For Black Parents, Deciding on Therapy For a Child Can Be Difficult

Black families who want to seek help with mental health may be reluctant to after years of racial trauma and failures in the healthcare system, but it's possible to find the right therapist with the right steps.

Black communities have experienced untold trauma and despite our best efforts to heal—namely through creativity and determination to survive—sometimes pain persists. Moving through life, especially while parenting, can feel challenging knowing that legacies of discrimination and racism continue to plague Black communities. It also makes it hard for us to show up how we'd like to in our families.

Often, Black families are left to process these continuous stressors, with little to no support. Stacey Younge, a licensed clinical social worker who owns private practice Sixth Street Wellness in New York, works with adults and adolescents experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma and says the persistent trauma experienced by Black communities has resulted in a "survival mentality." Yet, unfortunately, she notes mental health has not been prioritized in Black communities, historically, mostly due to the overwhelming task of trying to cope with racism.

"This is in great part to how the generation before us coped during intense extreme circumstances being America," she says "Our identifications were erased. We were subjected to brutal violence and our families were irrevocably broken. We weren't afforded the luxury to consider it a part of our health at all."

All of this is compounded in Black communities who have also witnessed how the medical system fails Black families overall.

Now, more than ever, Black communities are rejecting the weight of historical trauma and moving towards healing and wholeness. Black parents and caretakers are leading the way. But it is hard knowing if, and when, to seek mental health support for our children, especially as we navigate a reasonable sense of skepticism towards mental health supports, like therapy, and lack of access to the resources we need to heal from trauma.

Consider these suggestions when deciding on therapy for your child.

Young girl sits on a couch talking to a therapist holding a clipboard and wearing a hijab
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Know the signs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that children experience mental illness and mental health disorders, as well. Mental health issues impair children in many ways and often require additional considerations when it comes to learning, interacting with others and handling emotions, which can be a source of additional distress. While there are conditions that cannot be officially diagnosed until adulthood, children experience many, like anxiety, depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"PTSD occurs after someone has experienced an event or a series of events that impacts their ability to function on a day to day," says Younge. She says it can look like anxiety, or can present physically and leave youth tense, responding with fear or aggression that seems uncharacteristic of who they are.

Try to determine your goals for therapy in advance.

The process of locating a therapist can be overwhelming. It can feel even more so if you're seeking someone to support your child and possibly become a long-term member of their care team.

Younge says avoid introducing therapy like a punishment or consequence for something that was done wrong. "It's important when we see signs of depression, anxiety or they're acting out, that we don't panic," she says, noting parents can check in when they notice something is off with their child and say, "Hey. Therapy—is that something that you'd be willing to give a try?" It's important to really give children some agency and some choice in the matter.

She says the best place to start is by asking questions like, "What do I hope to do in therapy?" and "What do I hope to achieve?" This is true whether you're seeking a therapist for yourself or a child. Be mindful of what your child has experienced or what symptoms they are struggling with. Many seek a therapist to process a trauma. But it's OK if you're not clear on the goals when seeking support.

Younge says sometimes individuals don't know what their goals are, and they need help processing some of the information in their heads. Clients can seek options based on insurance, or pay out of pocket. They can also use flexible services like tele-health. She also notes those seeking therapy should be clear about the differences between a psychologist and psychiatrist, or therapist or counselor unless they need support through medication.

Determine what kind of therapist best supports you and your family.

Younge says the qualities someone looks for in a therapist vary from person to person, but those seeking support should ask themselves, "Who do I feel like I can really connect with?" She also recommends testing out the relationship for at least three sessions, unless you see major red flags like the therapist talking over you or saying things that are culturally insensitive.

Younge knows it isn't always easy to get family involved in the process. She believes the most effective tool in efforts to convince them is being transparent about personal experiences, especially since, historically, mental health services have been underutilized in Black communities.

"If you're talking about your kids and they're asking, 'What is therapy? I don't need that,' you want to find someone who specializes in working with young kids," she says, noting that when working with youth it's important to make them feel comfortable, but they won't necessarily be excited to be there—especially as teens.

There are different types of therapy for children but the best method depends on the age and needs of the child. Younger kids may benefit from less intensive forms of support like parent-child interaction therapy, family therapy and child-centered play therapy.

Adolescents and teens can express themselves more clearly. They might find benefits in collaborative therapies like group therapy or family therapy, or therapy methods like cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps identify and address negative thought patterns, or dialectical behavior therapy, which helps clients learn to cope with conflict and significant emotional distress.

Lean into hard conversations.

Children are incredibly perceptive. They're often overlooked in conversations about mental health support, but more and more research suggests Black youth are processing as many, if not more stressors, than adults. The reasons youth need therapy are diverse but the significance of having hard conversations is consistent, especially for children who have experienced trauma like domestic violence, for example. Racism, or race-based stress, is another painful, pervasive trauma children must learn to navigate.

She says children are resilient, but they need the space to discuss and process what they've seen and what they're feeling, even when it's uncomfortable.

"Sometimes kids feel guilty, think it's their fault or they should have done more to protect you," she says, noting the range of possibilities for children who have witnessed domestic violence."They need to be able to process that. Allow them to ask any questions that they may have. I know it can be incredibly hard to hold that information, but it can be incredibly helpful in the long run because then we can go in and understand their feelings.

It's worth noting that, like adults, children don't have to go to therapy for some catastrophic event. Sometimes they just need someone to listen as they process the world around them. And whatever you decide to do, you're doing a great job seeking support.

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