Making the choice to seek therapy for your child can be a huge decision. It may feel like you aren’t able to provide them with the support they need or that you have failed them in some way as a parent. However, this simply isn’t the case. By giving them an outlet to explore and work through their experiences, you’re providing them with a safe environment to grow and become healthy adults.
If you are thinking about seeking mental health treatment for your child or family, here are eight things you need to know before doing so.
Check Your Biases about Seeking Mental Health Treatment
When thinking about your own biases, it’s important to remember that everyone has them. Recognizing that you are not an exception to the norm and that you may be biased against something can be a humbling experience, especially if you are someone who tries to be an unbiased person. Because seeking therapy is a very personal experience, it’s important that you enter the process for your child and/or family with as clear of a mind as possible. There are a lot of commonly held beliefs about getting mental health treatment. In some communities, it is considered shameful or embarrassing; the person who is experiencing mental health issues would be seen as “crazy” or like something was wrong with them. However, at the end of the day, mental health is just as important as physical health and should be treated as such. By setting this precedent in your household, it creates a safe space for your child to come to you with anything they might be dealing with mentally.
There are many ways to learn about biases; a few resources can be found below:
- Implicit Bias and Mental Health article
- Unconscious Bias Training through Nonprofitready.org
- Anti-Defamation League bias resources for parents, families, and caregivers
Research Hasn’t Always Agreed When It Comes to Therapy and Adoption
For decades, there has been a debate within the psychological community over whether children who are adopted are more likely to experience mental health challenges than their peers who aren’t adopted. Many researchers have debated over the best type of therapy for adopted children. While this is still a common question for many parents and clinicians, the previously identifiable gaps in the literature are closing–to a degree. There is still a lot of work to do in the realm of conducting adoptee-centric research that is inclusive of everyone involved in the adoption constellation (everyone who is involved in the adoption journey), but the community has come a long way from its tumultuous beginnings.
It is highly recommended that any parent seeking mental health treatment for their child or family looks into this research.
Learn the Warning Signs of When Your Child Might Need Therapy
Although it’s well known that everyone can benefit from therapy regardless of their life situation or the type of therapy they choose to seek, there are some signs to look for in children to know that therapy might be a good choice.
It’s also important to remember to not automatically seek a diagnosis. Many children who have been adopted (in any circumstance) are misdiagnosed or overdiagnosed because practitioners fail to recognize the root cause of whatever presenting problem the child has. The North American Council for Adoptable Children featured an article by John Sobraske describing the multitude of factors that may affect the mental health of adopted children of all backgrounds:
- Genetics and family history
- Exposure to drugs, alcohol, or any toxic substance in or out of utero
- Death or loss (including the separation from their birth family)
- “Abuse, neglect, or trauma”
- Frequent moves in schools, foster homes, care of family members, etc.
- Being placed in a highly conflictual environment
- Being a victim of any of the “-isms” (racism, sexism, etc.)
Sobraske makes it very clear that any or all of these factors can play a role in how a child thinks and behaves. It is the job of the adoptive parents and any practitioners they work with to examine every potential cause, rather than making assumptions or falling prey to the biases about adopted children or children that come from the foster care systems.
Acknowledge Trauma and Work Around It
Many children who are adopted experience some form of trauma or will at some point in their life. Being separated from one’s biological family, especially the mother, has an effect on the child that is lifelong. While these effects may not be prevalent in every adoptee’s life, it is something that will always be true about their life. It is a form of trauma and should be acknowledged as such.
Within the past two decades, the psychological community has pushed for a new term to be introduced for those who experience different forms of trauma besides what is currently recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Complex-PTSD (or C-PTSD) is where an individual can experience more than one form of trauma. They may not fit the traditional diagnosis of PTSD simply because of the issues they are experiencing or the events they have lived through, so they cannot have an “official diagnosis”. This is especially important for people in the adoption community to acknowledge because it incorporates adoption trauma as a form of C-PTSD. Children can experience trauma as early as in the prenatal stages. They can also have developmental trauma, which is repeated exposure to a traumatic event or feeling.
By acknowledging the trauma that your child has experienced, you are validating their feelings. As adoptees, we can sometimes go our entire lives without meeting another person who can identify with the things that we’ve been through in our adoption journey. Engaging in meaningful conversation with someone who “gets it” can be a life-changing thing for many of us.
Educate Yourself on Your Child’s Culture and How It May Play a Role in Mental Health Treatment
Culture plays a large role in how people view mental health treatment. If you have an older child, they may have been raised in an environment that is different from how you grew up or what your family believes about mental health. Having a discussion with them about how they feel about going to see a therapist (or whichever option you are exploring) at an age-appropriate level will not only help build trust throughout the treatment process but also create an environment where they feel like their opinions and culture are valued. However, before having this talk with your child, it’s very important that you take the time to educate yourself on your child’s culture
If you are in a relationship with your child’s birth family, talk to them about their views on mental health. While every family has different levels of involvement in parenting decisions, it will still be valuable to you as a parent to hear their thoughts on how their culture handles situations like this.
Different Types of Therapy
Before deciding on a specific therapist, do your research into the different types of therapy that are available in your area. Communicate with your child’s pediatrician or primary care doctor to see if there are types they may recommend based on their knowledge of your child’s presenting behavioral or psychological symptoms. If they are having issues at school, ask their teachers or guidance counselors to meet with you and discuss their observations. Once you come up with the “symptoms” that you are hoping to work out with therapy, you’ll have a much better idea of what type of therapy you’d like to seek. Of course, talking with the therapist you ultimately end up working with will also give you a better idea of what type of therapy will be best for your child.
Regardless of the type of therapy you choose, you want to make sure that it is trauma-focused. Whether your child was adopted as an infant or at an older age, they most likely have experienced some form of trauma. In fact, most humans have a traumatic experience at some point in their life.
More creative types of therapy have also proved to provide both children and adults alike with an outlet to express how a traumatic or stressful situation made them feel. Play, art, and music therapy are three of the most common types of ways that people can engage in therapy in a non-traditional setting. Participating in these can also help those who may be reluctant to talk to a therapist ease into the idea of going to therapy.
Take Your Time to Search for the Right Provider
The necessary training to become an adoption-competent therapist is most often completed post-graduate school. Even though it’s slowly becoming common knowledge that adoption has a psychological impact on everyone involved, many schools do not have a specific training program for that area. The Child Welfare Information Gateway describes the importance of having adoption-competent therapists as vital, stating that they “understand that the origin of the child’s problems may be embedded in the abuse or neglect experienced before the child was adopted.”
Finding the right therapist for yourself can be a challenging task, much less trying to find one that matches well with your child. If you are seeking therapy as a family, it will be important to take everyone’s thoughts into consideration when evaluating your experience with a provider. Ultimately, some therapeutic relationships just don’t work out. Don’t take it personally if you have to try several different ones to get the right fit. Part of the reason that therapy can be so effective in helping adoptees (and their families) deal with trauma, grief, and other aspects of the adoption process is that the therapist has established a strong relationship with their client.
Different Types of Support
As discussed earlier, ensuring that you acknowledge any trauma that your child has been through is one of the most important steps to take when deciding whether they may need therapy or mental health services. It’s common to think that older children will have experienced more trauma than younger, but there are always exceptions to common thought. Being able to have your child explain their history or being able to accurately describe what they have been through to a therapist is a key component in establishing a healthy therapeutic relationship. It can also give older children the option of telling their stories in a safe place, which can be very validating.
Making sure that the therapy is age-appropriate will increase the chances that your child will respond positively to therapy. For example, if you take a 16-year-old to a play therapist, they could perceive it as juvenile and a waste of time. However, this type of therapy would be more appropriate for a child 10 years old or younger.
Including the child’s needs, wants, and perspectives into the decision is ultimately the most important thing that you will do in the process of seeking mental health treatment. The older the child, the more vital it is to make sure that they feel comfortable with and understand every step of the process. Without their trust and permission (except in extreme circumstances), seeing a therapist could have a significantly negative impact on their trust, attachment, and bonding with you. Place yourself in their shoes and try to understand their perspective as much as possible before making any decisions about them.
Deciding whether or not to seek mental health treatment for your child or your family can be a complex and difficult decision. There are many factors to consider about yourself and your child before you even begin to look at practitioners in your area. At the end of the day, however, including your child in as much of the decision-making process as possible and putting their needs at the center of your decision will help you make the right choice.
For more information about the Gladney Center of Adoption and the services they provide, please visit one of their three hosted websites: adoption.com, adoption.org, adopting.org.