Considering Therapy for Your Young Child

For many parents, the prospect of bringing their three- or four-year-old to therapy brings up feelings of confusion, worry, and even fear. As a parent, you may worry that you have done something wrong or that you caused your child’s difficulties. Or, you may believe that a child so young could not benefit from mental health services. Or, you may believe that therapy is only for seriously mentally ill people. What could it possibly offer you and your child?

In addition to these concerns, our society’s stigma around mental health can easily influence a parent’s views. But here’s what you need to know: When provided to a child and family during the child’s first five years, mental health support can have a lasting, positive impact. It can set the stage for the family’s long-term health and well-being.

How Therapy is Different for Young children

When adults undergo therapy, they often use words to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and ideas. For young children, play, behaviors, and the verbal and nonverbal interactions within their primary relationships become their way of communicating their thoughts and feelings. A therapist who works with families and young children will use play, observations, and direct interactions with the young child and her family to assess what the child is trying to “say.” He or she will use these insights to help the parents develop effective ways of responding to and supporting their young child.

There are a number of therapeutic approaches to working with parents and young children. Many of these share the same philosophy. In fact, most early childhood mental health therapists bring to their work:

  • A belief in the central importance of the parent-child attachment and a focus on the parent-child relationship within the treatment
  • A belief in providing services in a way that is respectful of the family’s beliefs and culture
  • Knowledge of early childhood development and experience in working with young children
  • A belief in the value of play in a young child’s life

A Focus on Relationships

The focus on the parent/caregiver-child relationship is one of the unique aspects of infant/early childhood mental health treatment. Children exist within a world of relationships. These relationships influence how they grow to understand and respond to the world around them. The therapist sees these relationships with others as a central aspect of the work and recognizes that children often cannot change without the support and involvement of the parents or primary caregivers. By understanding and supporting the relationships that most impact the child, the therapist is working to enhance the child’s immediate and long-term mental health.

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For more information on supporting your child’s social-emotional health, please visit my article: Social-Emotional Development (–emotional/what-is-social-emotional.html)

Links and Resources »


Cooper, S., and Wanerman, L. (1977) Children in Treatment: A primer for beginning psychotherapists. New York, NY: Brunner/Mazel.

Lieberman, A. and Pawl, J. (1993) Infant-Parent Psychotherapy. In C. Zeanah (Ed.), Handbook of Infant Mental Health (pp 427–444). New York, NY: Guildford Press.

Lieberman, A., and Van Horn, P. (2008) Psychotherapy with Infants and Young Children: Repairing the effects of stress and trauma on early attachment. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

O’Connor, K. (2000) The Play Therapy Primer. New York: Wiley.