5 Ways Parents Can Support Their Teen’s Therapy
Many parents struggle with knowing if, when, and how to recommend therapy to their teenager. While there’s ample advice on when to send kids to therapy, it’s not always easy for parents to know what to do once their child has begun treatment. In my experience, many parents think that the best thing they can do for their teenager in therapy is to distance themselves from the whole experience in the name of confidentiality. I often hear parents say, “this is all about them, and we don’t want to interfere in any way.” While a teen’s confidentiality in therapy is of utmost importance, parents also play a critical role in shaping the therapy process, and ultimately in determining the effectiveness of counseling. If you have a teenager who’s in therapy, adhering to some of these recommendations can help your child, and your family, get the most out of therapy.
Be respectful of your teenager’s confidentiality, but prepare to be a willing participant in therapy. For the most part, problems don’t occur in isolation. Family roles, dynamics, and relationships play a huge role in determining a teen’s behavior, academic performance, and overall mental health. Often, change needs to occur at the family system level in order for individual behavioral change to take lasting effect. So, if you’re wanting your teenager to change, be willing to make some changes of your own! Consequently, tell your child that you’re all in this together, and demonstrate that motto by being willing to listen to the therapist’s advice, and feedback. If the therapist calls for a family session, be willing to go! A skilled therapist should be able to maintain a confidential space for the identified client, while also engaging parents in the change process to the extent necessary.
Know what to share with your teen’s therapist, and what not to. Parents can unintentionally hijack the therapeutic process by oversharing with their teen’s therapist. While intentions might be good, sharing every concern, or every issue you perceive your teen experiencing, can position therapy as overly problem-focused. It’s important (especially with teens) that the they feel they can develop their own relationship with their therapist, one that’s not overly colored by parental perspective. If a teenager knows their parent is constantly backchanneling information to their therapist, they’ll have a hard time ever trusting that therapist, and feeling like they have a truly confidential space. A skilled therapist will find opportunities to engage parents, and will tactfully invite their insight and perspective into counseling. If you feel the urge to call or email your kid’s therapist between sessions, consider writing a note to yourself instead. If that note still feels important by the time of the next session, ask if you can be involved in the next session. This advice does not apply to situations in which you have immediate concern for your teen’s safety, or well-being. In these instances, it’s advisable that you contact your teen’s therapist immediately.
Do what you can to convey confidence in your teenager’s ability to change, and make sure you’re commenting on changes they make, and not just on problem-behavior. Parental support is critical in determining a client’s hope for change. Teens, and younger children, need to hear what they’re doing well, not just what they’re doing wrong. It can be incredibly demoralizing for a kid to sit down with their therapist and parents, and be bombarded with all they’re doing wrong. Prepare for family sessions by pushing yourself to identify positive changes (however small) that you can comment on, in addition to concerns you might have. You can also support therapeutic goals at home by understanding some of what your teen is working on in therapy, and explicitly commenting on positive changes you see at home. If you don’t know how to do this, this is a great question to ask your teenager’s therapist.
With that in mind, offer kids a chance to fill you in about their therapeutic goals, but don’t pry for information. Parents might mistakenly think that their teen never wants talk to them about their sessions. In my experience, this isn’t always the case. Often, teens are interested in keeping their parents informed, but they won’t respond well to questions that feel like prying. Consider offering an open-ended invitation for your kid to fill you in, but be sure not to pressure them to do so. You might be surprised at what you learn.
Finally, use self disclosure, and help them learn how to utilize therapy. Many parents have had their own experiences in therapy. Sharing some of those experiences with your adolescent can help normalize therapy for them. Also, consider how you’re modeling healthy emotional expression for your teen, while showing them that being open about their problems can sometimes be helpful. Kids can spot a hypocrite from a mile away, so be careful not to ask them to make changes that you haven’t made yourself. For instance, if you’re very private about your own emotional world, it’s not fair to ask your teen to open up to you about their problems.
Parenting teens is hard, and it can be incredibly difficult for parents to know how to involve themselves in their teen’s therapy in the appropriate way. Ultimately, reminding your teenager that your love and support is unconditional, and trusting your teen’s therapist to direct your involvement in therapy in appropriate ways, will be most helpful toward creating a successful therapeutic process.