Is Counseling Really Necessary?

counseling children and teenagers

Local Professionals Answer 4 Top Questions

Living in a society where people are encouraged to talk about their problems is good, but it can sometimes be difficult to know when a child needs more than a conversation with a parent or friend. How do you know when your child needs professional counseling? Professionals from Wishing You Well Counseling Center and James River Counseling Center answer some of the commonly asked questions.

Is my child’s anxiety normal?
“Anxiety is normal for many children when there is something they have not done before, such as the first day at a new school,” said Lavinia Garbee, co-owner of Wishing You Well Counseling Center and licensed counselor since 2000. “When there is a prolonged period of difficulty or a child had adjusted well previously and begins exhibiting changes in behavior, counseling may be warranted. Problems may include reluctance to going to school, physical complaints, crying, difficulty sleeping, social withdrawal, irritability, change in appetite and/or a drop in grades.”

Elizabeth Jenkins from James River Counseling Center says some anxiety is normal for everyone and is not always a bad thing. She said, at times, anxiety can even cause motivation, but there comes a point where it passes a “normal” level.

“When anxiety about school interferes with a child’s ability to go to school and feel successful about their day, counseling may be indicated,” Jenkins said. “Also, if a child can go to school but anxiety compromises the quality of the child’s life and their ability to function, interferes with sleeping, ability to concentrate, etc., counseling is indicated.”

My teenager has shut me out of his/her life. What should I do?
In the teen years, is it not abnormal for children to start pulling away from their parents. Becoming more individualized is part of a young person developing into an adult.

“At the same time, it is very important for parents to stay connected to their adolescents and be involved in a supportive role with their academics and extracurricular activities,” Jenkins said. “Parents need to ‘be in the know’ regarding their children’s friends and their involvement on social media. Teenagers need privacy, but that is different than secrecy.”

Jenkins advises that if a young person begins to withdraw completely from parents or family, and exhibits behavior such as spending inordinate amounts of time in his or her room, constantly being angry or sad, and is extremely resistant to offering parents any information, counseling may be helpful.

“Some degree of shut down is developmentally appropriate,” Garbee said. “Teens generally begin spending more time alone and desire more time with their friends. An extreme change in behavior, however, might indicate that counseling would be beneficial.”

Garbee defined extreme behavior as changes in personality, lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities, decline in grades, tearfulness, crying spells, and in more serious cases, drugs or self-injury.

“If a parent is unsure, I would encourage them to seek professional help,” Garbee said. “It is important to ‘trust your gut’ when it comes to your child.”

Something big happened in our family. Should I seek professional help for my child?

Another reason you might need to consider counseling for your child is when your child experiences significant life changes, such as a death in the family, divorce, new siblings, a new stepparent, and so on.

“Children may experience a number of responses from anger to sadness to denial to ambivalence,” Jenkins said.

Garbee encourages people to be “proactive” rather than “reactive.” “This often helps minimize escalation and avoid situations that could cause a child to act out or begin self-harm,” she said.

Helping your child cope with a loss or change is crucial. Jenkins explained that it is important to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings.

“Accept that their feelings are valid, even if you do not agree with them,” she said. “Encourage conversation about the event that is triggering the feelings.” Trying to maintain “normalcy” in a child’s life, such as the child’s school placement, staying in the same home, keeping in touch with friends and extended family, and so on, will help a child.

“It is important to know that children grieve differently at different developmental stages,” Garbee said. “Loss or trauma experienced at the age of four may need to be dealt with again at the age of nine. The assistance of a counselor can be helpful with this.”

Is counseling really worth it? Why can’t I just talk to my child?
According to Garbee, there are numerous benefits to seeking counseling, including improving self-concept, enhancing communication skills, and expanding emotional vocabulary.

Additionally, it can improve family relationships and prepare children for future life stressors.

Jenkins also explained that “counseling can reinforce the idea that it is okay and, in fact, beneficial to seek help when needed.”

It’s also very important to make sure a child understands that counseling is a good thing.

“Counseling is never to be presented to a child as a punishment. If counseling is presented as seeking support during a difficult time or as a problem-solving intervention, a child will hear that message and likely respond accordingly,” said Jenkins.

By Megan L. Horst