Dr. Patty Russo
Talking to a Reluctant Teen About Therapy
Deciding to go to therapy can be an anxiety provoking experience for teens. While some teenagers embrace having someone to talk to about their challenges, others have no interest in expressing their feelings to a stranger. For parents it can be frustrating to see your child in need of extra support, but reluctant to accept it.
It can be helpful for parents to try to get a better understanding of why their teen is resistant to counseling. Sometimes teens can be straight forward about it, other times parents may have to try and decipher what they are feeling. Below are some common reasons teens say no to therapy :
“I’m doing fine”
“This is just how I am”
“It won’t work”
“I’m not crazy”
“The therapist is just going to tell you everything”
HOW TO FRAME THERAPY
How you frame therapy can help decrease your teen’s resistance. For a defensive teen, it can be helpful to compare therapy to having a coach, especially if your teen plays sports or a musical instrument. For example, if your daughter plays volleyball she will likely have a volleyball coach to help her learn proper techniques and skills. As she starts to master these skills she will need less direct support from her coach, become more independent, and also a stronger volleyball player. Working with a therapist can be similar to working with a sports coach. In therapy, your daughter can learn skills and strategies to better manage stress such as peer pressure, anger outbursts, or anxiety with the support of a counselor.
Framing therapy as an opportunity to learn news skills will help your teen feel less defensive, as opposed to suggesting your teen try therapy to help fix what’s wrong with them. When talking about therapy parents should remain calm, especially if your teen becomes frustrated or annoyed. Parents can help reduce resistance to therapy by normalizing, validating, emphasizing what your teen wants, and offering choices.
NORMALIZE & VALIDATE
Normalizing how your teen feels about therapy can help them feel understood and more comfortable with knowing that they are not alone, “I can see what you’re saying, a lot of people feel therapy is only for serious problems,” “I was worried about privacy when I started therapy too”. Validating your teens feelings simply means you are acknowledging how they feel, even if you do not agree with them. In order to validate you will want to first listen to what they have to say. After hearing them out you can reflect and summarize what your teen shared in a non-judgmental way, “I can see that you don’t feel like therapy will be helpful,” “It sounds like you’re unsure about what it will be like to talk to a stranger.” Parents should resist the urge to say things that will disqualify their teen's feelings such as, “you’re overreacting,” or “it’s not going to be like that at all”.
EMPHASIZE WHAT YOUR TEEN WANTS
To help get your teen bought into the idea of therapy you want to emphasize changes that they would like to see happen instead of what you feel will be important. What do they want to be different at home? What would they like to be able to improve? For example, therapy can help with planning for college, gaining trust with parents so teens can be more independent, or spending more time with friends. Talking with your teen about what they would like to be able to better manage or see change can help them begin to consider whether therapy would be worth a try.
In order for therapy to be effective you want to make sure your teen is able to connect with their counselor. It can be helpful to have your teen be part of the process of searching for a counselor, or parents can share two or three potential therapists and let their teen choose the one they feel most comfortable with.
Goodness of fit is very important in the therapeutic process, and feeling as if they have a choice will help teens develop a sense of autonomy and control over their therapy experience. Encourage your teen to ask questions in the initial session about privacy, length of therapy, or any other concerns they have to help alleviate anxiety related to the unknown.
You may not be able to change your teen’s mind with just one conversation. Becoming comfortable with the idea of therapy may take time, so keep trying. Continue to make an effort to listen to what your teen's concerns are, validate their feelings, and see if you can come up with a deal to try a few sessions to see if the therapist will be a good fit.