“Your child needs help” they said. “Something is not right with him” they said. “Maybe you should take her to see someone”. That’s all very easy for other people to say, but how do they know? How do you know if your child has a problem and if your child does have a problem? How do you find the best person to help them? Surely it takes more than just “seeing someone”?
How do you know when your child might need help?
Yes, there are some days when we could all use someone to talk to about our worries, fears or problems and children are no exception! In terms of taking your child to see a psychologist, there is a general rule of thumb that can assist. If your child’s problem has persisted for some time and is starting to get in the way of them having a happy and regular life, then it might be time to consider getting them (and you) some extra help.
For a child, a happy and regular life usually means that they sleep, eat, go to kinder/school, have fun with friends, maybe they are involved with a class or group outside of school and generally do what they are told (most of the time). Things that might indicate that something is not right could include trouble regularly attending school, taking far too long and far too many companion toys and glasses of water before going to sleep at night, melting down at the idea of a sleep-over or school camp or suddenly they are not meeting the expected targets with their school work or their behaviour takes a change for the worse. If a child is in danger because of how they feel or what they are doing, your priority should be to get them help straight away.
What does a psychologist do?
A psychologist’s job is to help with emotions, learning and behaviour. Psychologists use scientific research to understand how people think, feel and behave and to help them fix personal problems. They can help to diagnose and treat mental health problems, learning issues or challenging behaviours and relationships. Psychologists can work in hospitals, community health centre, for welfare agencies and in private practice.
To help a child with a problem, a psychologist needs to get to know a lot about the child, their experiences and the situation. They need to ask personal information and keep it confidential. In essence, the practice of good psychology is all much easier to do if the psychologist can make your child feel comfortable and retain professionalism. You and your child and maybe even your child’s school, need to be able to form a good working relationship.
So, how do you find the psychologist who is right for you?
The Australian Health Practitioner Regulations Agency (AHPRA) is responsible for regulating many health professionals in Australia. The Psychology Board of Australia assists AHPRA to regulate the practice of psychology and protect the community by making sure practice guidelines are kept by registered psychologists. Psychologists must be registered with the Psychology Board of Australia to practice psychology (by practice I mean to engage in the art and science of applying the theories of behavioural science to a person’s problem – I don’t mean that they are still working on trying to get it right). If someone is not registered with AHPRA/PBA, then they are not legally allowed to practice psychology in Australia. You can check a psychologist’s registration status, their qualifications and their endorsements (additional qualifications and supervised practice in a certain type of psychology) on the AHPRA website.
Like many professions, psychologists in Australian have a professional body that represents its members’ interests. The Australian Psychological Society (APS) is a group that psychologist can join to help them stay abreast on what is happening in psychology in the country, to assist with keeping up to date with new findings and to lobby the government or other authorities about psychological issues. Members of the APS pay an annual membership. Membership of the APS is voluntary and psychologists don’t have to be a member of the APS In order to practice psychology in Australia. The APS has a “Find a psychologist” service, but members also have to pay to use this service and there are many psychologists who choose not to use it. The “Find a psychologist” service is largely for private practitioners so it does not tell you about all the psychologist in your area who might be working in a hospital, community health centre or in a school.
Your general practitioner may know the psychologists in your area. Paediatricians and psychiatrists usually have a good idea about the psychologists who work with young people in their area. I always like to think that people could ask their doctor, paediatrician, psychiatrist, school principal or teacher…“If it was your child, which psychologist would you want them to see? “
Better still, call a few psychologists in your area and have a talk with them about what they do and how they do it. You will need to ask about the costs of meeting with a psychologist. Your doctor should be able to tell you whether any rebates apply to psychology fees.
You might also want to ask the psychologist about their qualifications. The qualifications and requirements for being a registered psychologist have changed a bit over the years. There are psychologists who have doctoral or masters level degrees from universities and some psychologists who have gained some of their qualifications from university and from learning in the field. Some psychologists will have additional qualifications and experience in certain areas.
Psychology is a growing profession and the research and information about the most helpful ways to assist others and it is important that a psychologist stay up to date. AHPRA/PBA keeps track of psychologists’ additional qualifications and they also check whether psychologists are keeping their skills up to date.
Parents and Carers – Don’t be frightened or put off by suggestions that your child get some help. You know your child. Listen and watch them and spend time with them in the places or at the times when the issues seem to be biggest. If you do decide to see a psychologist for your child, you may want to see the psychologist on your own first. (You’ll need to check whether a session without the child is eligible for any rebates because this is sometimes a tricky area with funding bodies). Seeing the psychologist alone can mean you can talk without little ears hearing your worries. Alternatively, ask the psychologist if you can have some brief time alone with them before the child joins you for each session. If you are still not sure about the type of help that would be best, you can always call Parentline or its equivalent in your State.
Teachers – It helps to encourage a family to engage with a psychologist if you can tactfully explain what you are seeing that concerns you. It can help if you find out a few psychologists in your area that may be able to assist so that the family has less leg work to do to engage with a psychologist.
Psychologists and Helpers – Make sure you take time to welcome young people to your service with an age appropriate greeting. Don’t try too hard to be “hip and jiggy with it”. Children can tell when you are faking it or trying too hard and this can be off-putting. Make sure you have some age-appropriate reading material in the waiting area and also that you have some “things and stuff” to visually demonstrate concepts. Children don’t usually sit down opposite a grown up to talk. Be prepared to take some time to play or engage and explain what is going to happen.
Kids – Seeing a psychologist doesn’t mean that you are looney or crazy. You would probably be surprised to know how many of your friends have seen someone else outside family and school to help them with different problems. You may never know which of your friends is already seeing a psychologist because psychologists are good at keeping that information to themselves. It’s not something they want to blab about. You can find out more about what it might be like to see a psychologist by visiting http://kidshealth.org/kid/feeling/emotion/going_to_therapist.html.