How Do You Get Your Teen to Go to Therapy?

“My son is bigger than I am, and I have no way to force him to come to therapy even though I know he needs it.”

“My daughter refuses to attend a therapy group where she just sits around and talks about her feelings with complete strangers.”

“The very reason my son needs a group is what makes it impossible to get him there! His social anxiety. Once he goes, I know he will get a lot out of it.”

These are just a few of the challenges we hear when parents call us for help in getting their teen into one of our therapy groups. They are seeking the magic motivation formula. More often than not, the process of encouraging your teen to accept help is an uncomfortable one with several hurdles:

#1 Your teen must recognize that things (academically, socially, emotionally) are troubling him/her.

#2 Your child must then talk to you about it. For some teens this revelation with you is only slightly easier than walking on hot coals. And finally

#3 S/he needs to visit an unknown professional or group of unknown peers and share these painful feelings. Yikes. No small task for an adolescent whose primary developmental milestones are to attain autonomy and independence from you and to gain a sense of clarity of their own identity. It’s not hard to understand what an enormous leap of faith it is for your teen to attend that first therapy session or join that first therapy group.

So, how do our parents do it? After all, most of the parents who have teens in our groups have gone through the very same process with their teenagers. Can they share words of wisdom with you?

Here’s what our parents say:

  1. Educate yourself about what really goes on in a teen group.
    It’s not like the TV versions of therapy. Our teens don’t sit around in a circle and take turns telling horror stories of sex, drugs, and rock n roll. Our groups are interpersonal in nature, and group members build important relationships with each other at a slow and safe pace. We also don’t place kids together who have vastly different concerns. For example, a child who may struggle primarily with social anxieties and isolation will not be placed in a group with a member who copes with distressing feelings with risky sexual behavior and emotional discontrol.

  3. Give your teen a sense of privacy and control.
    Offer to take them and allow them to talk about whatever they would like. Giving them your agenda won’t yield the kind of results many families hope for. Let them have the license to talk about how much they hate you right now if that will help them see how willing you are to get them the help they need.

  5. Use natural consequences.
    Try saying this. “You tell me that you don’t need a group, but your behavior tells me otherwise. You have not been out of your room for 6 weeks after school. If this behavior continues for another week, I am going to read this as you communicating a wish for me to get you into a group, even though I know the thought makes you feel uncomfortable.”

  7. Give the group a good solid try.
    It takes some kids time to warm up. If left to their own devices and they don’t feel comfortable in the first couple of groups, they might choose to bolt rather than give it the time needed to relax into the group. Let your teen know that they need to give the group two months at which point they can decide if the group is a good fit for them.

  9. Put your own feelings out there.
    Be open with your own feelings with your child. That as much as you’d like to be able to take care of all of their needs, you can’t. As they grow and develop, their job is to become more independent, and the group allows them a space to be independent, safe and private.

With our teen groups, we strike a fine balance between carefully maintaining the precious confidentiality of our teens*. At the same time, we strongly value and support the continued relationship our teens have with their parent(s). We keep you in the loop by allowing you into the general process and work within the group without breaching privacy concerns.

Here is an excerpt from one of the weekly emails to parents from one of our teen groups in our Fairfax office:

We had a great group the last couple of weeks that we want to share so you can be aware of some of the skills being discussed in the group. We have been teaching the teens interpersonal effectiveness skills that will be helpful in seeking out like-minded friends, making interactions, and creating and maintaining friendships. The first series of skills were talked about in figuring out what the OBJECTIVE is when your teen has a social interaction and to use these skills to have a successful social interaction…

Most of the group was able to talk about using some of these skills in an interaction during the week. In yesterday’s group we talked about Self-Respect Effectiveness by challenging group members to think about what their personal values or beliefs are and situations where they might be tempted to betray these beliefs to receive approval. We talked to them about being:

F-Fair-being fair to themselves and others
A-Apologies-not making apologies unless it is warranted, do not make apologies for standing up for yourself.
S-Stick to your values, stand up for what you believe
T-Truthful, be truthful and avoid dishonesty or exaggeration.

We have generated good discussion surrounding these topics!

No matter how you cut it, getting teens to do something they don’t want to do feels like an impossible task. I am hopeful some of the suggestions laid out here can be a starting point for conversations in your family. If you feel like you are ready to take the next step, or want to find out more information, we would be happy to talk with your and your teen.

All the best,

*except in case of risk of harm to self or others