By Kathy Kuhl

Sometimes parents consider a child’s difficulties and wonder if a mental health professional might help. But they have concerns. So this fall, I interviewed Dr. Richard Ruth, a psychologist practicing in Silver Spring, MD.

How do parents approach psychologists? When should we consider taking a child or teen to a psychologist? How do we find a good one we can work with?

Pride and Prejudice?

RR: There are two sets of ideas that parents often have in mind about taking a child to see a psychologist.

Some parents think it means something awful. They feel backed into a corner where don’t want to go. A stigma has grown up for all kinds of reasons. Psychologists can be expensive, and parents may wonder how they’ll be received if they are religious or they believe in homeschooling.

Other parents are as eager for their child to see a psychologist as they are to spend $7 on coffee at Starbucks. It’s an ‘in’ thing, whether needed or not.

Both categories are oversimplified, but they exist.

KK: When should a parent consider taking a child to a psychologist?

RR: Psychologists can be helpful whether a parent feels like there may be something going wrong, or going differently than how they thought it might go. A professional’s input can be useful to them. A behavior they didn’t expect, that doesn’t seem to be moving in a good direction. Unevenness in learning or style of learning or pace of learning.

Psychologists who do assessments can be helpful with anything that relates to learning, thinking, emotions and behavior. All psychologists are trained in giving assessments, but not all of us focus on it.

If parents has an honest question about any of those issues, has tried what they can, and if things are going amiss, then we can be helpful.

Who to see, how to search

KK: How do parents find a psychologist who is a good fit for their child or teen?

RR: Some are better than others. It’s important to search carefully because parents can expend significant resources of finances and of the heart.

If the child is being seen for an academic-related problem, virtually no insurance pays for it. So choose carefully.

It’s hard, just as it’s hard to find a good pediatrician. Ask around. Be an informed consumer. Try to sniff out potential prejudices.

If the family is evangelical Christian, say so: “We are evangelical Christians. Do you have experience and comfort working with evangelical Christians?”

If you get an awkward reply, you can look elsewhere.

State psychological associations are good places to look. They will refer you to a local psychologist. Associations may know who’s experienced in dealing with religious families and with homeschooling families.

Pastors of any kind are very good at knowing good local mental health professionals.

There are a fair number of psychologists who in lots of ways are not so up-to-date, who are more “one-size-fits-all” than I wish. More and more, going to a psychologist is like going to a pediatrician. Some pediatricians will say “I think she might have strep” and treat without doing the relevant tests.

It’s the same with psychologists regarding behavior or emotional problems. The parent may come to an initial visit and say, “I think my child is anxious, but nothing more is fundamentally wrong.” But it may take a psychologist two or three conversations before figuring out that there are other issues.

Preparing for the first visit

RR: I usually direct parents first to the free public information publications of the National Institute of Mental Health. 

But I stress that what they read should be a starting point for a conversation with a mental health professional, not a substitute for it. There’s so much information that it’s a challenge for a family to integrate it all, and, too often, books for parents present opinions as facts – just like they do when discussing home schooling. If parents read something from the NIMH, make a list of their questions or concerns, and schedule a consultation with a mental health professional, a lot can be accomplished.  It’s no longer the case that just talking over things yields an automatic recommendation for years of therapy. At least not in my office.

What’s next

Searching for the right psychologist is as important as finding the right pediatrician. In part two, we’ll ask Dr. Richard Ruth why anyone would want their child labeled and when to see a neuropsychologist instead of a general psychologist.

Have you taken a child to a psychologist? What do you wish you had known? Please answer in the comment section below. Thank you.