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Ask a Therapist: How Do I Find a Good Therapist for My Teenager?

“My teen is in need of mental health therapy and counseling, but there are so many options out there. How do I find a good therapist that meets their specific needs?”

There may be any number of reasons your teen needs professional help. Perhaps you have noticed they are struggling with:

Whatever the reason, a visit to your child’s pediatrician or general practitioner is an excellent first step toward emotional wellness. The doctor can use your teen’s medical history to make recommendations for treatment options that could include a comprehensive assessment by a mental health specialist and who to contact, including teen therapy centers.

If no specialists were recommended by your child’s doctor, the best route is to start with a general psychology practitioner. This practitioner can recommend either themselves for further treatment or provide guidance on other providers who may have skills better suited to your teen’s needs.

Understanding the Types of Mental Health Professionals

Mental health specialists work as part of in-person treatment practices, online practice groups, and intensive treatment facilities that provide residential treatment options. These practitioners are credentialed and licensed individuals who fall under the scope of either psychiatry or psychology. Depending on their credentials, most are allowed to provide counseling as a form of treatment. You can find psychiatrists and psychologists by searching your health insurance plan’s providers or visiting Psychology Today.

Psychology vs. psychiatry: What’s the difference?

Both psychology and psychiatry are areas of medical expertise that focus on a person’s emotional well-being. The key difference between the two is that psychiatric specialists are typically the ones to prescribe medications if they’re needed as part of your child’s treatment plan.

Psychology specialists

In this group, providers typically can’t prescribe medications. They focus on counseling.

  • Clinical psychologists can give psychological evaluations and tests, diagnose mental health conditions, monitor health, and use individual or group therapy as a treatment option. In some states, clinical psychologists are allowed to prescribe medication. These clinicians usually have a Ph.D. or Psy.D. after their name.
  • Licensed professional counselors (LPC) hold a master’s degree in psychology, counseling, or a related field, qualifying them to diagnose mental health conditions and provide individual or group counseling.
  • School psychologists can provide psychological testing, diagnosis, and counseling. They are not typically sought out as a primary source of therapy but sometimes work with an adolescent’s family and mental health practitioner to provide further support as needed.

Psychiatry specialists

In this group, providers typically can prescribe medication, and some may provide counseling.

  • Child/adolescent psychiatrists are medical doctors whose education and training have been focused on biology and psychology. They can prescribe medication. Unlike a pediatrician or general practitioner, they are specifically trained to look for underlying medical conditions that could present as psychiatric symptoms. Because their focus is mostly on the medical cause (or lack thereof) of a condition, psychiatrists can provide counseling but often suggest that patients seek that form of treatment elsewhere.
  • Psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioners have specialized training allowing them to diagnose and treat conditions related to mental and emotional health, depending on their level of training and certification. Depending on the state where their license was issued, they may be able to prescribe and monitor medications.

Choosing the Right Mental Health Therapist for Your Child

According to Nicole Pingel, a licensed professional counselor with Calo Programs, a residential treatment center for adopted preteens and teens, when selecting a mental health clinician for your teenager, you should find a provider or therapy center that specializes in teen counseling. These professionals have special training focused on treatment approaches tailored to this age group. One way this training is provided is through Certified Child and Adolescent Trauma Professional (CATP) certification. Teen counseling training helps therapists work with teens diagnosed with issues including attachment disorders, trauma, autism, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bullying, anxiety, and more.

Pingel said the best reason to find a teen counselor is “That’s what their training and experience is specifically geared toward. Somebody who didn’t have training in child and adolescent experiences may not have as much focus or understanding on how those early developmental experiences may affect the client over different domains of life, such as school, home, and work.”

Teen counseling can be done individually in one-on-one sessions or via group therapy. These sessions aim to provide your adolescent with a safe space where they feel free to talk about their feelings. This open exchange allows the practitioner to work with them to identify problems and discuss ways to develop healthy coping mechanisms and achieve mental wellness.

Counselors are skilled in different therapeutic methods. Understanding which treatment style is being used before beginning and discussing these styles with your teen can help everyone know what to expect. Allowing your child to take part in the selection helps them build trust with the counselor while ensuring they are comfortable with the chosen treatment approach.

Teen counseling centers provide any one or a combination of the following:

  • Certified alcohol and drug counseling: This treatment is provided by counselors with specific clinical training in drug and alcohol abuse, allowing them to diagnose conditions and provide group therapy services to teens in need.
  • Relational/attachment therapy: Relational therapy, which promotes healthy relationships as essential to well-being, helps teens improve their relationships with key people in their lives, while attachment therapy focuses on creating healthy, nurturing, secure relationships between a teen and parent.
  • Dyadic developmental therapy (DDT): Less known but very effective, this method of therapy focuses on interpersonal relationships by addressing attachment security and emotional connections.
  • Family therapy: Family counseling helps adolescents and their family members improve communication while providing support for all involved in the family treatment group.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps teens identify harmful thought patterns and teaches them how to replace those patterns with more positive ones to boost their self-esteem.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT is used with teens diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) or those who are suicidal or otherwise engage in self-harm. It is a type of cognitive behavioral therapy that focuses on acceptance and change.
  • Group therapy: In group therapy, often performed in teen therapy centers, counselors lead multiple participants in a discovery of methods for coping with mental health issues. This type of therapy is designed to help participants improve mental health conditions associated with social and other group settings, such as social anxiety.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): IPT is a common counseling strategy used with teenagers diagnosed with depression and self-esteem issues. IPT helps teens recognize how their relationship with others affects their own emotions and teaches methods for gaining better skills for relating to others.
  • Somatic therapy (ST): ST is a method of treatment that focuses on incorporating therapeutic work on the mind, body, and spirit. It is typically used for children with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Treatments often include use of meditation, breathwork, dance, massage, sensation awareness, grounding, and visualization exercises.

Helpful Tips: Questions To Ask a Potential Therapist

Once you decide which type of practitioner and treatment approach may work best for your teen, during an initial consultation, you should ask:

  • Are you credentialed and licensed to practice in your state?
  • How long have you been in practice?
  • What type of practice setting do you work in?
  • Which age group do you specialize in?
  • What type of counseling methods do you specialize in?
  • What will be the treatment frequency, what outcomes can we expect, and how long might treatment last?
  • What role does family therapy play in treatment?
  • If my teen’s needs change during therapy, do you offer different levels of service, and if so, what are they?

A final question you might have is “How common is it to have discussions with and input from parents during the course of therapy?”

Pingel said in her experience, parental involvement often depends on the approach. For example, at Calo, a residential program, there are weekly family therapy sessions where the entire family interacts with therapists. The therapist will provide regular updates and communication about the sessions.

In an outpatient setting, Pingel said, sometimes parents sit with their teen during individual therapy. She added that it’s best if the parent is not present so the child can freely express themselves. She also noted that when the teens are still minors, parents will be privy to some information during private sessions.

“The therapist will provide parents with general information about what’s happening, especially if there’s an immediate safety concern, such as self-harm or suicidal thoughts,” Pingel said. “The parents, in turn, can provide valuable information to the therapist about what’s going on in the home from their perspective.”

General information includes how issues brought up in therapy could be affecting the teen in their daily life. Therapists could then educate parents on how to respond to and help their child.

In addition, Pingel said, parents should ask their therapist to coordinate with other providers, such as a school, psychiatrist, or occupational therapist, to ensure continuity of care across all areas.

Be Flexible if You Don’t Find the Right Fit

Even after thoroughly evaluating your options and selecting a practitioner you like, understand that there may not be a perfect fit between your teen and their practitioner right away. It may take a few sessions for your teen to settle in with a therapist, so encourage them to give it a bit of time. That said, it’s always OK to stop treatment with one therapist and seek out another. According to Pingel, feeling comfortable with the therapy center, counselor, and treatment approach the therapist takes is imperative for your adolescent to find success with their mental health treatment.

Infographic showing options for parents looking for a good teen therapy center

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Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of clinics and programs offering premier mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of adolescent and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark is unlike any other behavioral health organization in the United States. Embark offers a full continuum and spectrum of services, a unique 25-years of specialization, a deep legacy of serving youth, and a set of internationally validated outcomes that drive treatment in real-time. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including wilderness therapy, long-term residential treatment centers, short-term residential treatment centers, day treatment, partial hospitalization (PHP) programs, intensive outpatient programs (IOP), outpatient, and virtual counseling visit www.embarkbh.com.