Working with Teens

This can be a difficult time to be a teenager. The research clearly shows that, but if you’re a parent, you don’t need to read the research to confirm what you already know. It’s also a tough time to be the parent of a teenager. It can feel like the world is much bigger and scarier than it used to be.

I see a fair number of teens and their parents. I actually find it to be a lot of fun. Teens have a lot of interesting things to say and usually have some good ideas, even if they could use a bit of redirecting about how they approach their goals or express themselves. Of course, by the time a parent calls me, it’s usually because the situation has reached a point where the parents feel like something needs to be done.

How to Talk to Your Teen about Therapy

Parents often ask me how to present the idea of therapy to their teens. It’s easy for many teens to take this as meaning that there is something wrong with them and the therapist is going to fix them or make them do what they don’t want to do. Portrayals of therapists in the media don’t help this. My advice is to be direct and honest with your teen about your concerns and goals. For example, “It seems to us that you’re not as happy as you used to be. So we’re all going to go in and talk to this guy to help us figure out how to make things better around here.”

I usually do the first session or two with just the teen. This gives them a chance to explain things from their perspective and see that they have something to gain from this, that I’m not just going to tell them to listen to their parents. It’s absolutely crucial to get the teen on board—it’s really hard to make someone do something they don’t want to do and I certainly don’t have that power. After meeting with the teen, I meet with the parents for the next session. From there, we play musical chairs as needed—sometimes it’s best to meet with just the teen, sometimes just the parents, sometimes everybody. We can be flexible based on what works best.

My goal is always to find solutions that work for everyone, since one-sided solutions rarely last. This means that everybody probably has some work to do. Although no one likes to feel at fault, this also means that each person has the ability to influence what happens and to make it a better situation. Another way to put this is that other people are more likely to hold up their end of the bargain if we hold up ours.

But what do you do if your teen outright refuses to show up, even just for one session? This isn’t all that uncommon. In these situations, I encourage the parents to come in without the teen and we work on things that way. There will probably be plenty to talk about, even in the teen’s absence. I encourage parents to tell the teen that they are still going to meet with me. This sends the message that you are taking the situation seriously. However, you should also say that the teen is welcome at any time. Also, if he or she doesn’t show up, then he or she doesn’t get any input on what happens and I only get your side of the story.

The goal of the teen years is to find our place in the world—what we like, what we’re good at, who we enjoy spending time with, etc. The goal of parenting teens is to allow them to explore the world and try new things, while keeping them from doing too much damage to themselves in the process. It’s a careful balancing act, where you want to give them as much freedom as they can handle, but not more. Of course, it’s also a moving target where things mostly get better with time, but not without the occasional back-slide. My hope, as a therapist, is to help your teen make better informed choices and for you to sleep a little easier.

A Special Message for Teens

I’ve recorded the following message for teens, so see what you think.

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