Types of Emotional Help Available for Your Child

By Peg Rosen
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At a Glance

  • Children with learning and thinking differences are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues than their peers.

  • “Psychotherapist” is a general term to describe professionals who evaluate and treat mental health disorders.

  • Not all psychotherapists provide the same services.

It might not surprise you that children with learning and thinking differences may also struggle emotionally. Research shows that these kids are four to six times more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder than other kids their age.

Deciding that your child needs outside help with his emotional issues can be tough. But getting him the help he needs can make a big difference in his life.

There are many kinds of services available, but they’re all generally called “psychotherapy.” This is because they all provide therapy for mental health issues. Not all of the professionals who provide these services have the same training or can meet the same needs. So it’s important to choose the option that works best for you and your child.

Here’s a brief look at some of the choices you may have when your child needs psychotherapy. Make sure whichever professional you choose is licensed to practice in your state.

School Psychologist

Training: Master’s degree (some schools may require a Ph.D.). Specializes in school psychology and education.

How she can help: A school psychologist can observe your child in the context of his everyday life and counsel him. There’s no charge for the service, and individual counseling can be added to your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP), if he has one.

Possible drawbacks: You or your child might not feel comfortable with the particular psychologist on the school’s staff. And your child may feel self-conscious about having sessions in school. A school psychologist who doesn’t have a Ph.D. may be trained to focus on school-related issues and not have the background to handle broader issues. Additionally, if your child doesn’t already have an IEP, it can take time to set one up so he can get the counseling he needs.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)

Training: Master’s degree in social work. Has training and a license to provide individual and group psychotherapy.

How she can help: An LCSW can evaluate your child and provide therapy for him. LCSWs may be more affordable and accessible than other professionals, like psychologists.

Possible drawbacks: LCSWs don’t have the same in-depth training as psychologists. Some may not be as well-versed in learning and thinking differences.

Psychiatrist

Training: A doctoral degree in medicine, with four years of medical school, plus a four-year psychiatric residency.

How she can help: A psychiatrist can provide diagnoses and prescribe medication that may help with your child’s anxiety, depression or other mental health issue. If a psychiatrist feels talk therapy is needed, she may provide that, too, or refer you to a therapist.

Possible drawbacks: Ongoing talk therapy with a psychiatrist can be expensive; many do not accept insurance. Some psychiatrists also may focus more on medication management than on therapy.

Advanced Practice Registered Nurse (APRN)

Training: Master’s degree and/or doctoral degree in psychiatric mental health nursing. (Psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners, also called nurse practitioners or clinical nurse specialists, have doctoral degrees and earn additional degrees, such as a Ph.D. or Ed.D.)

How she can help: Certified nurse practitioners can evaluate your child and provide therapy. Many states also permit clinical nurse practitioners to prescribe medication.

Possible drawbacks: It may not be easy to find an APRN with a clinical practice in your area.

Psychologist

Training: Doctorate (Ph.D., Psy.D.), clinical practice, one-year residency and postdoctoral training. Psychologists can have postdoctoral training in different specialties. You may want to find a psychologist who has received postdoctoral training in pediatrics.

How she can help: Psychologists are extensively trained to assess, diagnose and treat learning and psychological issues.

Possible drawbacks: Psychologists can be expensive, and insurance may not cover all costs.

Mental Health Counselor

Training: Master’s degree in counseling or counseling-related work. (In some states, mental health counselors may be called professional counselors or clinical professional counselors.)

How she can help: Mental health counselors are trained to counsel you and your child. They’re usually less expensive than more extensively trained practitioners, like psychologists.

Possible drawbacks: The quality of training for mental health counselors can vary widely. Some very good practitioners are available, but even they generally don’t have an educational background in assessment and psychological theory.

Marriage and Family Therapist

Training: Master’s degree, at minimum; some may have a Ph.D. and postdoctoral training.

How she can help: These practitioners are trained in therapy and family systems. They can treat emotional and mental illnesses in the context of the family. If your biggest concern is about how you and your child are relating to each other or how his issues are affecting your family as a whole, this type of counseling may help.

Possible drawbacks: Family counseling on its own may not be enough to address your child’s individual emotional or mental health needs.

Your child’s doctor may be able to give you more options and guidance. No matter which professional you choose, be sure to check references carefully. Learn more about what to consider when looking for a therapist, and get more information on medications.

Keep in mind that while training matters, a practitioner’s experience and the chemistry you and your child have with her can be equally important.

Key Takeaways

  • A school psychologist can help your child at no cost, but she might not have a background working with your child’s specific issues.

  • Psychiatrists, and in some areas, advanced psychiatric nurses, can prescribe medication.

  • Length and depth of experience and your comfort with a practitioner can matter more than her title or training.

About the Author

About the Author

Peg Rosen 

writes for digital and print, including ParentCenter, WebMD, Parents, Good Housekeeping, and Martha Stewart.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Laura Tagliareni, PhD 

is a pediatric neuropsychologist in New York City and a clinical instructor at NYU Langone Medical Center.

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