Every summer most therapists who work with children and adolescents see a noticeable dip in their caseloads. Kids go to camp, families go on vacation, or they just want to take a break from their usual routines. For many families, their children’s problems seem to occur mainly in the school environment, so when school is out, things get better. So understandably, families stop or reduce services like psychotherapy, or they are less likely to seek it out.
The other trend we therapists often see is that come September or October, kids and families return to therapy, or new referrals start pouring in. As behaviors lead to disciplinary issues or contacts home; as disorganization, unwillingness to do work, or distractions impact grades; or as social issues mount, a logical reaction is to reach out to someone for help. This may prompt parents to speak with their pediatricians or to search for a therapist or psychiatrist- either on their own, or because it was recommended by school staff.
As a psychologist and a parent, these trends make sense. I’m writing this, however, because I believe that to be proactive in parenting is better than reactive. Sure, one school year might differ from the next, children develop, and things can happen that lead to issues we can’t predict. Our child may have had a stellar year in 5th grade, but in 6th (middle school for many), he is a mess and his grades take a dive. Or our child may have always liked school, but this year she becomes anxious about it and no longer wants to attend- much less participate or socialize with peers. These are just a few common examples, but more likely, if a child experiences issues in any given school year, these will continue (to some degree) in the next.
We would all like to believe that a “bad year” for our child was just that- that it was the teacher we were assigned who either couldn’t teach or who was a bad fit for our child- that it was the mix of kids our child got put in with- or that the last year was just a bump in the road. Sometimes this is the case, and I know we all hope for that. But most often, particularly if there was more than one “bad year”, during the next we’ll be in for more of the same. None of us want our child to “have problems”, so we tend to make excuses, rationalize, or just hope for the best. Yes, I do believe that it’s not the worst thing for a child to have to struggle a bit to learn and to build some resilience, but I also believe that often this can be more than they can really handle. When this happens, kids flounder, they suffer, and often so do the parents.
As you prepare to embark on another school year, I would encourage any parent to think about the following things: your child’s outlook toward school (does he love it, like it, tolerate it, or hate it); grades; attendance; behavior; relationships with peers and teachers; and social life. Have there been issues in any one of these? And have they been present for more than just one year? Are there any negative trends? If the answer is yes to any one of these, my professional opinion would be to talk to someone about it now- and not to wait until you shift into full crisis mode.
After you take an honest look at your situation, you can do two things: 1) wait it out and hope for the best, seeking out help either at the first sign of a problem or when things get bad enough; or 2) as school approaches, locate some appropriate resources and get started, pre-empting some of these issues and having a plan in place, should it become necessary.
If you choose to take the second route, here are the steps you can take, which should prove helpful in particular to those who haven’t sought out services before:
1) Figure out what kinds of services might be appropriate. For most issues a good place to start would be a therapist (a psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, licensed professional counselor, licensed marriage and family therapist, etc.). If you are not familiar with any therapists, here is how you can locate one who might be a good fit for your child and family.
a) Ask your pediatrician for a referral.
c) Ask a school counselor for a referral.
d) Speak with friends or family members about any therapists they might know.
e) If you plan to go through your insurance, go online or call your insurance company for a referral.
* Many therapists do not directly take insurance (they are fee-for-service), but they will provide documentation for you to submit to your insurance at their out-of-network rate.
2) Contact some local therapists and consult with them by phone about your situation. If the therapist can’t take your case, he or she should be able to provide some other referrals.
3) Attend a consultation with a therapist and see if you think it feels like a good fit or not (if this is someone your child can connect with and who you think could help him, her, or your family).
4) If you already have a therapist or have seen one in the past, give him or her a call about scheduling an appointment- even if it’s a one-time check-in for the child or parents to discuss a plan.
5) Of course, there is a middle ground too. You might not choose to start anything before school- due to your preference, being away on vacation, etc. It would be a good idea to at least find some people you can call if needed, saving you the stress and difficulty of finding someone for an immediate appointment.
6) There are other options besides therapy as well. You may seek out tutoring, occupational therapy, social skills training, substance abuse services, psychiatric services, and so on. You can find these all online, as well as by speaking with some of the people I referenced above. The services you seek will depend on your situation or preference.
I hope this is helpful, and of course that none of this becomes necessary. The truth is, though, that things happen. Some years or periods of your child’s development will be more difficult than others- for him or for you- and some issues will persist or perhaps worsen as time goes on. Despite the stress that this can cause for your family, I wouldn’t view seeking help as a bad thing. Therapy in particular is an investment- in your child, yourself, or your family. A lot of important skills can be learned, tough situations can be conquered, and progress can be made- not just temporarily, but lasting for many years.
Here’s to a happy, healthy, and successful year for you and yours.
Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA. He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues. You can view his Psychology Today profile here. For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or firstname.lastname@example.org.