How to Talk to your Teen About Going to Counseling

For dedicated parents it is important that they feel that they are doing everything they can to help their teenager through life’s troubles.  When parents feel at a loss when confronted with their teenager’s problems they often search for professional help.  However, when they speak to their teenager about it he or she is insulted and dead-set against it.  Teenagers may simply refuse to go or become enraged with the possibility of going to counseling.  This unfortunate reaction puts a frustrating obstacle in the way of parents trying to help their teenagers, especially in the case of older teenagers that you cannot physically force to go. 

What’s a good way to talk to teenagers about therapy that would help them be more open to it?  In my practice I often have this conversation with parents who have been unable to get their teenagers to come to the first session.  I have found that talking to teenagers about counseling in the way I describe below increases the chances that they will be willing to give the process a chance. 

Don’t force them

There’s no more sure fire way to enrage teenagers than forcing them to do something that they do not want to do.  Tell them that you are not going to force them to go to therapy if they do not want to go.  This single statement should take some of the resistance out of the conversation.  Your tone and body language should be gentle and communicate concern rather than anger or exasperation at their defiance.  Remember, all humans do what they can to help themselves feel better even if it is clear to others that the actions are self-destructive.  Remind yourself that the motivation for those actions is simple – I want to feel better.  Teenagers may genuinely think that therapy will make things worse.  Your job is to help them understand why that’s not true. 

Invite them to talk about their objections and be ready to address them effectively

All teenagers want to be heard and understood.  Give them the time and space to talk about why they think that going to counseling is a bad idea.  Let them get it all out and don’t interrupt them to correct or object to what their saying.  After they are finished speaking counter what they said with the talking points below.  Common objections to counseling include:

Only crazy people go to therapy and I’m not crazy.

The implicit message with this objection is “You think I’m crazy.  That’s why you want me to go to therapy.  I’m being accused of being crazy with this suggestion and I consider it an insult so I’m angry or hurt or both.”

COUNTER: “The word crazy is just an insult.  It does not mean anything to a therapist.  Counseling is not for crazy people.  Therapists help normal people who are having problems in their life.  Everyone has issues because life is hard.  A therapist is trained to help you find solutions to your problems and to help you feel happier.” 

I don’t need therapy, you do!

The message here is “I don’t want to be blamed for everything and I want you to own up to your part.”

COUNTER: “Maybe I do need therapy.”  By asking your teenager to go to therapy you are in essence asking them to be honest about their problems.  You can help them to feel that it’s OKAY to be honest about their problems by being honest about yours.  Saying something like, “I feel like I’m not doing a good job helping you so I am also going to talk to the therapist so that I can learn how to do a better job.  I think he’ll be able to help me and I also think he’ll be able to help you.” By taking this stand you are removing the wall that your teenager is pushing up against, leaving him or her even more open to the possibility of getting outside help.  Additionally, in my experience the teenagers who improve the most also have the parents most willing to participate in therapy and change.  If you’ve ever had a positive experience with counseling tell your teenager about it in an honest but age appropriate way.  Emphasize the fact that it helped you feel better. 

The therapist is just going to tell you everything I say.

The message here is “This is just another way for you to control me.  You and the therapist will team up against me.”

COUNTER:  “I am suggesting counseling because I think it will help you not because I am trying to control you.  Every therapist has a legal and ethical obligation to keep their patient’s information completely private.  The therapist will be only for you and the only way I will know about what you talk to him about is if you decide to tell me about it.  Without privacy therapy doesn’t work, so I do not want to interfere in that process by trying to get information out of your therapist, he wouldn’t give it to me anyway.”

The therapist is going to be mean.

Often teenagers have a fantasy about what their therapist is going to be like.  A typical negative fantasy can look something like this:  The therapist will be a harsh, shaming, and punishing authority figure.  They are going to rub my face in all my problems, blame me for them and make me feels worse about everything. 

COUNTER:  “If your therapist is ever mean to you, you have my permission to walk out immediately and we will never go to that person again.  If you don’t like your therapist for any reason we will never go back there again.  I want you to have a therapist that you feel is nice to you and helpful.  If the therapist we try isn’t like that we’ll find one who is.  I want this to be a good experience for you.”

Give them the final say

Be sure to tell your teenager that you really want them to give counseling a try because you think that it will help them feel better but leave the final decision up to them.  If they are hesitant suggest that they try one or two sessions and that if they don’t like it they don’t have to go back.  Talk to them about the fact that the worst thing that can happen is that they waste a couple of hours of their life trying something that might have helped them feel happier.  Also remember that it may take some time and several conversations about going to counseling before they are ready to take a chance on it.  Allow your teenager the freedom to think about it for a while and to sleep on it.  Sometimes teenagers will talk to their friends or other adults about your suggestion and use their feedback to help them make a decision.

Help me spread the word. Thank you!

By Miguel Brown