How to Talk to Your Teen About Therapy

1 in 5 teens age 13-18 have or will have a mental illness in their lifetime. With statistics like these, it means that therapy and counseling will be a part of a significant portion of our teens' and families' lives. But as with adults, (and at times even stronger than with adults) exists a stigma and corresponding hesitance and resistance to teens engaging in mental health treatment. There are many negative messages perpetuated by our society about what it means to got to counseling or to receive mental health treatment. Our teens absorb these messages too, which I think along with the normal, expected fear of the unknown contributes to many teens' resistance to starting counseling.

In my Danville counseling practice, I specialize in working with teens, and I have spoken to many parents who worry about their teen and believe that their teen needs mental health treatment, but report that their teen does not want to go to counseling. This puts parents in a tough position; do they force their teen into therapy? 

Here are some tips to combat both the stigma and provide some information to help quell the fears of the unknown, which may make it more likely your teen will try willingly try therapy.

1. Ask your teen questions about why they do not want to go to counseling: Questions naturally put us off of the defensive and when someone believes we are truly listening to them, they are more likely to take our advice (questions are a great tool in a confrontation!). Asking your resistant teen questions can also give your information about the specific reasons they do not want to go to therapy, which gives you the ability to address their concerns and fears.

2. Address common misconceptions about therapy/counseling: A lot of teens believe the same myths about counseling that adults do. Some common ones that I have heard are

  • "If I go to therapy, that means I'm crazy or that there is something wrong with me."
  • "If I go to therapy, then I'll have to lie down on a couch and talk about my dreams or my early childhood."
  • "If I go to therapy, then the therapist is just going to blame my family." 
  • "If I go to therapy, that means I'll have to be in therapy for the rest of my life."  

 A way I like explain therapy is using it as a way to handle stress; we all live stressed out lives, teens included. Going to therapy doesn't mean there is anything wrong with the person (actually I see people as brave in reaching out for support and it being impressive that they want personal growth). One of my favorite analogies is to use a soda bottle to demonstrate how counseling can help us handle stress.

As I mentioned in the video, one of the goals of therapy is to provide a place and assistance to allow the pent up stress and emotion to be released a little at a time so the explosion doesn't happen (or doesn't happen again).  This is done by building trust with the client and then gently guiding them to try new healthier to ways to handle stress. Also the trust building process looks different for different people, and it is conducted at their pace. It is not having someone lie down on a couch and talk about their deepest darkness secrets. Instead, it is someone giving you a non-judgmental place place to be yourself. 

3. Short Term Trial: See if they'd be willing to try it 1 time or for just a month. Some teens believe that if they step foot into the therapy office, they are committed for life, which just isn't true. Sometimes, only a few sessions can give them the support they need or it may take longer, but knowing that they have an out if they absolutely cannot bear it can be helpful for them to know. Another thing that may be helpful is to let them know that they don't have to stick with the 1st therapist they see; therapists have different styles and different styles work for different people. Giving your teen some choice in finding some who is a good "fit" may help them take some ownership of beginning the counseling process and make them more agreeable to trying it out

I hope these tips are helpful for worried parents/significant people in teens' lives who either are not sure in how to broach the topic of counseling and/or who have been met with resistance in bringing up the idea about counseling to their teen. If any of you has more questions or would like more assistance in talking to your teen about therapy, feel free to reach out to me (925) 240-3793 or Linking teens with counseling is a passion of mine, and I'd be happy to help!