How to Choose a Psychologist for Your Child

How to Choose a Psychologist For Your Child

Choosing a Psychologist to support you and your child as you navigate through the maze of parenting and child development can be tricky and a little daunting.

You may have been given a list of names, and somehow you need to select the right person to help.

How do you choose? What qualities should you look for in a psychologist?

Even though I am a psychologist, the best way for me to answer this question is like a mum.

Like you, I love my children. I love them so much that the word ‘love’ doesn’t feel big enough to describe the strength of my feelings. Bearing that in mind, I’m looking for someone I can entrust with the wellbeing of my child and a piece of my heart.

So if you’re looking for a psychologist to help your child you need one that will support you to help your child above all.

The Six Essential Questions to Consider When Choosing a Psychologist (with my mum-hat on).

  1. Has the psychologist got experience in the area that you’re concerned about? For example, if your child is struggling with attention, has the psychologist worked with children with attention difficulties before?
  1. Will your child feel safe with the psychologist? Do you think they are someone your child can have fun with? Because learning new skills doesn’t have to feel like hard work, no play. In fact, with children it’s more effective if it’s fun. How do you know if your child will feel safe enough with the psychologist if you haven’t chosen them yet? Trust your judgement here. You know your child best, and you should have an opportunity to at least speak with the prospective psychologist before booking an appointment for your child.
  2. Does the psychologist speak with language that you (and your child) can easily understand? We need someone who will be able to communicate effectively with us. No big words that leave you or your child feeling confused and even more vulnerable.
  1. Do they exude warmth and empathy? For your child to progress and receive the help they need, you will need someone you can talk to with no fear of judgement. After all, if you don’t feel their warmth, how can you expect your child to feel comfortable enough to receive their help?
  1. Will they just listen? This is one of the most important points you need to consider. If it’s all talk, talk, talk, you won’t feel that what you have to say has been heard.
  1. Go with your gut. Ask yourself “Do I feel relaxed with this psychologist?” The ability to build rapport and the quality of the relationship are two important predictors of the effectiveness of the intervention.

For me personally, I’d also want the opportunity to have a good chat with the potential psychologist before they meet my child. I’d like the opportunity to talk to them without my child being in the room. Who wants to share all of their concerns in front of their child? Not me. During this chat, I’d also get a sense of their warmth and personality. Do I think they would be a good fit with my child?

This is exactly why I – now with my psychologist’s hat back on – always give parents the opportunity to meet me first. The first session with me is without their child, because as a parent, this is exactly how I would like to be treated. There’s no way I could feel right reporting all of my concerns to a psychologist with my child present, and I’m positive you wouldn’t either.

And if you have seen other psychologists in the past and you feel disheartened that they weren’t right for you, please know that this wasn’t a reflection of the psychologist’s skills, nor an indication that psychological therapy or assessment “hasn’t worked,” but simply an indicator that the relationship wasn’t the right one.

Please, do not let this stop you pursuing working with a psychologist, just keep searching until you find one that will support your journey with your child.

Above all, when choosing a psychologist to work with your child, I wouldn’t be too concerned with the number of letters after their name. Because what’s so much more important is choosing a psychologist who is kind, who will listen without judgement and who will equip us with the tools and information we need to navigate our way through our moment of challenge.

I believe that when it comes to our children, what could be more important than feeling heard and finding answers?


Dr Nicole Carvill
About the Author: 
Dr Nicole Carvill (BA(Hons) PhD MAPS) 

Nicole is a psychologist, presenter, author and mother, passionate about helping children/adults to understand how they learn best and to assist them to gain the skills they need to thrive. 

Here is a snapshot of her professional highlights:

+   Presenter for the Pearson Academy on understanding the impact of working memory and attention on learning and life.

+   Awarded PhD scholarship to research how to support people caring for a child, parent or partner with additional needs as a result of an intellectual disability, mental illness or age. I’ve met many amazing and inspiring people so far.

+   Researched the impact of pregnancy on memory skills (and after two pregnancies I know all about the brain drain during pregnancy!).

+   Worked within a Multi-disciplinary Autism Assessment Team under guidance of Dr Richard Eisenmajer at Gateway Support Services.

+   Worked with Preschool children with developmental delays while supporting their families, Specialist Children’s Services.

+   Worked as a Clinician within the Behaviour Intervention Support Team, Disability Services [DHS].

+   Regional Co-Ordinator (Barwon South Western region of Victoria) for Program for Students with Disabilities, Lewis & Lewis Psychological Consultancy.

You can find Nicole and more of her work on her website, http://thinknicolecarvill.com or Facebook.

16 Comments

Inpsync

I totally agree on your points, child should feel comfortable with the psychologist. The point you have quoted above going to help me a lot .

Thank you!.

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Amy W

Thank you for pointing out that a child psychologist will exude warmth and empathy, allowing for your child to progress and feel comfortable. I’ve been thinking of taking my daughter to a professional counselor. It’s good to know what to look for when I begin to search for a counselor in my area.

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Ellie D

I really like that you suggest finding someone with warmth and empathy. My daughter is needing to see a psychiatrist and I want to make sure we find the best one possible. I’ll have to look into finding the best services in my area.

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Millie H

I totally agree when you said that we should trust our instinct when choosing a therapist. As you mentioned, one should feel comfortable with them to really have a quality session. I will keep that in mind when I start looking for a counselor for my son. We just need to seek professional help already because our son has been avoiding us and keeps on running away.

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Julius Amberfield

It sure got my attention when you said that when it comes to finding a psychologist for the child, it is best to go for one who speaks in a way that I and my child can understand. I will surely keep that in mind since my little girl is only six years old. It would truly be appreciated if the psychologist who will help her get over her anxiety will talk to her in a friendly and understandable manner. Thank you!

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Scott

It’s interesting that you mentioned finding a therapist that you won’t feel judged by. I have been looking for someone to help counsel my family. I can see how it would be smart to choose someone nonjudgemental because my family isn’t very trusting of people who judge them.

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Larry

I appreciate the advice to find a psychologist that speaks in a language that you can understand. Both my child and I could use a psychologist after a traumatic incident during a car crash. It hasn’t been an easy time, but we’re hopeful that we can get the help that we need through getting counseling.

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Harper

Due to recent events, I am wanting to find my child a psychologist to help her get through this. It really helped when you said that we need to look for one that speaks with language that both her and I understand. I will really appreciate having someone I can talk to, and know how my child’s progress is going.

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Jackie Oliver

My child has had a hard time the last little while, and I think that having him see a psychologist would be really beneficial. I’m not sure how to choose the right one, but I like your point about listening to your gut. If you have a really good feeling about someone, and feel like they would work well with your child, then it is good to go with that person.

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Jorge

I appreciate that you point out the importance of finding a child psychologist that can speak a language that the child can easily understand. This way the child can be easily understood and can understand what is going on and can get the help they need. This only helps both psychologist get an accurate feeling for what they can do to properly help the child get the care they need to be mentally healthy and happy.

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Maggie Allen

Thanks so much for sharing! I can definitely agree that it would be much better to talk to a psychologist first without your child present. Plus, not bringing your child can make it a lot easier to visit multiple psychologists if you’re still looking for “the one.” Do you happen to know if psychologists usually offer a free initial consultation?

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Dana

Just went though finding a new therapist for my 10 year old son who deals with anxiety – usually at night – and in regards to food because of his severe dairy allergy. I am proud of myself because I naturally did a lot of what you recommended above.
I like this new lady – she’s very empathetic and I feel relaxed with her – as does my son after his first session with her. He talked a lot more than I thought he would! However – she is not a psychologist, but a licensed therapist. What are you thoughts on that? Does someone need that degree to effectively help?

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Hey Sigmund

Be guided by your son and by your own intuition. A person certainly doesn’t need a psychology degree to be a good counsellor, though they would need some sort of training. There are plenty of ways to become a counsellor or a therapist. A psychologist has a psychology degree which means that they have received training on various counselling models but other things as well, such as various forms of assessment, interpretation of research, etc. If someone has a masters or a doctorate, then they will have particular expertise and extensive knowledge in that area. A psychology degree, as with any degree, is no guarantee of competence. There are plenty of people with psychology degrees or counselling degrees who are ordinary when it comes to working with people, as there are plenty of professionals in other areas who have great degrees but aren’t great at what they do. Of course there are also plenty of good psychologists and there are plenty of good counsellors. I would consider it really important that the person you are working with have training and experience in the area and the questions here are a great guide. I’m not sure what ‘licensed’ means in this particular instance but presumably if they are licensed, they have completed some sort of training and are registered with a governing body. If this is the case and your son is talking and likes her, then I’d say that ticks a lot of important boxes.

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Yael Clark

A lovely piece and I hope I meet these criteria for my parent and child clients. Unfortunately we work in a system usually governed by Medicare, a system which does not rebate for sessions if the child is not present. There is an inherent contradiction in the FPS mandate which includes “parent skills training” but not parent sessions! Medicare needs to rebate parent sessions. I have found ways to work around this, as have most of us child psychologists, however more of us need to be advocating for best practice (parent only sessions) at the highest levels. One day I will get around to meeting with policy makers!

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Hey Sigmund

I absolutely agree with you! Psychologists have one hour a week with a child (sometimes less), and even though that’s really important it’s the parents who have the greatest capacity to make a difference. Parents are generally really motivated and capable of doing this – they do great things with the right information. None of us were born knowing everything, and it just doesn’t make sense to make it difficult (costly) for parents to access the information they need to be able to be the best they can be for their kids.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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