  • Drastic changes in mood or behavior such as persistent sadness or worries
  • Changes in eating habits or appetite
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty sleeping or getting out of bed
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Difficulty concentrating or feeling restless
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Avoiding or skipping school

2. Overcoming the Social Stigma – One of the common reasons families do not seek mental health care is the social stigma they have experienced or anticipated. Try to:

  • Work with your child to destigmatize their perception of receiving mental health services by listening to them and validating their feelings and thoughts.
  • Normalize views and attitudes toward receiving care. This will help encourage your child and family to implement the tools that mental health services may offer.

3. Be Your Child’s Advocate

  • Depending on your child's age, include them in the decision-making process.
  • Ask for their thoughts on seeking additional support and encourage them to communicate with trusted people (you, school counselor, teacher, family member) when they feel low.
  • Don’t dismiss their feelings or ask why they feel a specific way; they may not be able to explain that. Make sure you work to understand their feelings.
  • Statements to use with your child should be structured to use direct feeling words and checking in on their experiences. This may include, “I noticed that you spending more time playing alone. Sometimes when we are feeling sad, we try to stay by ourselves more. Have you been feeling sad at all?”

4. Find a Counselor That’s Right for You – There are several places to look for a counselor specializing in child and adolescent counseling:

5. What to Expect When You Identify a Counselor

  • Phone Consultation – Schedule an initial phone conversation to share your situation and ask about the counselor’s approach and treatment method, and whether they accept your insurance.
  • Intake Interview - The counselor will conduct a thorough intake interview to better understand your family’s needs. The counselor may also include your child in the intake process. The more context you provide, the better the counselor can understand your family’s concerns and hopes and collaboratively develop a treatment plan.
  • The Treatment Process: What Happens in Therapy? – The counselor will develop a treatment plan that could include individual, family, or group therapy and regular parent consultations. Adjunct services, such as parenting groups, social skills groups, etc., may also be recommended. Parent consultations are important because while the counselor is the expert on therapeutic interventions and child development, your observation of the child’s progress outside of the therapy room is essential to the progress of the treatment.

6. Seek External Resources – In addition to therapy, it is important to understand the many external resources that you make seek out for your child.

  • School Resources – Contact your child’s teacher or school counselor to see what resources they provide, including academic support.
  • Interdisciplinary Resources – Seek out occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, pediatric psychiatry, and pediatricians for any other diagnostic support.

7. Collaboration – Allow all professionals engaged in your child’s care to collaborate and share information for the best possible care for your child.

8. What to Do While Waiting for Help – There is currently a national shortage of mental health providers for children and adolescents. If you are forced to wait, try to get your child’s name on a waitlist with a mental health provider. While estimation time for waitlists may be long, it is likely that your child will not have to wait as long as the anticipated timeframe. If you are unsure about services that would benefit your child, it is essential to ask questions to any of the interdisciplinary professionals. Additionally, several valuable resources for parents and caregivers, such as books, web-based resources, and podcasts, are available to gain a new perspective on how to support your child. If your child needs someone to speak with immediately, reaching out to the Crisis Lifeline is helpful by calling or texting the number 988. 

About the Experts

Rachel Jacoby, PhD, is a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor and visiting faculty member at Palo Alto University. Dr. Jacoby is the current president of the Association of Child and Adolescent Counseling (ACAC). She passionately enjoys working with children, adolescents, and their families, and has worked in a variety of clinical settings. She is certified as a Family Life Educator (CFLE) and an Autplay Therapist. Her research interests include clinical work with children impacted by the foster care system and crisis and trauma supervision. She is the recipient of the 2023 Robert H. Rencken Emerging Professional Leader Award and the 2021 Carol Bobby Pioneer Award for Visionary Leadership

Szu-Yu (Darlene) Chen, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Associate Department Chair of MA Counseling Program in the Counseling Department at Palo Alto University. Dr. Chen is a bilingual licensed professional clinical counselor and registered play therapist. She has primarily worked with children, adolescents, and their families in a variety of settings, including schools, community agencies, and private practice. Her research and presentations focus on play therapy, play-based teacher intervention, multicultural issues in counseling and clinical supervision, and immigrants’ mental health issues. She is a recipient of the 2023 Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development Advocacy Award.