Talking to Your Teen About Going to Therapy
Being a teenager is a difficult time. Well, being alive is a continuous adventure of change, overcoming obstacles and celebrating victories, that’s a given. However, adolescence is the rite of passage between childhood and adulthood. Add puberty, hormones and discovering personal identity to the everyday tasks of being a teenager and that is a lot of questioning and uncertainty to deal with.
Emotions kick into high gear during adolescence. Feelings about self, others and everything become more intense and sometimes volatile. We feel things deeper and stronger than we have in the past. Because new experiences coax out an emotional response, and we have no previous experience to reference, a strong emotional response feels appropriate. Also at this point, cognitive development has advanced enough to a level where we better understand subtle nuances and begin to segue from black and white thinking. This is a confusing time.
During adolescence our peers are our greatest confidantes and influence. Peers influence our likes and dislikes as well as the trends we choose to follow. We rely on peers to understand our struggles and help guide us through our strife. The trouble is they are struggling with their own journey and similar obstacles. Because there is no road map and peers aren’t entirely certain either, it helps to have a sounding board.
Having a deep conversation about these new concerns such as sex, identity, failure, future goals, or fears may not be the most comfortable discussion to start. Having this talk with a parent is even harder, usually for both sides. Parents may struggle with understanding and accepting that “my baby is growing up.” An issue that can arise here is the delicate dance between seeing the adolescent as no longer a child, but not yet an adult. Knowing where to draw the line will depend on the adolescent’s needs and capabilities. Determining what those are is the challenge. And that’s where therapy can help.
Consent is Key
In California, at the age of 13, a client may advocate for their own mental health treatment. This means that in most cases, a 13-17 year old teen can say, “I don’t want to go to therapy,” and the clinician will respect that request and stop. This may sound counterintuitive to some, but the basis of successful therapy is willingness to try. Like Atreyu trying to save Artax from The Swamp of Sadness in The Neverending Story (1984), someone cannot force someone else to want to make a change. They need to be willing to try.
You Better Work
“So, how do I get my kid to consider therapy,” you ask? RuPaul says, “If you can’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” A great way to start is to be an example. Go to therapy and work on yourself. Parents who go to therapy and work toward being their best self help tackle some concerns children have about therapy and promote good mental health.
A common misconception is that therapy is for crazy people. In fact, therapy is for people. Happy people, sad people, angry people, big people, small people, all people. People of all diverse labels seek therapy. Celebrities have begun promoting therapy and good mental health practices, and as Lizzo says, “It’s about damn time.” Therapy is a place to talk to someone who is eager to see you thrive. A therapist is your biggest cheerleader and the shoulder to cry on.
Sitting on The Couch
Many operate under the idea that therapy is sitting in a room with someone who is judging their every move and word. While therapists do observe clients, therapy is less about lying on the couch and looking at inkblots and more about talking and listening. Many of us have been in the situation where we pour our heart out to a friend and realize the friend wasn’t actually listening but waiting for their turn to talk again. A therapist is a friend who doesn’t make the conversation about them. Therapists will call you out on behaviors or lines of thinking you are trying to abolish and encourage you to keep up the good work. The therapist is meant to guide the client to achieve their own goals, not necessarily what the parent or therapist sets as a goal.
You Can’t Change the Past
This is absolutely right. No one can. Not everything has a cure. But therapy isn’t meant to change the past. Therapy is about getting the client to the future. It may be necessary to process the past to do so, because it might be holding progress back. The client goes to therapy to find their way up the mountain while the therapist acts as a sherpa. It is setting and achieving reasonable goals for the future.
Teens Can Tell
A fear often voiced is that a therapist will tell parents everything that goes on in a minor’s appointment. Confidentiality is a huge deal in therapy. That being said, there are specific times we must break confidentiality and discuss situations with the parent or the proper authorities. These occurrences usually coincide with safety concerns or suspected abuse, but vary depending on state. This practice, however, applies to all clients. Not just minors.
Additionally there will be involvement by parents, usually because therapy encourages change. It is important to enlist family in the treatment process because if a client begins to change it impacts the support system. This will ensure the family is aware of needs that are unfulfilled, changes to expect and support they can contribute to ongoing change for a better outcome.
Yes, people cry in therapy. It happens. In fact, it is one of the best places to do it. It’s called Catharsis. Oxford Dictionary defines catharsis as, “the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.” Most people try to avoid feeling feelings. The human body is not generally programmed to do that. Emotion is a basic response to stimuli and experiences. It is necessary to understand what emotions occur for different stimuli and why. This identifies traumas and learned behaviors that can then be adjusted to advance toward the inevitable goal.
Therapists Make Me Talk About My Past
You betcha. Past experiences during childhood and traumatic instances make an impact. Processing them help the therapist and client better understand the reactions and alleviate the hold the trauma or experience has on personal growth. Since the therapist will act in the best interest of the client, they will often take this on then the client is prepared, pushing if they have determined it is necessary and of benefit to the client.
As a Parent, What Can I Do?
Try to be calm and open-minded if you are approaching your teenager about therapy. There may be resistance, and that is ok. Avoid “you” statements like, “You need therapy,” or “You’ve got to control your anger.” Try instead “I” Statements such as, “I feel scared when you yell about [the problem],” or “I feel sad when you say you feel alone.” The slight change conveys the same message and comes off less accusatory. Listen to the concerns the teenager may have. You don’t have to fix the problem or find a solution. They may just need to be heard.