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What kinds of problems cause parents to seek help from a child therapist?
The following vignettes are hypothetical and represent common parent concerns and reactions. They do not describe any real person or family in my practice. Parents and patients are given fictional names.
Vignette #1: Joey
Mornings can be so hard in our home. It is tough to see our 10 year old Joey dreading the day ahead of him. He often does not want to get up in the morning. He looks at me with a sad face “Please let me stay home, mommy!” “I know, it’s hard for you, buddy,” we say, “but try to be positive.” Joey is quiet during breakfast and we try to distract him by talking about the movie we saw over the weekend. He looks down at his cereal and shakes his head. “I just hate going to school. The kids keep teasing me. I have no friends and am sick of it all! Don’t make me go back!” This is becoming a daily occurrence in our home and we do not know what to do.
Vignette #2: Elena
My daughter Elena is 15 years old. She is a friendly and thoughtful girl in the tenth grade. Elena has always been a cheerful girl, who enjoys spending time with her friends and playing her guitar. Lately, I have noticed a change in my daughter. She keeps to herself much of the time, barely even using her cell phone, which in the past seemed to be connected to her ear permanently. She has stopped practicing her guitar, picks at her food, and seems sleepy much of the time. She just seems so sad and distant. The social worker from her school called last week and expressed his concern that Elena is not paying attention in class and her grades are slipping. The school is worried about her and thinks speaking with a therapist might help. When I heard this I didn’t know what to think. I never saw a therapist myself and do not know what to expect, but I feel helpless and want my daughter to feel better. I think the divorce is really affecting her more than we thought and she misses her grandfather, who taught her to play the guitar and lived with her for most of her life. We lost him last Spring. Maybe it would help her to speak about her feelings with someone outside of the family.
Vignette #3: Dave
Dave, our 6 year old, was diagnosed with a learning disability in the first grade. With great sadness my wife and I have watched Dave’s self-esteem plummet, as his friends began to read and write. Dave’s learning disability makes it difficult for him to decode and reading aloud in front of his class can be torture for him. Other children, not understanding his difficulties, taunted him, calling him “dummy” and “stupid head.” We told him to try and ignore the teasing and even spoke with his teacher, but this was a lot to expect from such a frustrated and ashamed child. Eventually, Dave could not take it anymore and shoved a child to the ground after he told him to “go back to pre-K” after misreading a word. It became clear that we needed to take action to help Dave feel better about himself and looked for a child therapist he could speak with.
Vignette # 4: Annie
Our daughter Annie turned 11 last week. We love her so much, but she has been quite a handful for us as long as we can remember. As a baby she was difficult. She did not want to sleep. She did not want to eat. We remember her screaming and screaming. We felt terrible, blamed ourselves, and tried out the suggestions of the many people who offered advice, only to feel frustrated once again when nothing worked. As a young child Annie showed many strengths. She is a good athlete, liked by other children, and very intelligent. She has also been a hyperactive child her whole life and this has helped land her in a good deal of trouble. In the classroom, Annie has trouble sitting still. She fidgets constantly and has even left the classroom impulsively. As you can imagine, the teachers were not pleased. If Annie is interested in a subject, like science she can focus and do extremely well. On the other hand, if she finds the subject boring, like writing, she cannot stay on track and disturbs other children. We are concerned that she is not doing as well as she can in school and fear that it could get worse. We worry about Annie socially, especially as she is getting older ,because her impulsivity makes her a follower. She is a good kid, but makes bad choices. Recently, Annie decided to go out with a group of friends from the neighborhood and she returned at midnight without calling us. Annie was seen by a psychiatrist and he prescribed medication that helps her stay focused, but Annie sometimes refuses to take it. She is clearly frustrated as well and returned from school once in tears and said “what is wrong with me? I just don’t get it? Why am I like this?” We are definitely feeling in need of some help and wonder if having a therapist to help Annie work out her feelings might be useful for her and for our family.
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Ari E. Fox, LCSW-R provides child and adolescent psychotherapy with a specialty in school-related issues to individuals and groups in the New York metropolitan area. NYC DOE provider.