Encouraging a teenager to attend counseling can be difficult. Here are the top ten ways I’ve found to engage adolescents with the therapy process. The goal is to create a life-long ability to utilize counseling as a healthy resource.
1 Ask for your teen's help to choose their counselor.
Look at online directories, check out photos of different therapists and pictures of their offices. Read their personal statements about how they work. Let your teen tell you who they might be comfortable with and who just looks weird to them.
2 Don’t ambush.
I’m sure you’ve considered not telling them about the appointment until it’s too late for them to back out. But please resist this idea. They will feel tricked and won’t open up or trust the counselor.
3 Normalize counseling.
Counseling is not somewhere “crazy people go.” Explain that therapy is just a resource to work through ideas and obtain tools to lighten their load. You aren’t trying to change them. You just want to help make things easier for them. This idea helps to counter the argument of “But I’m fine,” or “There’s nothing wrong with me.”
4 Take some accountability in the change process.
If your child feels scapegoated, they will resist. For example, a parent can say: “We haven’t been getting along lately. I want to consult the counselor on things that I can can do better to help us get along more smoothly. It will be good for me too.”
5 Don’t use counseling as a threat or a punishment.
A counselor is not a probation officer/judge/principal. The therapist works for your teen, not the other way around. This sets counseling up to fail.
6 Use the first session as an “interview”.
Do they like the counselor? Give them a feeling of control in the decision and listen or make changes if they don’t feel comfortable. Counselors are all very different and personality styles have to click.
7 What’s in it for them?
Most teens think that being dragged to therapy is just for their parents benefit. When you are discussing problematic behavior ask questions to lead them to understand how things have been a problem for them, not just you. For example: “I’ve been hearing from your teachers that you are zoning out and not turning in classwork. It must be frustrating for you to have your teachers sending us complaints. I bet you’d also like us not bugging you/grounding you about school stuff.” From your teen’s perspective, they probably want their parents and teachers off their backs. Counseling can help them with that. Do they want more freedom or less drama? Would it be nice for them to feel better? Find a reason for them to be motivated to come to session.
8 Offer to let them out of class for the appointment.
A counselor can write a school excuse note. Bribery never hurts.
9 Be open to change in yourself and try new things.
If your teen sees you making an effort, they will buy into the process. Recognize changes that your child is making in therapy and encourage their hard work. If they slip into old behavior, encourage and remind them of positive changes they have made. It’s normal to have little setbacks.
10 What’s said in therapy stays in therapy.
Never get mad at your child for anything they discuss in session. (this usually happens out of therapist earshot). That will shut them down and they will be done. Also, keep counseling private. Don’t tell outsiders or other relatives that they are going to therapy, let your child bring it up. Most teens are very wary of the social stigma of going to counseling.
Take this time you’ve set aside with them for some extra attention. Go out for ice cream or something special after session. No matter how resistant your teen may seem, I have found that nearly 99.9% of them are really yearning for your time and attention.
Good luck! Please let me know in the comments what has worked for you to engage your kids in this process, I'd love to hear more ideas!