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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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