At some point, you may notice a few signs that suggest your teen needs help. Maybe their grades are starting to slip, they’re going through a rocky break-up with their first love, or they’ve become withdrawn for a significant amount of time. You think it might be helpful for them to speak to a therapist, but you’re not sure how to suggest it — or how receptive they’ll be.
Here are some tips for broaching the conversation and supporting them as they consider finding a therapist for the first time.
How to start the conversation
How you initiate the conversation with your teen about considering therapy can set the tone for future conversations and may affect their overall willingness. It can be hard for anyone to admit they may need help, so it’s important to keep a supportive, nonjudgemental tone. Here’s what psychotherapist Amy Morin writes for Verywell Mind:
Don’t imply your teen is crazy or that they’re not smart enough to make good choices. Instead, share why you think counseling is important and how it could be helpful. Ask for input from your teen and be willing to listen to your teen’s opinions.
Say something like, “I wonder if it would be helpful for you to have someone to talk to besides me.” Or say, “I don’t always know how to help you with problems so I wonder if it could be helpful for you to talk to someone who works with teens.”
It’s important for teenagers to know you’re not suggesting therapy because they’re doing something wrong. Therapy should never be used as a threat — “if you don’t stop that, you’re going back to Dr. Smith” — or as discipline for bad behaviour. Instead, stress that therapy is for their emotions, to help them feel better as they work through the underlying issues.
Let them take some ownership of the process
You would not want to be dragged to a therapist of someone else’s choosing, and neither does your teenager. If they’re willing to give therapy a try, research some options together, focusing on finding someone who specialises in working with teens, as they’ll be most skilled at connecting with them. Let them interview a couple of different therapists and choose the one they connect with the most.
And then once they begin having sessions, don’t grill them — or the therapist — about what is discussed. As psychotherapist Brendan Bell writes for Cherry Hill Counseling’s blog:
As tempting as it may be to ask your teen questions about her or his therapy, please know, your teen will resist therapy if what she or he said to the counselor gets back to you — whether it’s coerced by a parent or leaked by the therapist. Confidentiality is a cornerstone for successful counseling. Some exceptions exist to confidentiality — ask your prospective therapist about these exceptions.
Give them some space to process on the drive home, and let them take the lead on whether they’d like to talk about it.
What to do if your teen refuses therapy
Even if you approach it in all the right ways, your teen may still flat-out refuse to go. If this is your last resort because they’re engaging in risky behaviour and may hurt themselves or someone else, then you may need to force the issue (or even call 000 or take them to the emergency room, if the risk is immediate), but if you’re not to that point, you can try making a deal with them that if they attend a set number of sessions and don’t want to go beyond that, you won’t force it. That gives them a chance to find some benefit, or at least to establish an initial relationship with a therapist in case they decide to give it another try in the future. You could also decide to start by going as a family, rather than for individual appointments.
At the end of the day, though, if they’re not a willing participant, the sessions aren’t likely to be productive anyway, so it may be better to keep the option open and revisit it again in the future, if necessary.
If you want your teen in therapy, go to therapy yourself
Kids most often don’t do as we say — they do as we do. Our own behaviour has a huge impact on their behaviour, so if you want to model caring for one’s own mental health, a good place to start is by finding a therapist you trust for yourself. If you don’t already go to therapy regularly, the act of interviewing a couple of therapists and talking with your teenager about how to choose one who is the right fit for you will model for them that you don’t have to stick with the first person you see if you’re not clicking with them.
And if you have your own hesitations, such as not being sure if you’ll feel comfortable opening up to a “stranger,” talk about that with them so they see how you work through it and the progress you make along the way. All of this helps normalize the process for them — and you get some help for yourself.
Your own therapist can also give you some advice for how to help guide your teen through the same process.