Agreeing to Help – Getting Kids and Teens to See a Mental Health Professional

Teen girl walking on bridge

By Cindy Coloma

“I’m not going! I’m fine!” yelled 13-year-old Ally, running up the stairs.

Jackie sighed, collapsed on the couch and reflected on her day. The divorce had been hard on her daughter, and her ex-husband’s addiction was adding to the heartbreaking aftermath.

On the way home from school that afternoon, Jackie saw an angry red line peeking out from under Ally’s sleeve and pulled up the fabric before Ally could pull her arm away. Ally was cutting herself.

Horrified, Jackie pulled over and, through her tears, started asking questions. Ally was sullen, staring out the window with her arms crossed across her chest.

After an evening of enduring the silent treatment, Jackie told Ally she was making an appointment with a mental health professional. Ally freaked out and stormed up to her bedroom.

Jackie wondered how she had missed the signs that her daughter needed help. She had been so preoccupied with the divorce and making sure Ally’s physical needs were met, she hadn’t realized her daughter was in a dangerous place emotionally.

Her daughter now seemed far away in her anger and hurt, how could she reach her? Jackie hoped a therapist could help. She just had no idea how to get Ally to buy into the idea. And if she could get Ally to go, Jackie knew her daughter wouldn’t want her friends and classmates to learn she was seeing a mental health professional.

Many parents are faced with questions and concerns like these and getting an uncooperative child or teen to see a therapist can be daunting.

The Stigma Starts With Adults

A study from Indiana University found that 45 percent of adults surveyed believed kids who underwent mental health treatment would be rejected at school by their classmates, and 43 percent of them believed that kids treated for mental health issues would live with a stigma well into adulthood.1

It’s no wonder many kids are hesitant to go to therapy or receive treatment for mental health conditions. If the adults around them believe therapy will make their lives more difficult, why would kids dealing with a mental illness risk therapy?

How can we help children and teens understand that addressing mental health issues is just part of being healthy and living their best lives? One of many things we can do as caring adults to break through stigmas and make progress with our kids’ mental health concerns is to educate ourselves.

As adults, we know that therapy can work. But in order to get our kids on board, we first need to understand why they are resisting. Some common reasons may be:

  • I don’t need it. Your child may think they don’t need help. They may just assume things can never change, and they should accept it.
  • I tried it already and didn’t like it. They may have had a bad experience, or the timing was bad. Your child may feel that they know everything already, and it just isn’t something they will like.
  • It didn’t work. Your child may have feel like they failed, and they are tired of struggling or they may just simply fear failure.
  • It’s embarrassing. Mental health stigma is a reality, and your child may not want the social risk of admitting they need treatment.2

Reframing the Subject of Therapy

If you manage to get to the bottom of why your child or teen is resistant to treatment, you may be able to reframe therapy in a way that can lighten their objections. For example, telling them you are forcing them to see a mental health professional may sound like you believe they are crazy or they aren’t smart enough to make good choice. Reframe the subject of therapy and discuss the following points:

  • People go to their psychologists and psychiatrists for the same reasons they go to their regular doctors – to get better. There are many scientifically driven treatments available, and seeing a mental health professional is similar to getting care for any other medical condition.
  • Some people view their mental health providers as a coach. Just like any other coach, a therapist can help your child learn new strategies and skills until they no longer need help.
  • A child may feel singled out if they are the only ones being forced into therapy. Making it a family session can help diffuse a child’s defensiveness and make them feel like the whole family is working on their issues.2

Communication Is Key

Just because a child isn’t open to going to treatment the first time you discuss it, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring it up again. Give them a few days and discuss it from a new angle, or just spend some time listening and asking what your child thinks they need and how they feel. Be sure to acknowledge those feelings without disagreeing with them, minimizing them, telling a story about someone who has it worse, or fixing them. Just listen and acknowledge.

Looking for ways to start a conversation about treatment? Here are some ideas of things to say:3

  • “I’m really sorry that you are feeling this way. I wish I could help. Maybe we should talk to someone who can give us ideas on how to communicate better and feel better.”
  • “Maybe it would be helpful for you to have someone to talk to besides me.”
  • “Honestly, I’m not sure of what to do right now. Would you mind if we just go and talk to someone who works with teens?”
  • “What do you think about finding a therapist that would be a good fit for you? If you don’t like them, we can keep looking.”
  • “Hey, I feel like I’m really stuck and I want to make sure you have someone to talk to. Maybe we could hop online tonight and you can see if any of the doctors on the list sound good? We’ll just keep looking until we find someone.”

The point is, children and teens need to feel like they have a choice and that they are being heard and their feelings recognized. There are certain dangerous instances where medical treatment is non-negotiable, but most cases simply need patience and understanding. If you would like to talk with an admissions coordinator about  navigating care for your child, please give us a call.


Sources:

1 Dotinga, Randy, and Healthday Reporter. “Mentally Ill Kids Face Widespread Stigma.” ABC News, Accessed February 5, 2018.

2 Ehmke, Rachel. “Helping Resistant Teens into Treatment.” Child Mind Institute, Accessed February 5, 2018.

3 Morin, Amy. “What to Do if Your Teen Refuses to Go to Counseling.” Verywell, Accessed February 5, 2018.