Updated: Jun 14, 2019
By Dr. Sarah Haas *
Q: My teen needs help but s/he does not want to come to therapy. What should I do?
A: It can be very frustrating when you, as a parent, want to help your child and you feel that therapy will help them be successful, but they do not agree. Here are some strategies you can use to talk with your teenager about therapy to better understand their thoughts about seeing a professional. Below are some suggestions that may be useful in guiding your teenager through this transition.
1. Have an open discussion about therapy
Doing something new and implementing change are both very scary things. Having a candid discussion about what therapy looks like and feels like can make therapy seem less scary. Allow your teenager to voice their pros and cons about going to therapy, with you also bringing up what you feel are some pros and cons to therapy. In this manner, you can both determine if therapy right now is best for your teenager.
2. Ask them what their biggest concern about going to therapy is
As parents, we sometimes feel like we know everything about our teenager, which makes it is easy to forget that we might not know what life is like from their perspective! Instead of assuming you know why your child is feeling hesitant about the idea of therapy, ask them what their concern is. This typically allows your teenager to feel that you are listening to them and that you value their opinion.
3. If the concern is reasonable, it is OK to normalize their concern
If your teenager is afraid that they won't like their therapist, or that they can't be helped, it is OK to tell your teenager that these are all normal concerns that people feel when they first start therapy. By doing this you are showing your teenager that you understand their concerns, not necessarily that the things they are concerned about are going to happen. Then, you can turn their concerns into testable hypotheses by asking them what would happen if, for example, they did like their therapist, or if they could change? Would that change their desire to go to therapy? This often helps open people up to the possibility of doing something, like going to therapy, rather than feeling closed off about it right from the get-go.
4. Let your teenager know that therapy is a group effort; they are not alone
If you, the parent, are willing to also learn different techniques to help understand and communicate with your teenager, it may be helpful to tell your teenager that you too are going to be an active participate in therapy. This may help take some pressure off of your teenager and diffuse the responsibility for change.
5. Compromise with them
Ask your best friend who has never gone for a run or to the gym a day in their life to run a marathon with you tomorrow. I'd anticipate they will not join along! They may be more likely to agree to going for a short run tomorrow instead. In the same way, asking your teenager to commit to therapy without knowing what it looks or feels like can easily result in resistance from your teenager. Instead, why not ask your teenager to commit to coming to a few sessions, and after that, you can sit down with them and re-assess how their thoughts about going to therapy. This may make therapy feel less scary to your teenager.
6. Make therapy a positive experience
On some days, therapy can be really tough. Change is hard. Talking about things that create negative or uncomfortable emotions is difficult. Like going to the gym, some days going to therapy can be really difficult to do and we may not always feel intrinsically motivated to go. Why not make therapy feel more fun, positive, and rewarding by doing something fun after sessions that your teenager does not often get to do? Some examples of fun activities include grabbing lunch from your teenager's favorite place, getting ice cream or a milkshake, having a friend over that night, a "get out of 1 chore free" card that your teen can use that week, or whatever else you and your teen determine is motivating for them. This may help your teenager want to attend therapy more often than not.
Keep in mind that every teenager is different and your teenager may respond differently to these techniques. What techniques did you find helpful in talking with your teenager about going to therapy?
Disclaimer: The Information provided through this website, including the various pages, blog posts, and emails, are designed for informational purposes only and does not constitute a client/therapist relationship. The information is not intended to replace medical advice or mental health treatment. Every individual person's situation is unique. Please seek out individual care if needed.