Child Therapy Techniques

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: May 17, 2024
A young child and a therapist sitting at a table in a bright and friendly room. The therapist, a woman with glasses, is smiling and holding up a card with a happy face, while the child reaches for a card with a sad face, illustrating an emotional recognition exercise

Childhood is an important phase of life because we are developing social and emotional skills that will inform our ability to cope through adolescence and adulthood. Like adults, kids can benefit from support and counselling any time to support this development; and like adults, children can suffer from more extreme moments of distress or be diagnosed with mental health disorders that require additional help.

Common mental health disorders affecting kids

Anxiety, depression and ADHD are three of the most commonly reported issues and disorders affecting Canadian children. Recent data show that 3% of Canadian children experience an anxiety disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is reported to affect anywhere from 5% to 11% of student age kids. Recent data from the US show 0.5% of kids aged 3 to 5 years old suffer from major depressive disorder and those numbers only rise through adolescence. Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children released new data during the COVID-19 pandemic showing that half of kids surveyed in the 8 to 12 year old age group reported significant depression symptoms from February to March 2021.

Risk factors for mental health issues in childhood can include family history, physical injury, to life challenges like poverty or bullying. Other mental health disorders can manifest later in adolescence, teenage years, and into adulthood.

Signs a child might be struggling with their mental health

It can be difficult for parents or other caregivers to identify mental health challenges in kids because there is naturally so much change through those early years. Indicators that it may be time to speak with someone include persistent difficulties in play, learning, communication or emotion regulation for their age. Often, mental health warning signs become more prominent during school years but they can be present earlier.

Techniques used for child therapy

Child therapy techniques (modalities) and approaches are similar to those used for adults, but with steps to ensure the child feels safe and understands what is going on. Child therapy may have the parents present, or even be focused on the parent more than the child. Goals for child therapy include building skills around conflict resolution, understanding thoughts and feelings and developing an emotional toolkit. A therapist can also help a child with communication skills and general self esteem.

Behaviour therapies are common for kids. Behaviour therapy aims to teach children how to choose alternative behaviours, and it’s especially useful for treating some aspects of ADHD. Simply, behaviour therapy sets strong and clear expectations for kids to meet, rewards good behaviours and discourages negative. Often, this involves coaching caregivers in these techniques as well; if the child is very young this may only be directed to the caregivers. 

Therapists might also draw from cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, or other forms of behaviour therapy such as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). CBT and ACT both address inner emotions, how to diffuse and accept them, and manage how thoughts, behaviours and emotions interact.

With child therapy, these modalities are often administered through play. Play therapy can help certain behaviours that need to be addressed emerge for the therapist. It can help kids feel safe and engaged, can be a stress release and encourage positive social skills and build self esteem. This is helpful for most kids because they are not cognitively developed enough to fully participate in psychotherapy.

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.