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  • Writer's pictureJoanna Pantazi

Suggesting Therapy to Your Teenager

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

Deciding to start psychotherapy is a tough decision process on its own, as it implicates admitting to ourselves that there is, in fact, an issue to be confronted and dealt with. Things may seem even more difficult or utterly overwhelming, when this realization is made about a teenager. Often, the idea of suggesting therapy to your teenager may resemble a losing battle to you! In the following article, some basic aspects of the challenges of approaching the topic of therapy to your adolescent as a parent, as well as how to overcome these obstacles, will be discussed.

When should you consider suggesting therapy to your Teenager?

How would you know it may be time to suggest therapy to your teen? By definition, adolescence is often presented as a time of marked distress and disturbance, with lots of seemingly extreme reactions and emotional outbursts. For many parents, the process of distinguishing whether the behaviour of their teenager is really a cause of concern can constitute a noteworthy dilemma, since the whole period of adolescence may seem quite “explosive”. Indeed, it is an overall intense period, yet acknowledging some potentially alarming signs may be of great assistance to parents of adolescents.

An easy “rule of thumb” to concerned parents would be to think about the possibility of therapy when your teen presents with sudden behavioural and/or emotional changes. For instance, changes in eating and sleeping patterns may indicate the presence of depression or substance (ab)use, regardless the direction of these changes. Your teenager may sleep/eat much more or less than usual, or there may be a rapid decline in school performance. Besides, changes in the affective expression of your teenager may be an alarming sign. Teenagers “at stake” may present signs of depression, exhibit more angry outbursts than usual, or seem socially isolated and withdrawn from both friends and family.

It should be emphasized, however, that sometimes such changes are not necessarily a sign of morbidity, but could also be part of a healthy adolescent life process. After all, the typical teenager is in a constant process to discover their identity, thus moods may very well often fluctuate, or teenagers may often prefer to be locked in their room, enjoying their privacy. The most important factors of concern are the intensity and frequency of these emotional and behavioural changes.

Why are teens likely to initially resist therapy?

The often notoriously rebellious nature of teenagers is not a new concept. Often adolescents seem to oppose to just about Anything their parents suggest, and that should be interpreted as a sign of their attempt to develop their own identity. Therefore, one reason it may be difficult for a teenager to accept the idea of starting therapy, is just because it was a suggestion coming from their parents. As a parent, it is helpful to remember to not take those defying behaviours of your teen as a personal offense; instead, try to see them more from their own perspective- namely, that they truly wish to make their own stand in discovering themselves.

When it comes to therapy, however, there may be more reasons of resistance than the usual “war on parents”. First of all, there is the whole mental health stigma and taboo. A teenager –same as an adult- may strongly resist therapy out of fear that starting therapy might mean they are “crazy”, or that there is something seriously wrong with their mind. This fear may be further augmented by peer pressure, as social evaluations are particularly important for adolescents, and they may fear how their friends will regard them, should it be revealed that they are in therapy.

Moreover, confidentiality and disclosure issues may emerge, as teens may feel uncomfortable and reluctant to trust a therapist out of fear that their personal stories will be discussed with their parents. Lastly, a teenager may simply be resistant because they wish to avoid dealing with potentially painful and difficult feelings. Whichever the case, understanding your teenager’s resistance is substantial, as it can bring you closer to them.

How should you bring up the topic of therapy to your teenager?

Ok, so you realize your teenager may be in need of therapy. And now what? How do you avoid “walking on eggshells”, or starting a battle with your teenager? Your approach should by all means be sensitive and careful. Your teenager should be able to listen to your concerns and realize you care about them, rather than feel attacked or “cornered”. Therefore, you should place great importance in your approach of communication, so that to not make your child feel threatened. Firstly, you should absolutely avoid what you probably have experienced as already ineffective in the past! Namely, lecturing, accusations, or disappointed and guilt-provoking reactions are a definite “no-no”.

Therefore, a first step is to express your concern in an open and loving way, while emphasizing to your child that your greatest intention is to see them healthier, happier, less sad and less anxious. Show them your absolute availability and willingness to support them in any way possible, while allowing them the space to express their own point of view. Keep in mind that your teenager should feel you’re on their side, not against them, in order to trust you and take your suggestion into consideration. Therefore be gentle, loving, and offer them any sort of encouragement they may need.

In many occasions, communicating your intentions and concern non-violently and clearly may be enough. More often, however, chances are that your child may still refuse the perspective of therapy. In that case, there are some tips you may want to consider, that can bring the desired results in your interaction:

  • Negotiate a deal/ bargain

A positive strategy could be reaching an agreement with your teenager. For example, you can ask them to attend 3 sessions, and allow them to stop after the “deal” has been met, if they don’t want to continue afterwards. According to John Duffy, a clinical psychologist specialized in adolescents, “most teens are engaged in the process within that period of time”.

  • Offer a reward as positive reinforcement

An alternative to the above option is to make a common agreement with your teenager by offering them a reward, to encourage their intention to try or maintain their involvement. This way you will contribute into turning this into a positive experience, and alleviate the high anxiety levels of the process. Needless to say, keeping your side of the deal is vital!

  • Consider family therapy

Often adolescent therapy is “systemic”, meaning that the whole family may participate. If your child is quite resistant and you try to show them that are also willing to “take the risk” of looking “inwards”, a sense of shared responsibility and alliance between you and your teenager will be enhanced. Your own commitment may greatly encourage your teenager’s commitment to change.

What should your attitude be after your Teenager enters therapy?

Despite the fact that it may have been a difficult process, the good news is that your teenager decided to start therapy! From now on, in order to help them make the most out of it, your active participation is required. You may want to consider discussing with your child and their therapist what are the ways you can best contribute, in order to maximize the benefits of the therapeutic process.

A significant issue for many parents is confidentiality. Although you may want to know what is being discussed in the therapist’s office, it is important to try and respect your child’s confidentiality and not invade their privacy. Such an attitude could have detrimental effects to the process, as your reliability and sense of trust from the side of your teenager towards you could be jeopardized. A good idea is discussing with the therapist about confidentiality and how to handle it.

Instead, be present and offer lots of encouragement and support to your teenager, on both emotional and practical levels. Make sure to be positive and supportive of your child’s efforts. Acknowledge that their decision to enter therapy was a demanding one, and emphasize you are proud of them for taking this step.

On the literal level, just be there for your child; show them your willingness to drive them to therapy and take part in it if they would want that. Be open and transparent in your communication, while avoiding being too “pushy”. Your teenager needs adequate space in order to successfully process the fruits of therapy, so come as close as they would like you to.

Lastly, try to remember that, although being the parent of a teenager may seem incredibly difficult to you at times, being a teenager is a much more challenging process by itself.

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