My Teen Refuses to go to Therapy. Now What?

Its not uncommon that a child will drag their feet or even straight up refuse to go to therapy. In my experience I have found that this is typically due to two things :

  1. A misunderstanding of their rights to confidentiality.
  2. A misunderstanding of what therapy is like.

A child’s understanding of the counseling process is limited to what they know from the media they are consuming and from their peers have experienced. Additionally, they may be concerned that since their guardian is the one typically initiating therapy, making appointments, and signing consents, that their parent may be privy to all the information shared in therapy. This false idea may make them feel like therapy is an unsafe process where they cannot be free to speak candidly.

Here are five tips for helping them accept therapeutic help

  1. Find some trusted friends or mentors in their life that can speak about positive experiences in therapy.

Sorry mom or dad, but your teens do not always want to talk to you about the things they are facing. You likely have some level of vested interest in your teen participating in therapy, so it will be hard for them to accept your encouragement without feeling your bias. Do you remember when you were a kid? Did you always want to talk to your parents about things? Especially vulnerable things like emotions and difficult experiences? You are doing your children such a service to help them identify other safe and trusted adults to be able to talk to about things they are facing. This widens the pool of people in their corner and gives them space and  opportunities to express themselves. Hearing from their favorite aunt, close family friend, or favorite trusted teacher about their experiences in life and with therapy could be the thing that helps them become open to the idea.

2. Educate yourself on your child’s right to confidentially.

In the state of Illinois, a minor that is 12 or older has the legal right to request their own therapy and sign their own consents for up to 8 sessions without parental consent. Additionally, minors of all ages have a confidentiality agreement with their therapist that follows a professional ethical code. This means that most information shared in a therapy session will be protected, and not shared with the parent. There are of course exceptions to confidentiality. Therapists are mandated reporters and are required to break confidentiality if there is a safety risk. Additionally, your child can agree to have parents involved in the therapy process and dictate what information get shared. Remember, your child’s therapist should always be working in the best interest of their client- which is your child. They should share information with that relationship as a center. This is why its important to find a therapist you trust and who comes recommended.

3. Do a  thorough search of therapists and find a handful of options you feel comfortable with.

When trusting someone with vulnerable details of your child’s life it is important that you do some leg work on who you will trust. Its never a good idea to have your child see a therapist you are also seeing or have seen in the past, unless part of the therapeutic plan is working on your relationship together and this has been agreed on in advanced. Additionally, your child will likely feel more invested in the process if they has a say in who they see. My advice is to find 2-4 therapists that you feel align with what you’re looking for by doing some research yourself and then presenting these options to your child and letting them be part of the process of picking who they will see.

4. The three-visit rule.

If your teen is completely resistant to therapy, one thing I recommend is the three-visit rule. This means that you ask them to try and go three times and if they decide after three sessions that they don’t think it would benefit them, give it a break. Sometimes kids just aren’t ready, or they feel unsafe with a therapist for one reason or another. Forcing them to participate will put a negative connotation about therapy in their head, and they will be less likely to opt for therapy down the road when they are ready or need it even more. Forcing therapy, no questions asked could do more harm than good. As a therapist I always tell parents up front that I follow a three-session rule. If their child is completely resistant after three sessions, I won’t continue to offer services. So far, I have never had a child or teen NOT want to continue after three sessions because by this point they are able to see that its really kind of great.

5. RESISIT the urge to grill your child on what they spoke about in therapy every week.

This is hard for most parents. Its very human to want to know what is going on in therapy but asking for details every week is a quick way to make your child feel defensive or shut down. Instead try asking open ended questions like “do you want to talk about therapy today?” or even just occasionally making statements such as “you can always talk to me about therapy if you want” and leave it at that. Grilling for details can feel invasive. Your role as a parent is to be supportive and an ear to listen.

Giving your child the gift of therapy is one of the best things you can do. Especially if you give them ownership and trust along the way. Follow these tips and be patient with what you are facing. You can’t force change on others, but you can give your teen the tools and environment they need to choose change for themselves.

Leave a Reply