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Advice for Selecting a Psychologist

Created on August 5, 2017. Last updated on December 13th, 2020 at 05:43 pm

The world of child and adolescent mental health is often unfamiliar to many families, and trying to navigate it can be bewildering. Deciding whether your child would benefit from therapy and then finding the best treatment can be a difficult undertaking; it is hard to know who to trust with your child’s well-being and whether the treatment prescribed will be effective. Arming yourself with the knowledge to be able to ask the right questions and know what to look for in a therapist – and what to avoid – will help to clear up some of the murky waters of mental health treatment.

Questions to Ask When Selecting a Psychologist:

Is the Therapist Licensed?
It is misleading for someone to call themselves a “therapist” without the proper licensing and training, but many continue to do so. While some providers declare themselves therapists, in reality, they lack the professional license that deems them fit to treat children’s mental health disorders. Without this license, there are no assurances that they have received any kind of training. A professional license not only ensures that the therapist has had formal mental health training, but it also ensures that they are following your state’s ethical and legal codes.

You can determine whether a therapist is licensed by looking at their description on their website or alongside their name and title. Every state also has licensure boards for every type of mental health license where you can confirm that your therapist is licensed and see whether the board has ever taken any action against your therapist for ethical violations. Parents should look for someone titled:

  • Licensed psychologist
  • Licensed psychiatrist
  • Licensed social worker
  • Licensed counselor
  • Licensed marital and family therapist

What Treatments do They Provide?
Children’s mental health professionals offer a variety of treatments, but it’s important to know that not all therapy is created equal. Research supports the use of particular therapies over others for various behaviors or disorders. That’s why parents should ask whether a treatment is supported by scientific evidence.

Are They Willing to Provide a Treatment Plan?
A therapist should outline a detailed treatment plan that includes everything they plan to do, and how the treatment will specifically address your child’s difficulties. This plan should clearly show the benchmarks for progress throughout the treatment and provide information on how long it will last. Tracking progress will help determine whether the treatment should be continued or modified. If your therapist does not provide you a treatment plan, you can simply ask how they plan to determine whether the treatment is effective.

Possible Red Flags to Spot in Choosing a Child Therapist

If it Sounds Too Good to be True, it Probably is
Parents should look for various warning signs when choosing a therapist. First, if a therapist promises that they can use one form of therapy to treat many varied disorders, it’s most likely too good to be true. For example, one therapy website claimed that it could use the same approach to treat ADHD, depression, marital conflict, and dementia – four very different problems. This kind of statement is not likely to be based on truth.

Second, are they claiming to know something that no one else knows? If a therapist makes claims that they hold the secret to ridding your child of anxiety and no one else can provide the same form of treatment, it is most likely a misleading sales tactic. Additionally, it is a red flag if their treatment plan seems to be working against conventional wisdom, or if they are recommending treatments that are not supported by science. For example, statements like–“The pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know about this treatment because it will make their profits drop” or “Scientists are conspiring to keep you from knowing about this treatment”–are misleading and usually untrue.

They Promise the World
Most therapists enter this profession because they want to do all that they can to help children with mental health disorders.  However, some may make empty promises to patients and families. If a therapist is promising quick, dramatic results, it would be a good idea to step back and take a look at what they are offering. Most likely, these kinds of promised results are not practical or achievable, so it is best to stay away from them.

Another possible “danger” sign is if a therapist suggests that a certain therapy will take years to show progress. While some childhood conditions, such as autism-spectrum disorders, do require long-term treatment, many research-supported treatments last only 12 to 16 sessions. If a therapist is offering treatment that lasts longer, a parent may want to ask more questions about why it will last that long, the particular benchmarks their child will meet along the way, as well as the cost.

They Don’t Rely on Research
Another cause for concern is whether the therapist relies mostly on testimonials instead of research. For instance, instead of research support for their treatment, some therapists will provide quotes from clients as evidence that their treatment works. While it is always nice to hear that former clients were happy with treatment, it is difficult to know how many unhappy clients are not being quoted.

Therapist Directories

Below we list several directories you can use to locate a mental health care provider. These free directories are provided below as a resource for you, but do not represent an endorsement of these therapists. Rather, it is up to you to learn about each therapist and his/her qualifications to make a decision that is right for your family. Remember, some therapists are qualified to offer evidence-based treatments that have been scientifically proven to work. But some are not.

American Psychology Association – Psychologist Locator

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT)

Psychology Today


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If you believe you need immediate assistance, please call your local emergency number or the mental health crisis hotline listed in your phone book’s local government pages. If you do not live in the United States or Canada, contact your national psychological association or local mental health facility for information. Please read our Disclaimer Statement to understand the terms of this directory.

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