This month's E-tip is provided by Dr. Veronica Mercado. Veronica is a bilingual (Spanish) child/clinical psychologist. She currently works in a school-based mental health clinic in East Harlem, New York City. She is also an adjunct instructor in the School Psychology, Counseling, and Leadership Program at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn, NY.
When I was asked to write an article about what I do, I was stumped for a minute. What Do I do every day? I’m a child psychologist. What I actually do depends on who you ask. A parent might think, “She’s going to tell me what to do with my kid. Meanwhile, she doesn’t have to deal with my kid every day.” A teacher might think, “Oh my gosh, can you just get Johnny/Jane to sit still enough to get through just one period in the day without distracting everyone else? PLEEEEEASE?!?!?! What day is the psychiatrist in?” A kid might think, “She’s going to read my mind, I just know it!”
Truth be told, I don’t literally do any of those things. However, I do help my patients do those things for themselves. I work in a public school in an urban area. Just when I think I have seen it all, I get a brand new case that brings it all back to reality. I work with kids who are depressed, have academic delays, lack focus, struggle with life circumstances, have poor social skills, or are just plain angry at the world. The one thing they all have in common is an adult who felt they might get better by talking to someone like me.
I get referrals from a number of sources. School staff and parents can make referrals for treatment for their students and children respectively. Occasionally, a child will stop me in the hall and say, “What do I have to do to get you to pick me up like you do with ______?” The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter who makes the referral. What matters is that the family is ready to talk and get help. The core of my work is with children and their parents/caretakers.
Here are a few things that go through my mind while I’m conducting an intake. When and if the situation calls for it, I’ve said these things right up front to the primary caregiver. I am not here to judge you. I need to initially gather as much information as I can to make an assessment in order to figure out how to treat your child/family. I am not going to report you to ACS so your children can be taken away. Quite the opposite, I will do whatever I can to avoid doing so. I’m not here to tell you what you are doing is wrong. You got this far without me, so I imagine some of what you are doing has worked. It’s the stuff that is not working that I will help you tweak. I am not going to sit here and play games all day with your kid. I can’t lie though; I internally squeal if your child chooses to play Trouble because I love that game more than…well, I just love it. The point is this: your child does not know me so I have to find ways to break the ice. Sometimes, as in any relationship, it takes time to build trust. It might take a few games of Trouble, Perfection, and Hungry Hungry Hippos for your child to tell me how they are feeling.
Here are a few things you should know if someone, such as a teacher or principal, recommends treatment:
You are NOT a bad parent. Raising a child is hard work and does not come with an owner’s manual or a refund policy. No one knows your kid better than you.
Sometimes finding out what’s going on with your child requires us to meet with you as well. Your child may be the identified patient, but we can do our job even better when we check in with you regularly.
Finding a therapist is not like grabbing a muumuu off the rack. One size does not fit all. Don’t be afraid to ask a prospective therapist about their specialties or their training. We ask you lots of questions during an intake. It’s within your right to ask how we approach certain situations to assess if we would be a good fit. You might luck out and find the right therapist right away. Other times, it takes a few tries to find someone with whom you will click.
Progress takes time. Your child did not get to the point they are overnight. That means you may not notice improvement for some months. Sometimes, things get worse before they get better. Kids don’t like it when you all of a sudden change the rules on them. Just know that my job is to effect change, and that means I support you as well, not just your child.