Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Mental Health Specialists Interview Series: Melissa Tower, Child and Adolescent Therapist

This is a start of a Q & A series with mental health specialists. For the first interview, let me introduce Melissa Tower, LLP, who is an excellent child and adolescent therapist. She has been counseling for the past 13 years. She worked for 12 years as an outpatient psychotherapist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services before joining our mental health providers group located at 5060 Cascade Road, Grand Rapids, Michigan. She can be reached at (616) 454-2911 for appointments or questions.

Kerry: “Melissa, thank you for taking time out to answer a few questions about working with children. First off, when should a parent seek help for his or her child?”

“Counseling should always be sought following a traumatic experience or event in a child's life. Otherwise, I would encourage parents to trust their gut instincts regarding when to seek help. If a child is exhibiting a new behavior, including repetitive physical movements, it is good to get a professional's opinion. Sometimes children know they need help and will ask their parents to talk to someone. I urge parents to always take these requests seriously.”

Kerry: “How does a parent know when a new or odd behavior is problematic?”

“When children are in emotional trouble, their daily routines usually change. Parents might notice their child's sleeping pattern or eating habits have become different. Their child might be less interested in connecting with friends or finds his or her hobbies less interesting. School performance may decline. These are all indicators that a child is emotionally struggling.

Sometimes a new behavior appears, such as toileting accidents, repetitive hand-washing, or a facial tic. It is important to observe how often this symptom occurs and the child's reaction to it. Is the child aware of the new behavior, and does it make him or her feel self-conscious? If parents notice these kinds of changes, it is important they seek help for their child.”

Kerry: “How does a parent go about finding a children's therapist?”

“First, ask the child's primary care doctor for a recommendation. Parents might also contact their health insurance company for a list of approved counselors. Sometimes friends and family will have suggestions of a good therapist. The internet and telephone yellow pages can also be a resource.”

Kerry: “What are the most important credentials or personal qualities in a good children's therapist?”

“Parents should look for a counselor who has at least a Master's level of education and identifies himself or herself as a children's therapist. It is important to ask about the therapist's accessibility. Does this individual have voicemail or e-mail? How does he or she deal with after-hour emergencies? Does the counselor return phone calls in a timely manner? It is important the child's therapist is able to maintain open lines of communication throughout the treatment process.

Next parents should pay attention to the therapist's interpersonal qualities. Is this counselor approachable, warm, and honest? Does he or she make the child feel safe and comfortable? Does this individual seem compassionate and empathetic? If there are any misgivings about the counselor, then the parents may need to seek out another mental health professional.”

Kerry: “What should parents expect from treatment?”

“Expect the first session or two to include both the parent(s) and child. These appointments are to gather background information. The therapist should speak to the parent and the child for each of their perspectives of the problem.

After the first session or two are completed, most children's therapists split the 45- 50 minute counseling hour between individual time with the child and meeting with the parent(s). The therapist's counseling technique will usually include some combination of talking, art, and play, depending on the child's age.

Sometimes children need an additional referral for a psychiatric consultation. This is a separate assessment done by a psychiatrist who is a specially-trained medical doctor. This doctor will gather information about the child and determine if medications are necessary to help the child with his or her issues. Parents should be leery of this recommendation if it is made before meeting the child. It needs to be part of the treatment plan and occur after the therapist's assessment of the problem is completed.

Finally, parents should expect regular contact with the therapist about the child's treatment progress. This communication generally includes an overview of issues addressed in counseling. It needs to be communicated carefully so that the child's developing trust in the therapist is not violated. Parents, however, should always expect to be informed when the counselor suspects the child is being harmed in anyway.”

Kerry: “How long does treatment usually take?”

“There are no strict guidelines that govern treatment length, but generally the child's therapist can provide a reasonable estimate at the start of the therapy process. This will be based on the mental health professional's assessment of the child's problem, how long the problem has been occurring, and the severity of the symptoms.”

Kerry: “If the child's problem includes issues at school, does a children's therapist get involved? And if so, in what way?”

“This doesn't happen very often, but if the counselor needs to contact the school for any reason, it is important that the parent provide written permission allowing that contact. The purpose and objective of the contact should also be clearly defined in order to protect the family's confidentiality.”

Kerry: “Thank you, Melissa, for answer questions about therapy with children!”

If you would like to learn more about Melissa, to ask her any questions, or to make appointment with her, she can be reached at (616) 454-2911.

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