Polaris Counseling & EMDR

Bryce Carithers, MA, NCC

Child and Teen Counseling

Therapy for Kids and Teens 

  • How do I help my child reach their full potential?
  • I have a troubled teen, but don’t know how to help with their problems.
  • How can I improve my parenting to help my child meet challenges?
  • How can a child counselor help my kid by playing?  
Like adults, children and teens are exposed to experiences that may be difficult to understand and process. Theirs is a rapidly changing world with new obstacles and experiences that few adults today experienced in their younger years. For many children, good parenting, positive family dynamics, and the child’s natural ability to learn and grow will be sufficient for negotiating these passages, but sometimes a different level of support is needed.  A child therapist is trained to provide the help needed in such situations.
When children and teens struggle, it shows up in their behaviors.  Anxiety may present as excessive worry or fear of certain people or situations, as separation anxiety in children, and can resemble symptoms of ADHD in both children and teens. Both depression and anxiety can manifest as physical symptoms such as persistent stomachaches and headaches, and teen depression is often marked by a lack of interest in activities once enjoyed. Teenagers, just as they begin to grow in independence and self-awareness, must adjust to changing bodies, romance and sexuality, bullying, school pressure, and peer influence. Additionally, emotions strike with new levels of intensity!  This challenging time comes before most teens have developed skills for dealing with such changes. Persistent anger, sadness, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, peer conflict, or changes in sleep, appetite or school performance are all possible signs that your child or teen may need some extra support.  As a parent, caregiver, or simply someone who loves and knows a child well, you will likely be one of the first to notice any changes in behavior or other signs that something may be off.  
Struggle and conflict are normal responses to growth, challenge and change
It is not uncommon for kids and teens to struggle with their new experiences and changes, and for many, it is the first encounter with significant emotional challenges. This is one of the reasons why depression, anxiety, and other emotional and behavioral problems aren’t uncommon during these ages. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found in 2014 that approximately 11.4% of the population between 12-17 years old suffered from at least one depressive episode during the previous year, and that approximately 25.1% of children ages 13-18 years experience some type of anxiety disorder.  Similarly, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found that as of 2011, about 11% of children aged 4-17 years old were diagnosed with ADHD.  These numbers reinforce how important it is to support young people through the vulnerable years by helping them develop positive coping skills, self-confidence, and an ability to form healthy relationships as a way to prevent further struggles in life.  
Trauma, in all its presentations, may be encountered by young people of any age. Its effects can be dealt with in therapy by developing emotional skills and healing resources, and by reprocessing past experiences so that they are neurologically organized in a healthier way. This approach is generally quite effective with young clients, and helps them move forward from past experiences feeling safer, happier, and better about themselves. (For more information about working with trauma in kids and teens, please visit the  EMDR page  of this website.)
While we can’t always predict what will feel difficult, overwhelming, or even traumatic to a young person, we do know that counseling for kids and teens can give them tools to regulate and express emotions, solve problems, and achieve the quality of life they (and we as their caregivers!) desire.
Children and teens are fully capable of healing and overcoming challenges
I approach teen and child therapy from a strengths-based, client-centered approach. This means that I regard my clients of all ages as having insight into their lives and struggles, as well as an innate ability to heal and grow toward their full potential. With younger clients, counseling places less emphasis on verbal conversation and more on the interactions and activities between the counselor and client.  These activities include games and different types of play and pretend that are informed by the treatment goals established between the client, family, and therapist.  The primary modalities of therapy that I draw from when working with younger clients are Play and Sand Tray Therapies (specifically, Child Centered Play Therapy), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), and Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT).
Therapy usually begins by exploring the problems that the client and family bring to counseling, as well as what has already been done to help with these problems.  Then, treatment goals are collaboratively chosen, and usually include alleviating the most prominent issues or symptoms by developing and improving emotional skills and problem-solving abilities.  For example, children who struggle with hyperactivity or inattention can learn new ways to express feelings, channel energy in productive or creative ways, and practice mindfulness to improve attention. Children and teens who experience bullying or peer conflicts can focus on communication skills like assertiveness, interpersonal effectiveness, and how to ask for help, as well as developing emotional skills to improve their senses of well-being, self-confidence and resilience in the face of conflict and pain.  Additionally, therapy always involves developing trusting relationships and identifying and building on personal and familial strengths.  The relationship between the client and counselor is therapeutic in itself, as it is characterized by collaboration and unconditional positive regard, and the child or teen is the one “in charge” and leading the way.  This approach helps create a unique environment in which the young client has a different and new type of cooperative experience with an adult while addressing their emotions and working on problems.
Childhood and adolescence are periods of time when young brains are at their most adaptive, flexible, and growth-oriented.  Young people can be great candidates for counseling and therapy because they are at the ideal stage for learning new ideas, perspective, skills, and ways of behaving and relating.

Frequently Expressed Concerns and Questions

How does playing help my child? 
Child centered play therapy utilizes a mode of communication and language that comes naturally to children, whose verbal skills are less developed than adults.  Games and play introduce therapy in a positive way and help children feel comfortable in the therapy room during early sessions. The positive and accepting atmosphere communicates to young clients that they are safe to open up and explore the sources of their struggles and find ways of addressing these through play.  Play and games are also opportunities to practice social skills and teamwork. Therapeutically, play and games can be ways to work through unresolved past experiences and internal conflicts through re-enactment, imagining different outcomes, and creating new meanings in a supportive environment.

Will I be involved in my child’s therapy? 
As a parent or caregiver, you are one of your child’s biggest resources when it comes to change and healing.  While I work individually with my child and teen clients a majority of the time, you will be involved throughout the therapeutic process, playing an important role during intake, goal setting, and regular check in’s.  At times, it may be helpful to schedule a session for parenting counseling to discuss new approaches to guidance to ensure that you are seen as a source of strength, hope and support by the young client.  I view therapy as working best from a team-approach, so I maintain open communication with caregivers and believe that your thoughts, concerns, and ideas are important and necessary pieces of the puzzle.  

How long will therapy take?
While there is no formula for determining exactly how long therapy will take with a child or teen, studies have found that an average of 20 sessions is typical for most children and problems brought to counseling.  Of course, numerous variables such as the severity of the struggle, the child’s age and developmental stage, frequency of sessions and the relationship formed between the counselor and child client can affect the time required.  When I work with young clients, I maintain an open conversation about the plan for therapy, the client’s progress as perceived by both myself and the caregivers, and when we should be able to expect therapy to be finished.