Many parents spend a great deal of time and effort thinking about whether or not to engage a professional in the support of their child’s mental health. Often this is a long process, and parents may have given ample time to see if things change spontaneously, or if their concerns are something their child will grow out of.
When these concerns remain, and the choice to seek professional support is made, parents can then find themselves faced with an overwhelming and often confusing array of professions and trainings. It can be difficult to know how to go about selecting the right kind of professional to assess their child’s mental health.
There are many different professionals offering different levels of training, and different approaches to therapeutic work with children. How can parents know if someone is suitably trained to offer mental health support to their child?
Whilst therapeutic modalities may vary, we believe that there are a few baseline considerations to be made when selecting professional help, and these can broadly be categorised into the four areas.
1. Professional registration
As a minimum, we recommend that parents seek the services of professionals accredited by the appropriate professional body. Members of the Association of Child Psychotherapists, the British Psychological Society and the Royal College of Psychiatrists will all have undertaken extensive and specific training in child and adolescent mental health and as such are appropriately registered to provide therapeutic work. Further, these professional bodies are themselves monitored by independent groups to ensure they adhere to rigorous standards of professional ethics and continuing professional development.
2. Specificity of working with children
It may sound obvious, but it is important to ensure that professionals are specifically trained to work with children. Many training programmes will teach counselling and psychotherapy skills for adults, with a brief top up training (sometimes of as little as a few weeks) in adapting these skills to work with children.
In our view, clinicians should have thorough training in understanding childhood mental illness, and therapeutic technique in engaging, working with and ultimately helping young children and adolescents alike.
For example, clinicians trained specifically to offer clinical work with children and adolescents will understand that symptoms of depression in a 9 year old boy can look very different to symptoms of depression in a 17 year old girl. Similarly, the way in which one would go about treating these difficulties would vary according to age, and a thorough understanding of this is necessary for effective treatment.
3. Training in developmental psychology
Developmental psychology is the academic study of the way in which the minds of infants, children, teenagers and young people grow and adapt. There are many subdivisions of this field of study (for example cognitive development, emotional and relational development etc), and many clinicians will have a particular area of specialism within these categories.
It is important that any clinician that a parent engages has some experience and qualification in developmental psychology as this allows clinicians to make accurate and informed assessments of when and how a child’s development may have been impeded, and the effect this may have had on their emotional or mental health. Developmental psychology teaches us about the timing of milestones that children can be expected to have achieved, and often clinicians will have this in mind when taking a history of a child or young person’s difficulty.
A background in developmental psychology also helps a clinician adapt their therapeutic technique so that it is appropriate to the developmental level of the particular child they are working with.
4. NHS background
A number of professionals in NHS CAMHS teams are considered “core”, in that it is encouraged that they be represented in all teams. Also, for some of these trainings, including psychiatry, clinical psychology and child psychotherapy, clinician’s training is funded by the NHS – these professions are considered important enough to invest public funding in, in order to provide balanced and highly qualified clinical teams.
Child psychotherapists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists will all have completed substantial NHS work, and many continue to hold NHS or academic posts whilst working in private practice. Having considerable NHS experience means that a clinician will have worked with a wide variety of difficulties, across the age ranges, using different modalities of treatment.
Ask questions to find the right therapist
Never be afraid of asking questions of your child’s therapist. Your child’s mental health is important, and it is crucial that you feel able to approach any professional involved in their care with reasonable enquiries.
How long was their training? How much experience do they have with the specific difficulty you are enquiring about? Are they able to refer on to other professionals?
Professional clinicians will welcome enquiries and opportunities to discuss their training, in order to ease the anxieties of parents trying to navigate their way through mental health services.
Trust your instincts. Research shows that the quality of client/therapist relationship is often a better predictor of good outcome than the specific modality of therapy offered. Whilst it is important that a clinician can evidence thorough training, it is also important that you get a good sense that they are able to help your child, and that your child will get on with them as well.