One in five teens has a diagnosable Mental Health Disorder (nami.org). If you are concerned that your child has a mental health problem, a substance abuse issue, or a social struggle that is too big for them to handle on their own, treatment is important. Research shows that early intervention with effective therapy increases recovery rates and provides a teen the skillset needed to handle stressors successfully in the future.
Is My Approach Helping Or Hurting My Desire To Get My Teen Help?
Forcing your teen to go to therapy is unlikely to be effective. Oftentimes teens are feeling powerless and out-of-control in their lives, which is contributing to a negative mental state. Telling them that they have to go to therapy can feel like they are losing even more control over their lives.
Additionally, parents often bring up the subject of “going to therapy” when they and their teen are in a heated battle. This makes “therapy” feel like a “punishment” (Thanks a lot guys!) rather than an opportunity for growth and insight.
What To Do When Your Teen Doesn’t Want To Go To Therapy:
Your approach to the topic of therapy can make a definite impact on your teen’s openness to outside help. Here are some helpful tips to get you and your teen on the same page:
1) Bring Up The Topic During A Neutral Time
Don’t use moments of frustration to suggest therapy. This makes people feel like they are failures or “crazy.” Instead, wait until both you and your teen are calm and rational, or when your teen is expressing dissatisfaction with themselves and seems more open to outside support.
Use “Socratic Questioning” to help your teen move towards the idea of counseling themselves. Continue the conversations by saying something like, “It really seems like you are struggling with managing your feelings” or “You’ve got a lot on your plate right now.” “I wonder if talking with someone about this and figuring out strategies to manage all of your stressors might be helpful.” It doesn’t hurt to mention high profile people who have discussed going to therapy (examples) …
I also helps to remind your teen that there may be things they want to discuss outside of the family.
Be honest open with your teen about why you want your teen to get therapy and why you think it will help. This would be a good time to tell your child if you’ve benefited from talking with someone in the past as well. Sometimes your own actions can speak louder than words.
2) Be Empathetic
Opening up to a stranger about your vulnerabilities or perceived weaknesses is difficult for everyone. A lot of people feel that they would benefit from talking with a counselor, but according to polls, people wait 8 years after symptoms first develop to schedule an appointment for support from a professional. If your teen is hesitant or opposed to meeting with a counselor, allow them to express these feelings, answer any questions, and see how you can help them overcome barriers to getting help.
3) Let Them Pick The Counselor
If you’ve received and vetted a couple of referrals for counselors, show them to your teen and let them decide who would be a good fit for them. This gives your teen a semblance of control. You are essentially saying, “You need to talk to someone, but I’ll let you decide who.” It also bodes better for treatment outcomes. One of the most important factors in recovery rates is feeling a connection to your counselor or therapist.
4) Make A Contract
If your child is resistant to meeting with someone, discuss what needs to change in order for you to feel comfortable with your child avoiding therapy. Maybe they need to be less reactive and more respectful at home. Maybe they need to engage more readily and appropriately in social activities. Perhaps you are connecting their recent mood changes to new problems in classroom performance. Sit down with your teen and write out an agreement or contract identifying what needs to change. Give them 2-3 weeks to make the adjustments (and don’t shoot for perfection). This gives your teen a chance to make the adjustments themselves while setting the expectation for taking the next steps for outside support if they need it.
5) Talk To Their Doctor and Have Them Address The Subject
According to the American Pediatric Association, all doctors are supposed to conduct a depression screening to children over the age of 10 during their well-visit appointment. If you are concerned about your child’s mental state give their doctor a heads-up. A doctor’s professional clout and bedside manner can go a long way in convincing a teen that they would benefit from counseling. And having a screening provides both you and your teen with quantitative data about their mood and stress levels. Another plus in talking with their doctor: they should be able to provide you with a good referral to a counselor who works well with teens.
6) Get Parenting Support
The teen years are a challenge for parents as well as kids. If your child is struggling with maintaining emotional balance, there is a good chance that you are too. Unfortunately, these kinds of tensions can feed off of each other. You may be unintentionally making things worse. Consider getting support to improve your communication skills, cope with teen angst and rebellion, and better connect with your family. You will likely find that in changing your behavior and attitude, you will impact theirs as well.
One Final Note:
There may be times when your child needs help, regardless of whether or not they are open to it. If your child is engaging in risky behavior or abusing drugs or alcohol, they are not capable of making healthy decisions on their own.
Or if you feel that your child is at risk for hurting themselves or someone else, you should immediately call 911 or take them to the emergency room. If you are in the greater Phoenix Area, you can also call EMPACT, a mobile crisis team who can assess your teens’ mental state at your home.
In these cases, staying calm and saying statements like: “I love you too much to not do this right now. I love you too much to allow this pain you are feeling to continue without help” can remind your teen that you are on the same team.
Understandably, engaging in therapy can be difficult for teens. But it helps when parents can explain the process, be supportive, communicate openly so that your teen sees that therapy is nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it’s an act that requires much strength.