I Don't Need Help! Getting Past Teen Refusal

For over 20 years we have been working with teens and their families to create a safe space for positive change. While the issues our families face have changed with the times, the core objections to therapy we hear from our teens have not. Here are the top six:

1. There is nothing wrong with me.

This is certainly tricky. Your child might view your suggestion of counseling through the powerful teen lens of insecurity and self-judgment; thus, their defensive protest, “There is nothing wrong with me.” And, as a parent, you know offering to get help for your child comes from a place of love and concern, not judgment. The question is, how do you help them to see that? Start by helping your child understand the difference between feeling like something is wrong WITH them and recognizing that they can feel happier and more confident. For instance, your son says that he is satisfied just having friends online. He sees no reason to interact with friends in real space and time. You, as the parent, know face to face interactions and interpersonal relationships are practice for surviving in the adult world. So do you convince him of this fact? Well, first thing. Understand that you may not convince him. After all, he is a kid. And by virtue of this fact, he is developmentally unable to anticipate the future like you can. Don’t try to talk him out of his position. If you do, you will lose the argument, and he will retreat more deeply into his position. Instead, acknowledge and accept his feelings right now, but let him know it is your job to prepare him for the future. Let him know that as an adult he is going to need skills to get along with people and develop deeper connections with others in order to lead a satisfying life. It’s OK for you to say, “Once you have the skills you need and are able to build close relationships, then you can choose to stay in your own basement and maintain all of your relationships online. As a productive, self-sustaining adult, you will have earned that choice.”

There are two critical items for you to remember here:

1. You have a closing window of opportunity to get your teen the help they need before they turn 18. After they hit that magic number, you have lost much of your leverage.

2. You are the parent. You get your teen to do a lot of things they are loathe to do. How many kids really LIKE getting their annual shots? But they do it. Why? Because you are in charge, and when you are clear about what is needed, your child trusts you.

2. What if I see someone I know?

Yes. You might. Have you ever craved an ice cream late at night and so you throw your jacket on over your pajamas and head to the local 7-11 for some Ben and Jerry’s – all the while praying you won’t bump into anyone you know? Well, guess what? If you do, they are likely there for the same reason. I realize this is a dramatic oversimplification, but there is truth in there. The teens who come to In Step may have different issues, but they all have one thing in common: they want to improve their quality of life.

As a mental health practice, we follow strict guidelines of confidentiality. And, in our therapy groups, we make sure that all the participants agree to complete confidentiality. We make every effort to place teens from the same high school in different groups. But when this isn’t possible because we don’t have a teen group that is a good fit for a prospective member, we will refer out to another practice.

3. All they do is sit around and talk about their feelings.

This conjures up images of a drum circle and participants passing around a feelings stick. It is hard to imagine many teens being comfortable with that kind of scene. However, most of the time, the group members are seated and feelings do come up as part of the work they do together. But, it is much more organic. A teen may bring up a situation they faced with peers that involved harassment on social media. The group might brainstorm ideas about how to handle the feelings of embarrassment, anger, and fear that accompanied the incident. During the conversation, the leader could ask the other members if they had ever experienced something similar, or if they had another experience that brought up similar feelings. The input from the other teens is invaluable, as is the guidance provided by the leader. By discussing concrete examples and sharing positive coping strategies, the group learns to trust each other and that creates an environment where feelings are not the “f” word.

4. I don’t have time to come in after school.

We get it. Yours and your child’s schedule can be crazy. There are sports, tests, plays, work, SAT prep classes, religious school meetings, siblings’ activities, and midnight video game releases. This will likely not change. Families are hugely busy and for teens this will continue through high school and on into college or work. It will always be busy and there is never a perfect time to stop and choose self-care. However, the reality is that your teen will most likely not be the one to put on the brakes. As parents, we need to model our commitment to therapy by working with our teens to get them the help they need to be successful in all of their pursuits going forward. This might mean talking to the school about early release or excusing a teen during lunch. In our 20+ years as a practice, we have rarely found this to be a problem. Schools are anxious to get kids the help they need. We also try and schedule sessions later in the evening, on Saturdays, and on the same day each week; this prevents conflicts with after school activities and gives families months of notice to be prepared to attend regularly. As with anything worthwhile, there is some sacrifice involved.

5. It’s not going to do anything.

This is the real objection. This represents the unexpressed fear your teen has when s/he is asked to consider therapy. It practically screams the need for reassurance. Your child wants a guarantee that putting themselves in this ultra vulnerable position will get them what they want and need. You can’t promise that, and since teens have a very good radar for false assurances, it wouldn’t benefit either of you to try and make that promise. Rather, you can educate yourself and your child about what is possible. You can talk to the therapist or group leader about what changes/benefits you can expect from your work together. Your teen can have input on what things she feels are most important to her to work on and how the group or individual therapy will help her accomplish her goals. Beyond that, it is up to the teen to commit to the work it will take to benefit from a therapeutic relationship. As a parent, you can only promise that you will continue to support your child by exploring every resource available to help them.

6. I’m not going.

Here is where the rubber hits the road for us as parents. You have these young adults who are suffering and refusing to get help, and likely not just making themselves miserable, but everyone in their path. Unlike when they were little and you could physically get them where they needed to go, different tactics are necessary for teenagers (who are likely bigger and stronger than you!). The truth is, you can’t force someone to go to therapy. Taking away a teen’s phone or grounding them until they agree to go will do more harm than good. It sets up therapy as a consequence, rather than something positive. Rather, talk to your teen about how their behavior is affecting you as their mom and dad. Explain to them that this is something you are going to work on as well. Ask them to come with you to learn about how therapy might help both of you. By sharing in the process, you reduce the pressure on your child and increase the possibility that they will be willing to take a risk on treatment.

Asking for help is not easy and your teens objections are very real. Listen to your child and empathize, but don’t allow fear of the unknown to keep them from getting the help they need. If you feel your family is ready to take the next step, please call us to ask questions or set up an initial meeting with a licensed therapist who can guide you through the process. The number for our Fairfax office is 703-876-8480. We look forward to working with you.