Many parents feel like their teenagers could benefit from talking to someone, but they refuse to go to therapy. How can you help your child even when they say they don’t want or need help?
End the power struggle
Whether it’s about doing homework, cleaning their room, or acting respectfully, many teens and their parents have conflicts that tend to play out over and over again.
Usually, parents want their children to do something (or not do something), the teenagers refuse, and the parents use whatever tools are at their disposal (punishments, bribes, or yelling are all common responses). The teenagers often counter by yelling back, slamming doors, or saying things that get under their parents’ skin. (“You don’t actually care about me” is one of the top ones parents report).
This back-and-forth usually continues for a while. It rarely ends with mutual agreement or understanding. More often, the argument continues to escalate and ends when one side gives in or shuts down.
What to do instead
There’s a better way to engage your teenager. Instead of seeing yourselves as battling on opposite sides of an argument, you can think of your child and yourself as taking different positions on the same issue.
Whether it’s withdrawing from friends, having difficulty at school, or self-harm, the issues you and your teenager face affect you both. Your teenager may want to manage these issues through avoidance (or even denying that they’re a problem),
As an adult, you know that avoiding problems is a temporary solution at best, and that your child deserves actual support.
Connecting through love
When you feel like your child is struggling - and their future or life may be at risk - we often fly into “problem solving” mode. We focus on the problems and possible solutions, but often forget to acknowledge the love and care we have for our children.
If your teenager is feeling embarrassed or ashamed about feeling depressed or self-harming, they can often be extra-resistant to any conversations about those issues.
Reminding your child that they are important to you and that you care about them helps build a sense that you are a team, facing this issue together.
It’s okay to feel frustrated - and even angry - at your child. These feelings are normal and can be worked through by talking with a friend, loved one, or even a therapist of your own. Underneath all of that frustration is the love you have for your child. That love and care are the feelings that you want to bring with you when trying to help your teen start therapy.
It’s not “your problem,” it’s “our problem”
When you have a teenager who is struggling, it is easy to get frustrated and place the blame on them. “If only you took more interest in school...If only you hung around different people…” While tempting, thinking about problems in terms of what your teen is doing wrong is not the whole picture.
When a teenager is struggling, the whole family often is struggling with how to help. When you as a parent feel scared and overwhelmed, you need support as well.
A better way of engaging your child is to talk about the issue itself and relate it to how you are feeling.
“I’ve been very worried since I found out that you have been cutting. This is scary to me, especially because there’s a lot I don’t know about it. I love you and I want to make sure you’re okay. You have so many great things to offer the world, and I’m so grateful that you’re my daughter.”
The next step would be to acknowledge that therapy would help you, as well:
“I wish I knew how to make it better, but I don’t. There’s probably a lot I can learn about being a better mom and supporting you through rough times.”
It’s important that your teen has some control over the process, whenever possible. You can do this by offering different options on which therapist to see and having them make the final decision.
“The one thing I know is that things can’t continue the way they have been going. I found some therapists that you might like. I want you to look at their websites and see which one you might want to go to. I’m going to make an appointment on Wednesday. If you haven’t found one you like, I’ll choose for you.”
The first session
Short of carrying your child to the session, there’s no guarantee that they will actually go. If you’re unable to take your child to their first session, you can always go by yourself.
I do a lot of family work and often see parents without their children. I talk to parents about what it’s like being a teenager and help them improve their parenting skills. Many teen therapists can help you learn how to better manage family conflicts.
Showing a commitment to therapy helps demonstrate that you feel like something needs to be different. If you end up attending a session by yourself, it also sends the message that your child isn’t the “problem.” It shows you know that you can grow and be a better parent, as well.
The following sessions
I ask teenagers to give me three sessions before firing me. If they don’t want to come back for a fourth session, I respect their wishes and don’t see them unless they want me to.
Many teenagers who are unsure about seeing a therapist can usually commit to trying it out for three times.
Three sessions is a short enough time to not be overwhelming, but a long enough time to build a rapport.
Another bonus to this system is that sometimes teenagers want to come back for therapy a few months after firing me. They had a real-life demonstration that they could tell someone to go to hell, and that they would still be welcomed back. This feeling of safety, control, and being in charge often allows teenagers to feel more comfortable about opening up.
Want more support? Read more about our teen counseling services, for things like anxiety, depression PTSD, and body image issues. Or, check out our counseling for transgender teens. If you’want to find out more about starting therapy, feel free to reach out.