Finding Mental Health Care for Your Child

Anxiety and depression are on the rise in kids as young as 3 years old. Today, children and teens are dealing with stressors that most parents never imagined.

Over the past few years, they've had to adjust to ever-changing routines and expectations at home, at school and in their in-person and online interactions. It has become even more important for parents to be aware of their children's internal struggles and know how to get help.

Events that can impact your child's mental health

All children face life changes, but each child handles these changes differently. As a parent, you can help by being aware of events that can negatively affect your child's mental health. Examples include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Separation or divorce
  • Witnessing violence at home or school
  • Financial instability
  • Suicide of a friend
  • Relatives in prison
  • Gender or racial discrimination
  • Bullying (in person or via social media)

Showing support & knowing when to explore treatment

During difficult emotional times, you can show support by listening, taking their child's words and feelings seriously, and minimizing your child's stress whenever possible.

Sometimes the internal struggles a child faces are more than a family can handle on their own. It can be difficult but necessary to reach out to a trained professional. They can develop a treatment plan to improve your child's mental health.

Where to find help

Your child's doctor

One of the best places to start is with your child's pediatrician. They are usually the first person called with a concern about a child's physical health. It should be the same with your child's mental well-being.

Your child's pediatrician is familiar with your child, their health and their disposition. They can help you identify areas of concern early on. Many pediatricians have begun to screen children for depression starting at 12 years of age. They can provide a list of mental health professionals in your current insurance network.

Your child's school

Schools​ have a wealth of resources available to support social-emotional learning. The classroom teacher may reach out to you when they notice changes in your child's attention, focus or response to other students.

Schools have support personnel in place, such as school social workers, therapists and counselors. These licensed professionals help with testing, diagnosis and the development of a school support plan.

Counselors may also be able to provide referrals to free or reduced-cost local providers. In some cases, they may provide services to your child during the school day. Some schools sponsor the Rainbows for All Children program that provides grief support for children. For more information, visit the Rainbows for All Children program online.

Friends & relatives

It's likely that many of your friends and family members have dealt with mental health issues themselves or with their own children. They may be able to provide referrals to their own therapist or one in their therapist's network. Your friends and family know you and your children well, which can help with recommending a professional who is a good fit.

A firsthand review of a provider's style can help your decision-making process. It is helpful to have friends and family support you on the journey to improve your child's mental health.

Hospital or emergency department in urgent situations

It may take a while to find a provider and schedule an appointment. If your child shows symptoms of severe depression or suicidal thoughts, reach out to a medical professional right away. Call your local hospital, or, if necessary, take your child to the emergency department.

Signs of mental health struggles to watch for include:

  • Changes in sleep pattern, appetite, social activity and personality (easily becomes tearful, angry, or frustrated)
  • Self-isolation
  • Negative self-talk
  • New struggles with chores and schoolwork

Insurance coverage for mental health care

If you have private insurance, you may have to use its network providers. Contact your provider to get a list of in-network therapists and to confirm your mental health coverage. Before scheduling an appointment, it is best to know in advance how many sessions are covered, what percentage of the cost is covered, and whether there is a co-payment.

If your family does not have a medical plan that covers mental health, there are many local clinics that provide referrals and free or reduced-cost mental health services. Your county health department is a valuable resource in this area.

Finding the right therapist & treatment

Give it time

Finding the right health care professional takes time. On paper, a therapist may have the right credentials and great references. What matters is how the therapist connects with your child. For a child to learn and grow, they have to feel comfortable with and be willing to talk and trust the provider. You may have to try a few therapists to find the right fit.

Treatment plans are not one size fits all. Your provider will talk with you, your child, and, possibly, the school to come to a proper diagnosis. From there, they will create a treatment plan to meet your child's needs. Listen to what the therapist suggests, ask questions, and be open to possible changes to the treatment plan.

Once treatment begins, give it time to work. If medicine is prescribed, it may take weeks or months to find the right dosage, one that provides the right impact. Be positive and consistent with treatment and/or medicine for the best results.

Trust your instincts

Because you begin with one provider does not mean you need to stay with them. It may take time to find a provider that is a good fit for your child and their needs. Also, if you are not comfortable or sure about the diagnosis or the treatment plan, it's OK to a seek a second opinion. You may want to consider changing providers if your child:

  • hesitates more than usual to talk with the provider or you after sessions.
  • has shared negative feedback about the provider.

You may also want to consider seeking a different provider if your child's overall outlook doesn't seem to be improving. However, keep in mind that it may take time for the provider to build trust and a connection with your child, and that most behavioral treatments take time.

Release ​any stigma

Remember, many children are going through the very same issues as your child. Mental health is a health issue no different from severe allergies or heart problems.

If your child had asthma, you wouldn't hesitate to get them an inhaler or albuterol treatments. If your child had diabetes, you would make sure they had insulin shots and a glucose meter. By connecting your child with a professional therapist, you are helping them take an active role in their own treatment.

Supporting your child & yourself

When a child is dealing with medical or mental health issues, you are their advocate and supporter. They are taking their cues from you. Remember to:

  • Stay calm and positive
  • Listen to your child
  • Try to minimize stress

While treating your child's mental health, don't forget about your own. There are parent support groups through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), your local hospital and some faith communities. You are not alone on this journey.


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