Therapy for Teens: Does My Teen Need a Therapist?
Medically reviewed by Dr. Chelsea Hetherington, developmental psychologist
Teens today face more pressure than ever before. Between physical changes due to puberty, navigating new relationships and changing peer dynamics, balancing high school and extracurricular activities, and getting ready for college, many teens are coping with a lot stress and change.
Adolescence can also be a time when mental health issues become prevalent. Many mental health problems are common in teenagers, including eating disorders, ADHD, depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder, and many others.
Related: How to Help Teens with Anger Issues and Violent Behavior
In these cases, and many others, therapy can be beneficial for teens. A therapist can help your teen navigate complex and challenging issues, from mental health diagnoses to divorce, grief, relationship issues, substance use, and more.
What are signs my teen needs a therapist?
As a parent, it can be difficult to know when your teen is struggling and may benefit from psychotherapy. Here are some signs that your teen may need professional help:
- They’ve withdrawn from friends and activities that they used to enjoy.
- They’re exhibiting signs of depression, such as changes in sleep or eating habits, or increased sadness or irritability.
- They’re engaging in risky behaviors, such as alcohol or other substance abuse, self-harm, or reckless driving.
- They’re coping with a significant life change, like the death or illness of a parent or parents divorcing.
- They experienced a traumatic event, like sexual assault.
- They’re going through significant mood swings that are more severe than the average teenager.
- They’ve expressed suicidal thoughts or actions.
- They’ve become egregiously obsessive about their physical appearance, food consumption, or exercise.
- Their grades have dropped suddenly and unexpectedly.
- They’re having a hard time concentrating, sitting still, or focusing.
What therapy works best for teenagers?
There are many different types of therapy, and the type that will work best for your teen will depend on their personality and the issue they’re struggling with. For depression and anxiety, many mental health care providers use Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to great effect. Other modalities like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can help your teen develop positive coping mechanisms and thinking patterns.
There are also different modes of therapy that may be more or less effective for your teen, including individual therapy, group therapy, and online therapy. Each type of therapy has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it's important to talk to consider your teen’s specific needs and what might work best for them.
How can I find a therapist for my teen?
Finding a mental health professional who will work best with your teen may seem like a daunting challenge. One of the best places to start is by discussing your concerns with your teen’s pediatrician or other healthcare professional. They may be able to provide a referral to a recommended clinician or counselor, ideally one who specializes in working with teens and young adults.
For both teens and adults, one of the best determining factors that predict the success of therapy is the degree to which the therapist and client are compatible and work collaboratively to achieve positive outcomes. In this sense, it’s important to find someone who your teen can connect with.
This may involve interviewing several therapists before finding the right fit, so don’t become discouraged if you need to see several therapists before finding a good match.
What happens if I disagree with my child's therapist?
If you disagree with your teenager's therapist, the best place to start is to talk to the therapist about your concerns. Seek additional understanding and justification for their recommendations. You may find that after talking to them about it, you better understand where they’re coming from.
If you still disagree with your teen’s therapist, the next best step is to talk to your teen about it. Ask them how they feel therapy is going and how they like working with this therapist. If you both agree that the therapist is not a good fit for your teenager, you can always ask for a referral to another therapist.
Still, if your teen is happy with the arrangement, you may want to explore why you hold these feelings towards your teen’s therapist and whether they might be rooted in a desire to be in control.
Will my teen's therapist tell me what they say?
It's a common question that parents ask when they're considering sending their teenager to therapy: will the therapist tell me what my teen says?
In general, the answer is no. You should not expect that your teen’s therapist will relay what your teen says during therapy sessions. Therapists are bound by confidentiality and cannot share what a patient tells them without the patient's permission. Doing so would violate your teen’s privacy and the trust they’ve built with their therapist.
However, there are some exceptions to this rule. If a teenager discloses abuse or threats to their physical safety or the safety of other people, the therapist may need to share information with the parents in order to ensure that the teenager is getting the best possible care.
My teen doesn't want to go to family therapy
If your teen is refusing to go to therapy, there are a few things you can do. First, try to talk to them so you can better understand why they don't want to go. It might be that they have some misconceptions about therapy that are making them resistant to the idea. Ensure that they understand that therapy is confidential and that they won’t be forced to talk about anything they don’t want to talk about.
If they're still resistant, you could explore therapy groups that your teen can join. Group therapy for teens can be a good way for them to meet other teens who are dealing with similar issues and it can provide a lower-pressure introduction to the idea of therapy.
Another option would be to pursue psychiatric medication.
Psychiatric medication can be an important part of treatment for teens with mental health conditions, as it can help reduce symptoms and improve functioning. Still, medication is most effective when used in conjunction with therapy, rather than as an alternative.
Other alternatives to talk therapy would include art therapy, dance therapy, or other creative outlets. These therapies can help your teen express themselves in a creative and non-verbal way and provide a physical outlet for emotions, which can be beneficial for both the mind and the body.
Benefits of teen counseling
Therapy can be an incredibly helpful tool for teens. It can provide a safe space for them to explore their thoughts and feelings and can help them to develop healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and difficult situations. Therapy can also help teens to build self-esteem and confidence, and to learn how to effectively communicate with others.
Therapy can also help teens who are struggling with challenges like addiction, trauma, or abuse. Teens may benefit from therapy to help them cope with these challenges and improve their overall well-being.
To learn more about how to help your teenager with their mental health and start the therapy conversation, ask yourself Is Your Teen More Stressed Than You Think?
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Dr. Chelsea Hetherington (she/her) is a developmental psychologist, writer, coach, and consultant.