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Why do teens refuse professional help?

It is common for teens to refuse professional help, or any type of help for that matter. Here are some common statements of resistance we hear from teens and what you can do to stay focused on the importance and benefits of therapy when hearing your teen out.

#1: “I can handle this myself. I don’t need therapy.”

Using reflecting skills will be helpful in understanding the various reasons why your teen is unmotivated to go to therapy. When your teen senses that you truly care and really want to understand their feelings and doubts, they will open up to you. This can also open their mind towards seeking therapy. Many teens who say this type of statement have learned somewhere along the way that they must be self-reliant and that depending on others is a weakness. They may be afraid to be seen as “less than” or to feel judged for having “troubles” that need a professional.

In this case, focus on assuring your teen that:

  • You respect them and are looking for ways to help them feel better

  • You don’t think there is anything wrong with them

  • You’re not encouraging therapy to fix any flaws of theirs. Instead, emphasize that therapy is a judgment-free zone where they can learn useful coping strategies with a professional who is 100% on their team

  • You are not trying to manipulate them into doing anything they don’t want to do via a therapist

Here’s what it could sound like:

Parent: “I know you’d like to handle it yourself, you’ve always been a really self-reliant person in that way. But I believe there are some things that we can use other people’s guidance on, too, and it’s strong and wise to ask for help when you need it. I think in this case, maybe talking to an expert can help you feel better, faster. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you, and therapy isn’t supposed to “fix your flaws”, in fact, therapy is a judgment-free zone where you can talk to an expert about stressful decisions and feelings you face on a daily basis. A therapist will never try to change or judge you for any of your past mistakes!”

#2: “This isn’t anyone’s business but mine.” / ”I feel better after talking to my friends, I don’t want to talk to a stranger.”

Teens often feel uncomfortable seeking therapy because they don’t want their parents to know every detail of what’s going on in their lives. Many teens aren’t used to having a non judgmental adult who will keep their confidence, so teens are often afraid their therapist and parents will gang up on them. Lastly, teens are sometimes afraid to talk about their problems because they have a hard time verbalizing what exactly is bothering them. So, in this case, take some time to hear your teen out about why they’re not interested in speaking with a stranger or sharing their challenges out-loud with others. Try an open ended question like:

Parent: “Can you tell me more about why you’d prefer to keep this only to yourself?”

If your teen shares any of the above common concerns that often hide under this type of statement, you can respond by emphasizing that you will respect your teen’s confidentiality with their therapist and that a therapist is just one of many forms of support you’d like them to have.

Parent: I understand your concern. Therapists are bound by a confidentiality code and they don’t share anything you tell them with anyone else, unless you indicate a desire to hurt yourself or someone else. Also, don’t worry, I won’t ask the therapist about what you guys are discussing. We just want the best for you and want you to have a trusted professional you can turn to for anything big and small. You don’t have to stop talking to your friends, I know how important they are to you and I’m so glad you have them as support!”

#3: "This isn’t fair!”

Teens often use this objection if they feel they’re not being given a choice or if therapy is being used as a punishment. Avoid demanding your teen go see a therapist – an unwilling participant is unlikely to get value out of the experience anyway. Instead, focus on creating choice and autonomy. For example, you can ask whether they’d like to explore what options are out there before deciding whether to go. You can also ask if they’d like to be involved in researching and selecting the right practitioner.

Continue to give a lot of positive affirmations throughout the conversation (e.g. telling your teen you are proud of their accomplishments and progress rather than focusing on the possible negative factors that may have been the cause for beginning therapy for your teen). It may also be helpful to reassure your teen that the therapist will take time to get to know them and will actually grow to be a trusted friend in many ways. Here’s what that could sound like:

Parent: “Therapy is not a punishment. I’d like to support you to find a therapist who respects you for who you are and will take the time to get to know you. I know it takes some courage to talk to someone new about your problems, I’m so proud of how brave you are for considering the option!”

Need more support in finding the right ways to talk to your teen about their mental health? Chat with a Cherish Coach today for free.

Check out the next article in this series to learn about the Do's and Dont's of talking 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.


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