Teens attend therapy for many reasons. Some go for conditions like depression or eating disorders, while others go for significant life transitions or substance abuse. No matter the reason, therapy can be an extremely helpful tool for teens as they work to overcome their challenges.
Therapy can be a transformational experience for people of all ages, but it’s crucial that the person attending therapy actively participates in their own healing.
Parents can encourage a teen to participate in therapy by understanding their perspective, avoiding treating therapy as a punishment, and collaborating with their therapist.
If a teen is still resistant, some alternatives to therapy include support groups, journaling, medication, and seeking your own therapy.
Therapy can be a transformational experience for people of all ages, but in order for therapy to be effective, the person must be willing to talk about their feelings, explore their thoughts, and work on changing the behaviors that are causing them distress. If the person is not willing to do the work, then therapy is likely to be unsuccessful.
Some teens will go to therapy willingly, but others may be more resistant to the idea. So what happens if a teenager is resistant to attending or participating in therapy? And how can parents support and encourage their teens to go to therapy?
How to encourage a resistant teen to agree to therapy
If your teen is resistant to talking to a therapist, there are some things that you can do to support them and get the help they need.
Understand their perspective
Try to understand why your teen is resistant to attending or participating in therapy. Maybe they feel like they don't need help or are unsure about what will happen in therapy. You can help them understand that therapy is a safe place where they can talk about their feelings and get help with their problems. Try to see things from their perspective and empathize with how they’re feeling.
Don’t make therapy into a punishment
Therapy is not a punishment, so avoid treating it as such. This will create a negative association for your teen and might make them ever more resistant to the idea. Instead of making them feel like they’re in trouble or that therapy will “fix” them, talk about therapy as a space to explore their thoughts and feelings. Try to make it a positive experience for your child, and they will be more likely to participate openly.
Work with their therapist
If your teen is still resistant, talk to their therapist about your concerns and ask for advice on getting them to open up. Your teen’s therapist may have ideas about how the two of you can work as a team to get them to open up.
What happens if a teen doesn't want to talk
A few things can happen if a teen decides not to talk during therapy.
The first possibility is that the therapist will engage the teen in conversation about general topics of interest. If the teen does not want to talk, the therapist may try to get them to talk by asking questions about their day or hobbies. The therapist might also spend some time telling the teen about themselves and trying to make the teen more comfortable.
The therapist may also allow the teen to sit in silence. It’s important for teens to have a space to express themselves, even if they do not want to talk. Many therapists even use silence as a therapeutic tool. Silence can be a powerful space for reflection, and by sitting in the discomfort of silence together, the teen may learn that they can show up in any way they wish during therapy sessions.
Another possibility is that the therapist will use some form of media - like music or a book - to connect with the teen during the session and get them to open up.
Ultimately, therapy can only be successful when both the client and therapist are fully engaged. If a teen is still resistant to talking in therapy after several sessions, the therapist may terminate the relationship or recommend other resources.
Alternatives to therapy for resistant teens
Therapy is an excellent way for teens to deal with their problems, but it's not the only way. Here are some alternatives to therapy that can help teens deal with their problems.
Social support can be a critical factor in healing and supporting positive mental health. You can try to find a support group for teens who are struggling with the same issues your child is facing. Support groups can provide them with a safe place to share their feelings and get support from other teens who are going through the same issues. There may even be virtual support groups your teen could join, which might help with any social anxiety your teen is experiencing.
Writing can be a great way to express your feelings and work through your problems. Journaling may give your teen a safe space to process their thoughts and feelings. It can also help them open up to themselves a bit to the point that they eventually feel more comfortable with the idea of going to therapy.
Depending on what issues your teen is struggling with, medication may be helpful. For instance, antidepressants are effective in treating depression in teenagers. This remedy has the added benefit that it may alleviate the symptoms to the point where they feel more open to exploring therapy. However, it is important to note that not all medications are appropriate for all teenagers, and medication will not magically heal a teen’s mental health issues. Working with a doctor to find the right medication and dosage can be a bit of “trial-and-error” rather than a “quick fix.”
Seek your own therapy
If your teen is determined that they will not agree to go to therapy, consider seeking therapy for yourself. Coping with your teen’s issues and/or mental illness can be taxing for all members of the family. Working with your own therapist can help you develop helpful coping strategies to manage your own stress around this issue.