Even for adults the idea of going to therapy can be a tough pill to swallow, no pun intended. Now imagine being a teenager, whose body is changing, peer pressure is a very real and often times vicious addition to everyday challenges, and self-consciousness is at an all-time high. Let’s take it one step further, and you, as this teenager, feel like “something is off” or “not quite right” already. Those thoughts are then confirmed when your parents casually sit you down and reinforce what you are already thinking by saying “Maybe it’s time you get help for this. I have the name of a therapist…”. For some, not all, the shame of admitting that they need help or cannot go it alone, can feel overwhelming. For others, it might be a relief that someone is seeing their pain and can help guide them through it. The reaction to this conversation might be what you expect or surprise you. It might bring out defiance, resistance, anger, anxiety, defensiveness, isolation or any other number of behaviors. The point is, we don’t always know how our teens might react.
So what are some ways to help smooth the way to talk to teens about attending therapy?
- Remain calm and get in touch with any uneasiness you might feel about talking to your teen. They will literally pick up what you are putting down. So if you are uncomfortable, they will notice and feel uncomfortable too. Try talking to your teen during a calm moment versus using therapy as a threat or as a way to prove your point.
- Identify the problem. Be able to put into words observable behavior that is concerning to you such as a decline in school work, isolation and withdrawal, drastic changes in appearance that are not developmentally appropriate, changing peer groups, sudden changes in appetite and weight, anger outbursts, overly obsessed with things, self-harm, substance use, promiscuity, hyperactivity, audio or visual hallucinations, sleep disturbances, and anything else that might seem irregular for your teen.
- Destigmatize therapy. Check in with your own beliefs on therapy and what it means to seek professional help. Let your adolescent know that seeking professional help for what is happening in their internal world is akin to going to the doctor if they aren’t feeling well. If you have an illness and Tylenol no longer works, you go to the doctor to get medication. Therapy works the same way, if you are struggling and the ways you usually deal with it are no longer working or are no longer healthy, then you reach out to a trained professional.
- Have compassion for yourself and then have compassion for your teen. The conversation might not go the way you planned. That’s okay, you can always request to have a “re-do” with your teen and try the conversation again. This not only models for them that adults aren’t perfect (therefore they aren’t expected to be either) but also how to start getting familiar with uncomfortable feelings.
- Empowerment. One of the most uncomfortable feelings is powerlessness at making choices about our lives. Think about when you feel powerless and how it affects you (is it at work when your boss asks you to do something you disagree with?) then remember that feeling when speaking with your teen. It is likely they are feeling something similar. Therefore:
1. Give options. Therapy might be a scary first step for your teen. By giving them options of who to talk to and how to pursue getting help, they might feel better understood and more in control of their experience. Examples include:
• Talking to an alternative trusted adult like a pastor or school counselor
• Attending music or art therapy
• Group therapy
2. Make agreements, and by that I mean not bribing your teen to go to therapy but compromising so that it is worth their while and yours as well. An example might be letting your teen pick where to go out to dinner on therapy nights, letting your teen drive to therapy, and compromise on screen time or time spent with friends.
6. Lead by example. Normalize getting help for mental health concerns by doing your own therapy work and being open about your experience.
Having this conversation with your teen can feel overwhelming but it doesn’t have to be. You can frame this in a way that can bring you closer together rather than pushing you apart. Follow your instincts and be intentional about where you are having the conversation (away from others, especially siblings and friends), what you are saying, and how you are saying it. Remember that your adolescent has a voice too and that there is no “normal” way to react. Give them the space to talk it through with you versus telling them what to do and you will go far with your teen.