When we first meet, most of the teens I work with are anxious, even resistant, to begin therapy. They already have had a conversation with a parent that played itself out and ended in one of two ways:
- Parent raised the subject of starting therapy. The conversation quickly switched into some form of begging, demanding and/or coercing. Parent gets way. Result: an even more anxious or angry kid showed up for a first meeting with me.
- Parent raised the subject of starting therapy. The conversation quickly went nowhere. Parent gives up to keep the peace. Result: parent continues to fear for their child’s health.
What Can I Do?
Here are some tips for parents to make the transition into therapy for their child a smoother conversation — and one more likely to result in a child willingly choosing to attend treatment.
1. Avoid the word “problem” when telling your child you think they need treatment. Teens are triggered by this word and are likely to argue why things aren’t so bad.
2. Make it clear that attending treatment is not a punishment, but an act of self-care. Getting a check-up from the neck up is similar to seeing a dentist, doctor or even a cosmetologist.
3. Let them know you love them and are offering counseling to them because you want the best for them. Counseling will help them live their best lives.
4. Ask, “If you could get anything you wanted out of counseling, what would it be?” Allow your child to decide how counseling will be helpful. Good counselors also will get a parent’s perspective, so don’t worry that your child might leave anything important out. You’ll be able to share your hopes and wishes with their counselor as well during your first appointment. Kids who are allowed to set the agenda for counseling are more likely to stay engaged and eventually work on the things that concern you, too.
Skepticism Is Allowed
If all else fails, ask your child to attend one session just to see what they think. Allowing them to bring their skepticism and fear along with them might be the perfect way to find the best match in a therapist. One study reviewing the literature on factors predicting good treatment outcomes found that “the quality of the client–therapist alliance is a reliable predictor of positive clinical outcome independent of the variety of psychotherapy approaches and outcome measures.”
This good relationship with a counselor is what will allow your child to be completely honest about their thoughts and feelings. Encourage them to view their first few sessions as the ability to try a counselor on for size. If after the first few sessions your child doesn’t think it’s a good fit, look for another counselor. In my experience, almost everyone returns to treatment when they are allowed to make that decision for themselves.
Ardito RB, Rabellino D. Therapeutic alliance and outcome of psychotherapy: historical excursus, measurements, and prospects for research. Front Psychol. 2011;2:270. Published 2011 Oct 18. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00270
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