It’s so difficult to see your child struggle. You feel at your wits end and want to help your teen in any way you can. But when you suggest to your teen that they seek professional help, they refuse. Why would they refuse help?! And what can you do? Here are some strategies you can use to help your teen open up to the idea of therapy:
1. Offer a brief therapist meet cute
Many therapists offer a free intake session for clients to “feel things out” with the potential therapist. Let your child know that there’s no strings attached to having a “get-to-know-you” session with a therapist. It’s a great way to dispel misconceptions about therapy and build an initial connection. This one-meeting also gives your teen the chance to interview the therapist and weigh-in on their opinion about the therapist.
2. Model going to therapy yourself
Your willingness to go to therapy normalizes therapy and the therapy process for your teens. Modeling openness and vulnerability in the family is also a great way to create a family culture where vulnerability is allowed and respected.
3. Make it a family problem
Be open to the idea that you as the parent may be contributing to the problem. It can be hard to see your own role in a teen’s problem when your teen is acting out or defiant. However, mental health issues often do not occur in a vacuum. Research has shown that the teen’s environment plays an important role in their psychological health. Since the most basic environment for a teen is their home life, the family will play a role in their psychological health. Your humility and willingness to acknowledge that you may play a role in the problem can help your teen acknowledge that they also play a role in the problem.
4. Respect your teen and give them ownership over the help process
Teens want to feel respect and in therapy, this respect begins with privacy. When your teen begins therapy, it may be tempting to ask them questions about their therapy sessions. However, do know that your teen will resist therapy if what they said to the therapist gets back to you. Confidentiality is the cornerstone to therapy.
5. Explain that there is therapy catered towards teenagers
It may be helpful to seek out therapists who specialize in working with teens as they will use a different approach to therapy that is catered to teenagers - such as connecting with a teen on their interests. Letting your teen know that the therapists specialize in working with teens is also helpful. You can also let them know that the therapist will not be a “third parent” for them. The therapist’s main goal is to advocate for the teenager, including advocating for the teen to their parents.
6. Agree on a Timeline
Negotiation with teens may be helpful because they value that their desires are heard and they have a say in decisions. Teens will often agree to a conditional postponement of therapy. For example you could say “we don’t need to go for therapy for now if you agree that you will willingly go for therapy if ..." (create a measurable point).
Be mindful though that teens will find many reasons as to why they crossed the measurable point and argue that it didn’t count. So make the threshold clear and be consistent in your follow through.
7. Force the issue
Use this as a last resort. If your teen's behavior is raising serious red flags, you may need to force the issue to take them to therapy. Some indicators of this are being in legal trouble, health risks, and running away from home. Do note, however, that even for such worrying reasons, you will want to encourage voluntary attendance as opposed to forcing the issue when possible. Research has shown that voluntary attendance correlates with better treatment outcomes. If a teenager is in physical danger to themselves or others, and unwilling to voluntarily seek help, then you may need to contact the police or call a local psychiatric hospital
8. Call a therapist for help
If you are stumped even after trying some of the suggestions above, give your prospective therapist a phone call! A skillful therapist who specializes in working with teens will take the time to hear you out and really understand your teen’s reservations so that they can create an environment that will be comfortable for your teen to come to therapy voluntarily.
Want expert input on how you can support your teen’s specific situation? Check in with a Cherish Coach for free.
Check out the next article in this series for tips on keeping an open line of communications about mental health with your teen.
Sharyl Wee, MA is working towards a PhD in Clinical Psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. She is passionate about fostering healthy family environments and parent-child relationships that help children grow-up into emotionally healthy adults! She specializes in working with children and families and is currently completing her clinical training at Dallas ISD Youth and Family Center.