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How to Talk to a Teen About Counselling: Ideas That Could Make All the Difference

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Please note: For the purpose of this article I have referred to a counsellor as anyone who may be in a supportive role with a young person, including a social worker, doctor, psychologist or mentor.

I know how difficult it can be to talk to a tween or teen about seeing professional. I managed a child and adolescent psychology clinic for many years. In that time I found myself constantly offering frazzled parents advise on this topic. In this blog I am going to share some really practical language to use in conversations about seeking support.

However, parents be prepared! This task may be as difficult as selling ice to an eskimo, especially if a teen has decided they don’t want to talk to anyone, think that there isn’t a problem or assume counselling won’t help anyway.  Although choosing the right language (at the right time) will obviously increase your chances of success, parents should also recognise how challenging a task they are confronted with.  

Here are eight different ways to kick start the initial discussion:

Tact #1:  You Deserve the Right Support
Language: You deserve the right support. We can see how hard this is for you. No one should have to go through this alone. Notice I used the word ‘deserve to’ instead of ‘need to’.

Tact #2:  Suggest a Trial Period
Language:  I want you to give this a go, with an open heart. If you don’t like it after three sessions we will talk about it again. What is the harm is having a go?!

Tact #3:  Identify the Problem as a Family Problem
Language:  This is a family issue that we all have to take responsibility for.  Let’s do this together. We will be getting help too. You may get help separate or together, depending on the issue. The important part is that you are an active participant.

Tact #4:  Appeal to their Sense of Compassion
Language:  I know you aren’t keen. But would you go to counselling for me, simply because I have asked you to? Sometimes it is easier to do something for someone else rather than do it for yourself.

Tact #5:  Try to Normalise Therapy
Language:  Everyone needs support from time to time. It’s actually really normal.  You might also discuss famous people or family friends who have been to counselling or are going through similar problems. 

Tact #6: Involve Them in the Process
Language: Would you like to choose the person you see? I believe they all have something different to offer but it is your choice since they will be supporting you.  Would you be okay if I made an appointment for you or would you like to make an appointment? Resist the urge to make an appointment for your teenager without discussing it with them first. It never goes down well!

Tact #7:  Leave the Door Open
Language:  I don’t want you to feel pressured or pushed into communicating, but know that we can get some professional help any time you are ready. Just know that we can organise things whenever you are ready. Put it as an option on the table, as a part of a few options, and leave it there. You might also ask the question, “What do you think you need right now?”

Tact #8:  Simply be the Parent
Language:  There are some decisions we have to make as your parents. This is an adult decision that I need to make. We can keep assessing it as we go. There are some moments when our children are not well enough to make decisions about treatment for themselves. In these cases, parents do need to step up and engage with professionals.

Five BIG DO’s to move things forward…

DO: Try and find a practitioner that has a special interest in young people and their area of need. Schools are usually the best place to referrals to local teen-friendly professionals. In the instance of a parent not wanting to contact the school, friends or local GPs may also help.

DO: Consider having an initial appointment with the professional of choice before your introduce them to your child. Please know that you are completely in your right to interview them, as you are allowing them into the mind of your child! You want to assess whether they are the right fit for your family and determine if they will connect with your child.

DO: The best way to get a hesitant teenager to counselling is to prepare them well in advance (not on the day of the appointment). Don’t spring it on them at the last minute. Some things which could help them reduce anxiety include:

  • Explaining exactly where they are going, who they will meet and how long it will take.
  • Ask them if they have any questions.
  • Acknowledging it can be hard to talk to someone new.
  • Reinforcing that counsellors are bound by confidentiality.
  • Reassuring them that the counsellor will ask them questions. They don’t have to work out what to say beforehand and they will not have to answer anything they don’t want to.
  • Giving them the option of having you attend the first session with them to help get things started.
  • Planning to do something fun together before or after the appointment so the focus is not all about going to counselling.  

DO: Make sure you have a plan for the day of the appointment. This may include keeping things as routine as possible, leaving half an hour earlier than you normally would, or stopping by a coffee shop on the way there.

DO: Come to term with the fact that they may pull out. If they refuse to attend, don’t push things to the point of explosion. The more you try and control, the less likely they will engage at another time. Go to the session on your own. This is not a wasted session. If appropriate, the counsellor may text your teenager in order to touch base with them. Be reassured, counsellors can integrate teens as the process continues.

DO: Remind yourself how scary it might feel and breathe in some patience. Keep remembering what it was like to be young. Did you ever have a moment when you said to yourself, ‘I don’t know who I can trust to help me. What if no one understands?” The idea of talking to a stranger can be a little overwhelming! It feel like a big, scary idea!

DO: Realise that seeing a psychologist is NOT the only answer.  It’s the popular, medicare funded answer, but it is not the only answer.  One size does not fit all. I am sure of that. Sometimes we, as parents, are convinced talking to a professional will help because we have had a positive experiencing with it.  Let’s not forget to trust that family, friends, and the caring adults around them can be just the help they need.

It can take time for young people to make their own deliberate choices and fully accept responsibility for their wellbeing. Ultimately we want our children to move from being resistant participants to engaged participants. That is the only way counselling will be effective.

For some children this is a BIG leap which needs to be broken up into baby steps over a period of time, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t get there overnight. In the meantime, parents will always do what they do best – fill in the gaps, keep them safe, build their tribe with them and believe that brighter days are ahead.

RECOMMENDED READING: For more, check out Michelle’s book “Self-Harm: Why Teens Do It and What Parents Can Do to Help.” 

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