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Taking Your Teen to a Therapist

By Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.
Associate Editor

It’s hard enough knowing when you need to see a therapist and navigating the entire process from picking a professional to making the most of your time once you do. (Here are some tips, by the way.)

But doing this for your teen can seem outright overwhelming.

Educating yourself on the process, however, helps immensely. Below, clinical psychologist John Duffy, Psy.D, who works with teens and authored the book The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens, discusses everything from telltale signs to see a therapist to talking to your child to making the most of therapy.

When Your Teen Needs Therapy

According to Duffy, the time to take your teen to a therapist is “when you note a marked change in either her affect, her behavior, or both,” especially “if the changes are sudden.”

Teens who need help will display signs of depression or angry outbursts, withdraw from friends and family, especially during a tough time, and “shut down in discussions, and refuse to discuss whatever it is that’s bothering them.”

Changes in habits also are telling. This might be a change in sleep or eating patterns or drug or alcohol use, Duffy said. He’s observed that a significant slump in grades may reveal distress, too.

Finding a Good Therapist

“Many parents think in terms of years of experience in the field, a degree from a specific school, or matching gender with their teen,” Duffy said.

But there’s an even more significant factor to consider: specialization. He strongly suggested parents seek a therapist who has considerable experience working with teens, because “this age group tends to have very specific interests and issues.”

If a therapist hasn’t worked with teens, they “can lose credibility quickly.” Typically the last thing teens want is to go to therapy, Duffy said. Plus, they can get impatient if they have to see several therapists before finding the “right fit.”

He also suggested asking family and friends for a recommendation. You might hesitate to ask because of privacy, but that can mean missing out on a good referral.

Broaching the Topic of Therapy with Your Teen

How do you bring up therapy with your teen? “Very carefully,” Duffy said. “Many teens are very resistant, as they may feel there is a taboo to therapy, or that their friends will find out they have a therapist, or that people might believe there is something ‘wrong’ with them.”

Avoid approaching your child with accusations, lectures and angry or disappointed reactions, he said. This leaves them feeling ashamed and wanting to see a therapist less and less.

Instead, “express your concern [in an open and loving way], and let your child know you want him to be happier, healthier, more productive, and less sad or anxious. And that you will use anything at your disposal, including therapy, to help them because you care so deeply.”

But what if your teen still refuses? Ask your teen to attend three therapy sessions, because “most teens are engaged in the process within that period of time.” Therapists who work with teens realize that they often resist therapy. Their goal for the first session is to see the teen for a second. “…We make sure to provide as safe and comfortable an environment as is reasonable for new teenage clients.”

Also, acknowledge that the whole situation is very anxiety-provoking for your child, he said. “And if you need to sweeten the deal with a bit of extra phone, Facebook or TV time, it might be worth it to balance out the anxiety for that first session,” he added.

Making the Most of Therapy

When your child is in therapy, one of the best things you can do is to become an “active participant,” Duffy said. That’s because most of the work is done outside the therapist’s office.

“Ask your teen’s therapist, and your teen, how you can help to maximize the benefit of the sessions. They may invite you into sessions, or ask you to record instances of some behavior or emotion between sessions.”

Understandably, most parents want to know precisely what goes on in therapy sessions and want progress reports pronto.

But let your child have “some confidentiality,” Duffy said. Your teen will probably reveal information to their therapist that they won’t disclose to you. “If you invade your child’s privacy here, the therapist may lose his or her trust, wasting time, energy and money, and postponing the change process.”

Of course it isn’t that you should be in the dark. Duffy suggested talking with the therapist about how to handle confidentiality, and sticking to whatever you decide.

As Duffy concluded: “We teen therapists are a lucky bunch. Despite the fact that we see our young clients during some of the toughest, darkest hours of their lives, we also tend to see them at their best.”


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