What is child and adolescent psychotherapy?

ACP-recognised child and adolescent psychotherapy is a psychoanalytic treatment for children, young people, parents and families. Child and adolescent psychotherapists treat a range of behavioural and emotional problems not easily addressed by other modes of treatment.

Therapists are trained to carefully observe a child or young person and respond to what they might be communicating through their behaviour and play. They also apply their framework of thinking to work with parents, families and carers and to training and supporting other professionals who work with children, young people, parents and families to ensure a deeper understanding of the child's perspective.

How do child and adolescent psychotherapists work?

They see children and young people: Therapists may see a child or young person individually, in a group with other children or young people or with parents or other family members. Through the relationship with the therapist in a consistent setting, the child or young person may begin to feel able to express their most troubling thoughts and feelings. Confused, frightened, hurt, angry or painful feelings can gradually be put into words rather than actions. The therapist can help the child make sense of their own experience and develop their own individuality and potential.

They see parents and families: Therapists may also see parents or carers without the child being present. Sometimes the child is seen by another professional while work with the parents goes on; sometimes only the parents are worked with. The work may focus on helping the parent make sense of the child's behaviour, as well as understanding how the parents' own conflicts interfere with their ability to parent well. It may also explore different possibilities in parenting styles.

They support other professionals: Child and adolescent psychotherapists play a specialist function as part of a multi-disciplinary team, helping to support other professionals including teachers, social workers, health visitors, doctors, nursery staff and youth workers in a range of settings. The supervision, training and consultation they offer can help make sense of contact with highly disturbed and disturbing children and young people.

What happens in a typical session with a child?

Child and adolescent psychotherapists tailor their approach to the individual child and work in an age-appropriate way. During an individual session, young children do not usually talk directly about difficult things but will communicate through play using the toys provided. Older children may also play or draw whilst teenagers are more likely to talk about their feelings. Infants and parents are seen together to think about their patterns of interaction.

To a trained eye, play is a powerful form of communication which may express how a child feels and the difficulties he or she may be experiencing. The relationship between the child and the therapist is central to the treatment.

How long does treatment last?

Interventions with children and/or parents may be short- or long-term, from as few as two to six sessions to regular appointments over several years. Research has demonstrated the existence of a ‘sleeper effect’, with adults who had been treated as children or young people still feeling its impact many years later.

What range of difficulties are treated?

Child and adolescent psychotherapists see children with a wide range of difficulties, including problems with peer relationships, underachievement at school, aggressive outbursts or tantrums, insecurity and lack of confidence, or more serious mental health conditions including self-harm, eating disorders, oppositional behaviour, depression, anxiety, learning difficulties and disabilities. They also treat children who are suffering the effects of neglect and abuse.

How much does it cost and how can I access this service for my family?

Child and adolescent psychotherapy is available free through the NHS, though access does vary around the country. Child psychotherapy is also available in some schools and through voluntary agencies. Ask your GP, health visitor, social worker or child’s school for a referral to your local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) or for information on whether child psychotherapy assessment or treatment is available in other local services. Some services accept self-referrals.

If you are interested in seeking the kind of help a child and adolescent psychotherapist can offer and are in a position to fund this yourself, please visit Find a Therapist to find a practitioner in your area. There is no standard scale of fees and all therapists will discuss their charges on an individual basis with their clients, just like any other professional. You should not feel inhibited about asking how much each stage will cost before you make an appointment.