Good Counsel: Seeking professional help for your child

Something is bothering your child or holding him back. You’ve tried talking to him, but can’t get anywhere. Lorraine Cook suggests it’s time to seek professional help.

Everyone goes through ‘bumps’ in life, and as painful as it is to see your child not his ‘happy self’, often these challenges are key moments of growth and maturity, where resilience becomes a part of his character and personality. Research is finding that parental efforts to fix everything for children, to prevent them from ever being sad, disappointed, or hurt, is actually harmful to their long-term success. Despite our desire as parents to do everything we can to make our children happy, such actions are not always best in the long run.

However, when a ‘bad day’ becomes a ‘bad week’ or a ‘bad month’, or you realise that you can’t remember when your child was last really happy and content, you are wise to look for assistance, just as you would if your child has a physical pain that won’t go away. There are many professionals available to help, but where to begin?

Accepting your need for help

The hardest step is often the first one – deciding that you need help with the situation. Unlike physical problems, where we tend to easily accept tests, examinations, medications and referrals to other professionals (like a physiotherapist, perhaps), when issues are emotional or behavioural, where concerns might be about troubling moods, unexplained anger, lingering sadness, difficulty with social relationships and more, then we tend to be less inclined to seek help.

The reasons for this vary. Some parents worry what others will think of their inability to cope with their child’s issues. What’s more, friends often brush our concerns aside. It’s not uncommon to be told that it’s nothing, or normal, or just a stage. People often advise us that we should ‘just get over it’, or they remind us that others have it so much worse. None of these platitudes are at all helpful – they actually make things worse, because now there is often guilt (for not being grateful for what you have) and shame (that you don’t recognise it).

Even close friends, who are kind and trying to be helpful, are typically unprepared to offer the sort of assistance that a professional can, as friendship and therapy are very different relationships.

If you fear judgement from friends, family or community, it’s important to know that confidentiality is a keystone tenet for those that work in this area, so others will not hear about you from them. In addition, should you decide to talk with friends about seeking help, you may find that many have also had to reach out in this way, or have known someone in their family or close friendship group who has.

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The struggle is that an unfortunate loop of secrecy can exist, where individuals are reluctant to tell others that they have sought help (out of fear for how this information might be judged), but it is this same secrecy and fear in others that prompts them to do the same.

Another common concern is that of labelling. Parents are sometimes hesitant to have their child see a therapist as they are afraid he might be labelled in some way and that this will make things worse. Sometimes, however, a diagnosis is fundamental to determining best strategies. Dyslexia is a good example of this, as knowing what is limiting your child’s ability to read leads to specific actions that will help.

Importantly too, there is a growing trend across the helping disciplines to move away from labelling individuals, (for example, labelling a sad child as depressed). Instead, therapists focus on a variety of strategies to help make things better.

Finding a good fit for your family

So how to choose who to see, especially when there are so many options — psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, counsellor or life coach? And then, as you look further, there are further categories, sub-categories and approaches, all of which can help you to make a choice if you understand the differences, but which simply add to the confusion if you don’t.

Hong Kong offers a wide variety of professionals available to help. As a group, they offer a range of educational qualifications and training, varying years of experience, and countless techniques and strategies. Be aware, however, that professionals here have often earned their credentials in different educational systems around the world, and similar sounding designations from one country can mean something quite different in another. At the same time, each therapist will take a slightly different approach, even if they have the same qualifications, training, or years of experience.

Probably the greatest distinction is between psychiatrists and others in this field. Despite popular myth (think Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip – The Doctor is in!), taking your child to see a psychiatrist is not usually the first step unless your situation is critical. Psychiatrists are specially trained medical doctors, who are able to prescribe medication. Most require a referral from another professional, whereas others in this category typically do not.

Ultimately, there is no way to declare one constellation of education, experience and approach as being definitively ‘better’ than another. The important thing is to find what works best for you and your child – it’s a matter of finding a good fit between your family and your expert. Therapy is a dynamic process.

Taking the first step can be the hardest but, for most families, even after one session, there is a bit more clarity, a bit more calm, and the beginning of hope that things are going to get better. If you are concerned about your child, it is definitely a step worth considering.

Lorraine Cook (M.A. Psych) is a counselling psychologist at The Development Practice in DB North Plaza. You can email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. , or visit www.childfamilydevelopmenthk.com.

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