It’s a question I often get asked and to be honest there is no straight answer. But let’s start with a few questions before tackling that one.
Firstly, what do psychologists do?
Broadly speaking, most psychologists provide assessment and therapy to clients, help facilitate social change for individuals or groups, and administer psychological tests to individuals or groups.
What are psychologists trained in? I’m worried that it will contradict our family’s Christian perspective.
All registered psychologists have a six-year training schedule that starts with four years of training at university level. Psychology is an evidence-based science and the therapy used is considered to be best practice. While psychology is not aligned with any faith, a major part of the last years of training is around ethics and being client-centred—psychologists are trained to meet people where they are at. A good psychologist will understand a person’s values and faith and incorporate that into treatment. However, there are Christian psychologists in the community, and most likely your church will know of these people.
While the Bible does not speak directly about psychology, we live in a sinful, broken world, and just as you would see a GP for physical health, psychologists are there for your mental health. There is still so much stigma around mental health, and though I see it steadily improving, this can be at times the biggest hurdle in getting help early. Often when children need extra help in the area of mental health, they need love not judgement, and a space where they can be heard and valued. Families partnering with psychologists can be of great benefit here.
Where do I find a child psychologist?
A good place to start would be your school psychologist. Most school psychologists are trained to know a little about everything. They can intervene and provide support in the early stages but are also a good place for advice for a referral to an external psychologist who has expertise in working with children in your area. The psychologists’ professional body, the Australian Psychological Society (APS), also has a database of psychologists you can search (www.psychology.org.au). GPs can refer you to a psychologist as well and are a good starting point as they can refer you under Medicare with a care plan.
So, back to the original question: when should you take your child to see a psychologist?
I think the simplest answer to that question is that it’s time to get some professional advice when a problem of any sort impacts your child enough that it interferes with their day-to-day life. Initially, I said there was no straight answer to this question. That is because God has designed us all to be unique, so the impact of any problem will be different for each person. For each child, we also need to take into consideration typical developmental behaviour and milestones, as well as personality. Context also helps: is the problem only happening at school, is it a family issue or a developmental concern? The answers to these questions will help shape the type of psychological intervention that will be best for your child.
The best thing you can do for your child is to get help early. Small problems are easier to fix than big ones! Even just a couple of sessions with a psychologist can make the difference in turning things around.
It is also important to understand that the relationship between psychologist and child/client is an odd one! It is a one-sided relationship where a large amount of trust is placed into the psychologist’s hands. There are times when a psychologist isn’t a ‘good fit’ for a child. This doesn’t mean they are a bad psychologist but that parents may need to find a different psychologist with whom the child feels more comfortable.
I mentioned earlier that if a problem interferes with day-to-day life then it is time to see a psychologist. But what would this look like? Here are some common symptoms that we see in kids who are not coping for whatever reason:
- changes in sleeping habits
- changes in eating and toileting
- not meeting developmental milestones
- loss of motivation or energy
- a change or regression in behaviour (psychologists see behaviour as a form of communication in children and will often ask, ’what is this behaviour trying to communicate to us?’)
- being worried or sad/teary more than usual
- not wanting to do things they usually enjoy
- expression of unhelpful thinking
- expression or actions of self-harm or suicidality
In isolation, some of these symptoms are not an issue but together they may paint a picture of a child who needs assistance. If a child is suicidal or expressing self-harm-type behaviours or thoughts, please seek medical intervention immediately.
Need more advice?
Some good websites or organisations to get help from are
Alyson is a psychologist who has been working with children and families for nearly 20 years. As a mum of 3 boys she is passionate about families and health professionals working together to improve health and wellbeing. She loves her church family in Dapto and see it a privilege to walk alongside young people in her current role at Illawarra Christian School. Her hope is that one day there will be little stigma around mental health and that people will experience love not judgement in times when they need it the most.
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