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7 Ways To Encourage Your Teen To Attend Counseling

How To Encourage Your Teen To Attend Counseling

As a therapist for teenagers, I’m often asked by frustrated parents how they can convince their teenager to go to counseling. Parents’ complaints often sound something like this: “My son thinks I’m the crazy one, and that I should go instead..” or “My daughter doesn’t want to tell a stranger her personal problems…” or “Our daughter thinks you’ll tell me everything she says after the session is over…” or “Our son came to our marital session, and he thinks therapy is boring.” These are just a few reasons among many as to why teens may reject the idea of therapy. Here are seven ways to navigate these complaints and encourage your teen to attend therapy:

1. Introduce Your Teenager To A Family Counselor Before Problems Arise

Many teenagers feel intimidated at the prospect of sharing personal information with a therapist, and for good reason. Before a first meeting, therapists start as strangers. Therapists are also adults trained in clinical psychology who can read teenagers’ minds! No wonder teens can resist therapy. (Just kidding about the mind-reading!)

Why wait until your teenager is in crisis before encouraging a first visit with a therapist? Scheduling a one-time “get-to-know-you” session with teen-focused therapist is a great way to dispel misconceptions about therapy and build an initial connection. This one-time visit also gives the teen an opportunity to interview the therapist and weigh-in with an opinion about the therapist. Teenagers are often surprised when they enjoy the initial session and may request follow-up sessions without your prompting.

2. Take The Lead And Go To Counseling Yourself

Nothing speaks louder to our children than our own actions. Your willingness as parents to attend therapy helps to normalize the therapy process for your kids. In fact, before starting therapy, begin to create a family culture where vulnerability is allowed and respected. Being vulnerable doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you, but shows you are courageous enough to grow. We’re comfortable taking our cars in for tune-ups, scanning our high-end computers for viruses—even our stock portfolios get a review from time to time. Why wouldn’t we take time to care for our minds?

3. Make Therapy A Family Problem

Stay open to the idea that you as the parent may be contributing to the problem. Sometimes it’s hard to see your own role in a teen’s problem when your teen is the one acting-out, yelling, and defying your rules. But psychological issues do not occur in a vacuum. In fact, all psychological issues, even neurologically-based disorders, occur within an environment. The most basic environment for a teen is his or her home life, so of course the family will play a role in the teen’s psychological health. Your humility and willingness to acknowledge that you may play a role in the problem can help a teen acknowledge that he or she may also play a role in the problem.

4. Give Your Teen Ownership Over The Therapy Process

Teens want to feel respected too. In therapy this respect begins with privacy. Allowing your teen to confide in some stranger can feel unnatural. You’ve invested your time and finances into raising this teenager and now some stranger has more information about your teen than you do.

But 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.

5. Explain That Therapy For Teens Is Designed For Teens

Skillful therapists for teenagers will approach therapy differently for teens than they would for adults or even younger children. Connecting with a teenager often involves attending to the things that interest teenagers—e.g. music, relationships, freedoms, sports, their new car, events at school, etc. Tracking a teen’s interests not only makes the sessions fun for teenagers, but sends a message that what matters to them matters to the therapist.

The therapist is also not the “third parent” for your teenager. While a therapist will often agree with a parent’s perspective, he or she will also advocate for the teen to the parents. A teen’s attempt to address a problem may look like acting-out instead of constructive dialogue. The therapist can help your teen express his or her concerns in a more productive manner.

6. Gain Leverage Through Negotiation

You can gain some leverage with your teen through negotiation. Teenagers often believe they will not make the same mistake—or believe they will not get caught again—or are focused on what they want in the moment. As such, teens will often agree to a conditional postponement of therapy. Use a statement such as “We can take a pass on therapy for now if you agree that you will willingly go if your behavior declines to such-and-such a point (create a measurable point).” Make sure to follow-through with counseling if your teen crosses that measurable point. Teens will find many reasons as to why crossing the measurable point didn’t count. Follow the letter-of-the-law on this one and schedule an initial session. Other teens, who fear they may cross that measurable point, will rise to the occasion and improve their behavior—if for no other reason than to avoid therapy. If behavior is the issue, then mission accomplished!

7. Forcing The Issue

Use force as a last resort. If your teenager’s problems are out-of-control, or scary enough, then you may need to force the issue. Examples of such issues could include legal trouble, health risks, drug abuse, running away, etc. But even for such scary reasons, you will want to encourage voluntary attendance as opposed to forcing the issue when possible. Voluntary attendance correlates with better treatment outcomes. If a teenager is in danger and unwilling to voluntarily seek help, then you may need to contact the police or call a local psychiatric hospital.

Call A Therapist For Help

Encouraging your teenager to attend therapy can be challenging. Even with the seven suggestions above, your teenager may still have unique reservations about attending therapy. Don’t be afraid to share your concerns with your prospective therapist during the initial phone call. A skillful teen-focused therapist will take the time to understand your teenager’s reservations and create an environment that will be approachable for your teen.

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Brendan Bell, MA, LCPC

Brendan Bell is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in Illinois. He has worked in private practice for the last 20 years, with offices in both Deer Park and in Wheaton. His expertise involves working with middle schoolers, adolescents, and their families, with extensive experience addressing behavior disorders. Brendan also works with adults and particularly enjoys counseling artists.

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