How to encourage your teen to go to counseling
As part of our PARENTING DURING A PANDEMIC SERIES, we reached out to Helen Burke at Bainbridge Youth Services for advise on how parents can encourage kids to participate in counseling if there is a need. Read the following seven steps and visit our Parent Support Resources page for a list of local services.
So you think it would be helpful for your teen to see a counselor, and you aren’t sure how to approach the topic? Here are a few things to consider before you have the conversation.
1. Consider your own experience
Get clear on why you think it would be a good idea for your teen to see a counselor. What is your family’s experience with counseling? What is your personal experience with counseling? Sometimes people are hesitant to go to counseling because of a general social stigma - that somehow being in counseling means there is something “wrong” with you. Before you talk to your teen, consider your own feelings about counseling, previous comments you might have made about others who seek counseling, and your family’s general ability to talk about intimate or challenging emotional subjects.
If something helped to change your perspective about counseling, what was it? Consider sharing this with your teen. One powerful way of modeling the benefits of counseling is to be willing to go to counseling yourself. If you do, then you will speak from a place of experience and can share how perhaps you were nervous before you went, what happened in sessions, and what was particularly helpful about it.
2. Find the right time
Choose the right time for the conversation rather than forcing it. Be ready for an opportunity when your teen seems more talkative or open to dialogue (this is very often late at night, when you are ready for bed). Also, make sure you have the bandwidth to stay calm and present for the conversation.
3. Acknowledge the struggle and LISTEN
When you do talk, avoid placing blame on your teen. Acknowledging that things seem hard for them, and asking about their experience is a good place to start. “I notice you have been down lately, and you don’t seem to take as much pleasure in things you have enjoyed in the past. I wonder how things are for you right now.” And then listen. Just listen. Reflect back to them what you hear them say, acknowledge that it is hard. If you can relate, ask if they’d like to hear about a time when you experienced something similar to what they are going through. If they say “no thank you,” honor that - this can be hard! Try to avoid statements that are minimizing or invalidating of their experience - this tends to stop conversations. Just listening with open, nonjudgmental curiosity can be very powerful.
4. Examine the source of resistance
This is a good time to suggest that having someone to talk to outside the family might be helpful. Acknowledge that there might be things they just don’t feel comfortable talking about with a parent, and that’s okay. If your teen is resistant, get curious about the source of their resistance. Maybe it is the stigma. Maybe they do not agree that there is a problem. Maybe they are feeling like it is impossible that someone might understand and could help them.
5. Reflect on family dynamics
Families are systems, and every member of the family is a part of the system. No family member exists in a vacuum, so your teen’s struggle may very likely be connected to some dynamic that is happening in the family (nuclear or extended family). Parents love their kids and worry when they seem to be struggling. Very often the implicit message from scared parents to their child’s counselor is “Please fix my child!” Be open to family therapy sessions and be willing to really listen and take in feedback from your child. See this as an opportunity to do hard work together, avoiding blame, being willing to consider how your actions or inactions may be contributing to what you see happening with your child.
6. What if the answer is no?
Consider how you will respond if your teen’s answer is no. Perhaps in your first attempt to discuss it, just ask your teen to consider the possibility for a few days. One of the most important factors influencing whether counseling is successful is the client’s willingness to participate and their motivation to change or get help. So, unless the circumstances are extreme, forcing a child who does not want to go to counseling is not likely to be helpful. Also, more important than any particular counseling approach (CBT, mindfulness, somatic therapy, etc.), is the therapeutic relationship. If there is warmth and respect between the counselor and client, there is a greater likelihood that counseling will be helpful and healing.
7. Relinquish the process
Finally, if your teen does agree that counseling would be helpful, let them drive the process as much as possible. Try to let go of your expectations about what the outcome will be and honor the confidentiality of the counseling process.
Check out the Raising Resilience Parent Support Resources page to find local resources. Teens can request appointments or information about free, confidential counseling throughout the year (including summer) at Bainbridge Youth Services’ website (askbys.org), or by calling (206) 842-9675.
Ehmke, R. (n.d.). Helping resistant teens into treatment. Retrieved from Child Mind Institute website at https://childmind.org/article/helping-resistant-teens-into-treatment/
Sprenkle, D. & Blow, A. (2004). Common factors and our sacred models. Journal of marital and family therapy, 30(2), 113-129.
Tartakovsky, M. (July 8, 2018). When your child doesn’t want to go to therapy (but needs to). Retrieved from PsychCentral website at