Key Takeaways Key Takeaways
  • Recognize the signs that your child might need professional Mental Health support.

  • Understand the challenges in finding a child psychiatrist and learn how to overcome them.

  • Consider the psychiatrist’s qualifications, communication style, and compatibility with your child.

Guide to Finding the Right Child Psychiatrist

Childhood and adolescence can be a rollercoaster ride of emotions and experiences, with normal ups and downs. However, sometimes you might notice changes in your child that seem out of the ordinary.

They might exhibit persistent feelings of sadness, anxiety or anger. Perhaps they’re having trouble at school, or their behavior seems drastically different. These signs can indicate that they might benefit from professional help.

Like a pediatrician for physical health, a child psychiatrist is important for a child’s mental health. Child and teen psychiatrists have the knowledge and tools to understand and help young minds in their complex world. They can identify, diagnose, and treat Mental Health Conditions, helping your child navigate their feelings and experiences in a healthier way. More importantly, they can empower your child with coping strategies, fostering resilience for their journey ahead.

“When a child is experiencing a physical health condition, most caregivers don’t think twice about reaching out to their pediatrician. Yet emotional issues in children can be trickier to spot and, understandably, some parents may not know how or when to involve a mental health professional,” said Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn. “Mental health should be treated no differently than physical health—they’re incredibly intertwined, and both play a critical role in children’s wellbeing and development.”

When a Child Needs To See A Psychiatrist

Parents and the child’s pediatrician are usually the first to notice signs in children (under 5 years old) that may warrant the attention of a psychiatrist. The NIMH website has more nuanced symptoms/signs for parents to look for.

Signs a Younger Child (Under 5 Years Old) May Need a Psychiatric Evaluation

  • Frequently displays tantrums or intense irritability.
  • Complains of unexplained stomach aches or headaches.
  • Finds it challenging to remain still, except when engrossed in videos or video games. Experiences irregular sleep patterns, nightmares, or daytime sleepiness.
  • Shows disinterest in engaging with peers or faces challenges in forming friendships. Struggles academically or has recently seen a decline in grades.
  • Engages in repetitive actions or checks things repeatedly due to fear of negative outcomes.

Signs an Older Child or Teen May Need a Psychiatric Evaluation

  • Exhibit a waning interest in previously enjoyable activities.
  • Experience a noticeable decrease in energy levels.
  • Display irregular sleep patterns – either excessive or insufficient – and show signs of daytime drowsiness. Increasingly withdraw from social interactions, avoiding time with friends and family.
  • Demonstrate extreme preoccupation with diet, exercise, or a fear of weight gain.
  • Participate in self-harm actions, such as cutting or burning their skin. Indulge in smoking, alcohol consumption, or drug use.
  • Engage in hazardous or destructive behaviors, whether alone or with peers.
  • Express thoughts of suicide.
  • Go through periods of heightened energy and activity, accompanied by reduced sleep needs.
  • Verbalize beliefs of external mind control or auditory hallucinations not perceived by others.

If you notice that your child displays any of the signs above, but unsure if a visit to a psychiatrist is necessary, bring this to the attention of the child’s pediatrician. Once you arrive at the appointment, your pediatrician may assess your child’s behaviors, emotions, physical abilities, and psychological status to try to determine what is causing the changes.

Your child’s pediatrician may also pay close attention to medical, genetic, educational, social, developmental and/or family factors that could be causing a change in your child’s demeanor, attitudes, moods and/or behaviors. If your child’s pediatrician feels that your child needs further examination, he/she will refer you to a child psychiatrist for additional examinations and assessments.

You may choose to seek a psychiatric evaluation for your child without consulting with a pediatrician by seeking a psychiatrist who specializes in children and adolescents.

Challenges in Finding the Right Psychiatrist for Your Child

Anyone who ever tried to book an appointment with a psychiatrist would likely admit it was a challenging experience. The intricate interplay of factors such as supply-demand imbalances, stigma, insurance complexities, the search for the right child psychiatrist match, and scheduling logistics collectively contribute to the challenging experience of securing an appointment with a doctor.

Locating a psychiatrist for children can prove to be an even more formidable endeavor, considering the array of factors previously mentioned. The scarcity of psychiatrists is compounded when it comes to specialists who focus on children and adolescents, exacerbating the challenge of securing timely appointments.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, there are approximately 8,300 practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists in the US and over 15 million children and adolescents in need of the special expertise of a child and adolescent psychiatrist. In May 2022 The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) released updated workforce maps illustrating the severe national shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists.

In addition to pediatric psychiatrist scarcity, convincing a child to see a psychiatrist can be a formidable task in itself, shaped by a variety of psychological and situational factors. Firstly, children, particularly adolescents, often grapple with a sense of vulnerability and a desire for independence. The idea of seeking professional help might be perceived as an admission of weakness or an infringement on their autonomy, leading to resistance or outright refusal. Moreover, societal stigma around mental health issues can influence a child’s reluctance. Worries about being labeled as “different” or “broken” may deter them from seeking support.

Additionally, children might struggle to articulate their emotions, making it challenging for them to comprehend the potential benefits of psychiatric help. The fear of the unknown also plays a significant role. Children might be apprehensive about the unfamiliar environment of a child psychiatrist’s office, facing the prospect of discussing personal feelings with a stranger, or the possibility of being prescribed medication. The anticipation of potential discomfort or vulnerability can intensify their resistance.

Lastly, misperceptions about psychiatry and mental health treatment can contribute to their reluctance. Portrayals in media or limited understanding might lead children to associate psychiatric help with severe issues, causing them to downplay or deny their own struggles.

A lot depends on the child psychiatrist’s approach and the child’s comfort level with them. It’s important for your child to feel safe and understood in this process. While the digital age has ushered in the possibility of online consultations, certain benefits come from face-to-face interactions. They allow for a deeper connection and a more thorough assessment of your child’s condition.

Overcoming these challenges:

  • Start your search early and be patient.
  • Involve your child in the process, as their comfort is paramount.
  • Be open to online sessions, especially in the beginning, even though you might prefer in-person visits.

Essential Considerations When Choosing a Child Psychiatrist

Choosing the right psychiatrist for your child is not just about the professional’s qualifications but also about how they interact with your child.

Professional qualifications and specialization:

Ensure that the psychiatrist has the necessary qualifications, with a specialization in child and adolescent psychiatry. This expertise will equip them to handle the unique Mental Health challenges that children and adolescents face.

Communication style and approach:

Every psychiatrist has a unique style of interaction. You’ll want someone who communicates in a way that your child responds to positively. Their approach should be compassionate, patient, and supportive.

Compatibility with your child:

Lastly, and most importantly, the psychiatrist should be a good fit for your child. The rapport between your child and their psychiatrist is crucial for effective Therapy. It might take a few sessions for your child to warm up, but over time, they should feel comfortable expressing themselves without hesitation. Trust your child’s instincts, and yours too, when evaluating this fit.

Find your nearest child psychiatrist here.

Preparing Your Child for their First Visit to a Psychiatrist

The first visit to a psychiatrist can be an anxious experience, not just for your child but also for you. Here are a few ways to help prepare your child:

Addressing apprehensions:

It’s natural for your child to have questions or fears about visiting a psychiatrist. Have open, honest conversations to address their concerns and let them know it’s okay to be nervous.

Ensuring their comfort:

On the day of the appointment, make sure your child is comfortable. Small things like their favorite clothes, snacks, or a comfort toy can make a difference.

Promoting open communication:

Encourage your child to express their feelings during the visit. Let them know it’s a safe space where they can share anything on their mind.

Authored By 

LifeStance Health
LifeStance Health

LifeStance is a mental healthcare company focused on providing evidence-based, medically driven treatment services for children, adolescents, and adults suffering from a variety of mental health issues in an outpatient care setting, both in-person and through its digital health telemedicine offering.

Reviewed By

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S
Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

Nicholette is a faculty member at John Carroll University’s Clinical Counseling program, and she is also the host of the LifeStance podcast, Convos from the Couch.