How to Spot an Effective Child and Family Therapist

Parents who seek therapy for their child or adolescent usually have serious concerns. Their child may be exhibiting moodiness, oppositional behaviors, poor social skills, or signs of experimenting with substances. Parents know that these concerns can significantly impact a child’s life and future development. By the time they begin the search for therapy services, parents may have tried several methods of remedy, and may already have consulted with a professional such as a pediatrician or school counselor for guidance.

With stakes this high, most parents are anxious to find a therapist who will be effective. Therapists for children and adolescents are more likely to be successful if they have the following characteristics:

-They have specific experience and training for working with someone your child’s age as well as particular presenting problem.

-They coordinate their treatment with families and involve families in the treatment, whether or not they conduct “family therapy” proper.

-They listen fully and work to understand situations before offering advice or interpretations.

-They build on the approaches that families already use, and work in consonance with the style and culture of their clients.

-They offer multi-causal explanations for why events occur, and examine how these causes tend to interact with each other. For example, instead of insisting that a misbehaving child acts out because “the parents reinforce it”, an effective therapist might explore how a child’s temperament, communication style, and stressors interact with the communication styles, stressors, and temperaments of all family members, and explore how each of these factors contributes to acting out.

-They maintain a focus throughout their work on the strengths of children and families, even as they directly address the concerns that their clients present with. For instance, in the above example, they would also assist the family in exploring when a child does behave well, and what might be contributing to it.

-They offer ideas and suggestions that spring from individual circumstances and particular family contexts. For instance, instead of jumping to recommend the use of “time-out” for the above child’s misbehavior, the therapist might first explore the stressors on the child, what the family has tried, and the status of relationships throughout the family. On the basis of such explorations, the therapist might recommend that the parents take action to improve their communication, or that the family prioritize the child’s sleep, as well as look at ways that the family can generate an atmosphere where positive behaviors on the part of the child are more likely to be reinforced..

-They tailor their therapeutic approach towards children’s developmental levels, temperaments, and personalities. Therapists nearly always need to include play in the work with younger children; it is often helpful if therapist offer teens the opportunity for expression through art, or use discussion cards to stimulate talk.

-They work with families to generate goals, and make a plan for how they can achieve their goals within a specified time frame.

-They maintain clear boundaries between themselves and their clients. They do not offer to engage in any business or personal relationships with their clients, and they refrain from promoting particular belief systems or political causes. Therapists may reveal details about their own lives if it serves to deepen the rapport or otherwise benefit their clients.

It is possible to determine if a potential therapist has some of the above characteristics from his or her website and literature, and still more can be gleaned from phone communications. Even so, there is no substitute for face-to-face interviews, ideally when all family members who may be involved with the treatment are present. Ultimately, it is the collaboration between clients and therapists rather than “effective therapists” that generate successful treatment: if family members feel understood, respected, and encouraged by a therapist, and seem to gain from what he or she has to offer, then it is far more likely that treatment will be successful.

–Posted by Jonah Green

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