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Top 10 Truths About Teen Therapy

When your teen is starting therapy there are a lot of unknowns.  You may have questions about the process, how long it will take, or what exactly they’ll be doing in therapy.  Those questions are answered in another blog post.  Today, I’ll be talking about the top 10 truths of teen therapy.  Some of them you’ll likely nod in recognition and others you may be surprised about (wait, what!  I may have to change, because my teen’s in therapy?!).  Read on to learn about the other truths and how to get mentally prepared as your teen embarks on the journey of therapy.

1) It takes time

Depending on what’s going on, what skills are needed to handle big emotions or hard things, and how a teen engages in therapy, teen therapy can take some time.  While I’ve seen teens gain short-term benefits from a few sessions, like when families use their employee assistance program benefits, if a teen is dealing with past adverse life experiences or serious symptoms of anxiety or depression, or actively engaged in harmful substance use, it can take time to unpack what’s going on and let the therapy process work.  

Therapy is a process. 

It’s about two people building a relationship together and relationship building takes time.  It can take time to connect what’s going on in the body to the behavior you’re seeing in your teen and to understand how our thoughts impact our feelings, which lead to our behaviors. 

Some teens need more time to learn how to label emotions and practice the skills, which will help them handle big emotions or hard things.  I ask parents during the initial session to have faith in the therapy process and to talk about any concerns along the way.  

2) It doesn’t always work

 Unfortunately there’s no guarantee teen therapy will work.  For therapy to be considered “successful” requires a lot of factors: the relationship between the therapist and the teen, the consistency of services, and the level of engagement (ie: is the teen coming to sessions and sitting silently or is there a misalignment between teen and therapist?) 

If your teen doesn’t connect with the therapist within the first one to three sessions, I recommend finding someone else.  You and your teen have to like the therapist and believe the therapist can help you in order for the process to work.  Not every therapist is a great fit for a teen.  It’s okay to shop around and find someone both you and your teen really connect with. 

Another factor which may impact effectiveness is starting and stopping therapy.  If a teen goes one week then skips the next two and decides to come the third, but then doesn’t come for another three weeks, it’s going to be difficult to make progress on any issues.  When this happens, each session requires a “restarting” of the relationship in a sense, and a “catching up” rather than jumping into the therapeutic work.  What I’m talking about is not the same as working with a therapist for a while then strategically decreasing the frequency of sessions as a teen improves. 

I’m talking about therapy not being prioritized or calendered regularly. 

Many therapists won’t agree to see a teen, if the family isn’t able to commit to weekly sessions in the beginning, because it really takes some momentum to build the relationship and start getting into the work.   

3) It will be a different experience with every teen therapist

There is not one teen therapist factory, which churns out an exact model of a teen therapist.  Teen therapy is a highly personal experience.  The therapist is a human who has had their own life experiences, training, and therapeutic philosophies.  That’s why I recommend you and your teen talking to a therapist first before booking the initial session.  You want to know if the therapist is someone you both connect with, you feel like can help you, and has the expertise to do so. 

There are really an infinite amount of ways to conduct teen therapy, and every teen therapist you speak to will be a different experience. 

What matters is what you, the parent, and you, the teen client think about the therapist.  And it may take some trial and error.  You may need to do some research about different types of therapy.  You may want to talk to your child’s pediatrician, psychiatrist, or school counselor about your options.  It’s important to talk with your teen.  Let them help with the process. 

Teens love choice, and what better way to get them involved in their therapy before it begins by having them decide what type of therapy or what therapist may be the best fit for them.    

4) You teen may still want or need therapy as an adult

Teen therapy is a great gift to a human.  It’s something I wish I had known about when I was a teen.  Still, having therapy during the teen years doesn’t mean your teen will never want or need therapy again.  The human journey is just that.  It’s a journey with mountains and valleys. 

Your teen may learn a lot of great things during their time in therapy.  That doesn’t mean something won’t come up with they’re twenty-five, twenty-nine, and beyond where they want to seek help again. 

Teen therapy provides a foundation for growth, learning experiences, and connecting with one’s self.  As we get older and continue developing, your teen will become an adult and things will come up.  The brain isn’t done developing until age twenty-seven.  There may be things as an adult to unlearn from earlier in life, or the things a teen learns in therapy or outside of therapy may no longer work. 

There are lots of reasons to do therapy as an adult and having a (hopefully) positive experience with teen therapy can make it that much easier to learn how to ask for help, find a therapist, and do a hard thing like going to therapy.

5) A teen’s behavior may change

To have different results, we often have to behave differently.  I know this makes sense intellectually, but sometimes it can catch parents by surprise.  Maybe before coming to therapy your teen was a passive communicator.  They would go along with what you said without voicing an objection.  Let’s say through therapy, they learn the skill of assertive communication, a skill you value as an adult because you want your teen to be able to ask for what they want, be heard, and respected in places like the workplace or a romantic relationship. 

It may be uncomfortable though to realize, your teen wants to practice this newly learned skill of assertive communication on you, now. 

Maybe they’re asking to stay out past curfew or go on a road trip with a friend.  Previously, when they were younger, you could make the decision, you as the parent thought was best.  Now, however, you have an emerging adult in your home, who is making some logical points, able to reason, and is speaking in a calm, clear tone of voice.  That can be a different experience for parents, especially if this is your firstborn, which leads us to the next truth…

6) Family members may have to adapt to the teen’s different behavior

Having one member of a household in therapy can shift the dynamics at home.  Some teens who attend therapy are excited to share what they’re learning with their parents, so you’ll know all along the way what’s going on.  Some are more close-lipped about it, and it isn’t until their behavior starts to change, you as the parent notice, hmmm, something’s different with my teenDifferent isn’t “bad” or “good;” it’s simply different and unfamiliar. 

I like to equate a teen going to therapy with a baby mobile. 

The mobile is perfectly balanced before therapy.  Everyone is familiar with the family culture and dynamic.  Each person knows their role, their behavior is expected by other family members, and the family is in homeostasis, or relatively stable.  What happens when a teen goes to therapy is the mobile shifts.  As your teen does therapy and they learn and grow through the therapy process, you may notice changes in behavior, which rocks the mobile.  Often that shifting requires other people around them to shift too to figure out what the new balance will be. 

If your teen’s in therapy and you notice this happening and don’t know how to respond, talk to your teen’s therapist about booking a parent consultation session to meet with the therapist without your teen or find your own therapist, so you too have the opportunity to experience the process of therapy.  

7) It’s often uncomfortable

Doing new things can feel awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes scary.  It’s okay to feel all the feels and do the thing anyway.  Often that’s our growth edge , or the place where growth starts.  If we keep ourselves boxed in, doing exactly what we know as we know it, our experiences will be limited. 

Biologically, change is hard, because in the early days of humanity something new could mean death. 

A new creature, a new berry, a new person was unpredictable, so when we encounter something new, our body is thrown into the stress response system.  We go on heightened alert as we’re assessing the danger factor.  While your teen’s therapist isn’t there to harm you, going to therapy can result in the loss of certain behaviors, habits, tools, or relationships which no longer serve your teen. 

This transition from previous behaviors to new ones is uncomfortable.  It’s why humans often hold onto things longer than necessary, because the transition is hard.  But you know what?  You and your teen can do hard things. 

Taking an uncomfortable step by going to therapy can help support confidence building for when other hard things come up like moving away from home, starting a new job, or going through a relationship breakup. 

They’ll have the experience of doing therapy and remember, yes, it’s hard, and I can do it.  

8) Your teen may want to quit therapy (or you may want your teen to quit)

I’m just going to reference back to #7 here.  When we’re uncomfortable for too long and haven’t built up the skills to tolerate the distress, humans will often back away and go back to the safe zone.  This can happen when things get intense in the therapy process.  Or for you as the parent, when you’re feeling insecure about the changes your teen is showing by being in therapy. 

First, I want to say it’s 100% okay to quit therapy.  But before your teen quits, it’s helpful to think about what is going on, which is making your teen want to quit. 

Or what’s going on with you that you want your teen to quit.  Is something tender coming up in treatment?  Are there too many insights going on, which would require your teen to make changes in their life they’re not ready to make?  Is your teen hiding things from the therapist, which may help the therapist work better on the big emotions coming up?  Is the therapist not a good fit and rather than quitting, your teen needs to find a new therapist? 

My point is, rather than accepting automatically the thought, it’s time to quit, get curious about it. 

Maybe it is time to quit.  That’s great!  Have a conversation with your therapist about ending treatment or decreasing the frequency of sessions.  Maybe your teen is ready to go from weekly sessions to biweekly or monthly sessions.  This isn’t about ignoring the feeling, dismissing it, or accepting it straight out, it’s about being curious about what it means and exploring what happens next based on where your teen is at right now.  

9) It can be hard to see changes

While you may see changes in your teen’s behavior pretty quickly after starting therapy, you may not. 

Humans are a little like icebergs.  You can only see about 10% of what’s going on.  The other 90% is below the surface. 

Because transition and change are so hard, it can take a while before those things percolate to the surface i.e. where you can see a behavior change.  If your teen is dealing with hard things like substance use or self-harm, refer back to #1: it takes time.  These hard things didn’t appear overnight, and they won’t go away overnight. 

It takes small, consistent steps to result in big changes. 

Coming to therapy consistently is already one big step your teen is taking and the rest will hopefully follow.  This is where trusting the process and the therapist comes into play.  If you don’t feel like your teen is making changes, and you’re concerned about it, then have a conversation with their therapist!  Be honest and open.  Talk about your expectations and get feedback. 

My hope is you have a therapist who is intentional about having these conversations with you and your teen, but if not, then take it upon yourself to do so.  You have a right to know what’s going on and to measure if therapy is “working.”  If it’s not, then you’re right to think, “what’s the point?”  Trust the process and trust yourself. 

If you’re concerned, voice it.  This is a great opportunity to model speaking up (AKA assertive communication) for your teen.  

10) It’s worth it

Even with all the things of teen therapy being uncomfortable, the lack of guarantee it will “work”, it being hard to see changes, and you having to change as your teen’s parent, teen therapy is so worth it

Teens who’ve done therapy express feeling calmer, more confident, and feeling like they matter.  Teens who’ve done therapy learn to trust their instincts, learn positive ways of coping with big emotions and learn to use their voice. 

I believe therapy as a teen is a gift.  Many of us spend years in adulthood working to learn the skills your teen could be learning now in therapy.  I’ll admit, I’m biased (I am a teen therapist after all!).  At the same time, what a cool experience for you to show your teen their mental health matters, and you’re here to support all the feelings. 

I’m grateful to you, parent, who is on this site, and read to the end of this article.  The teen in your life is lucky to have you caring about them and wanting the best for them.  

If your teen is struggling with being unhappy and withdrawn and you want to help them find joy and confidence from within, give me a call at 737-808-4888 for a FREE 15-minute consultation.  We’ll talk about your teen, my style and see if we’re a great fit.  Are you an introvert and prefer to send a message?  You can do that too.  Just click here.  I’ll reach out and set up a time to talk.  



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