By Rebecca Horch, BACYC, CPC
Parents, I have something to say that you might have a hard time hearing.
When you put your kid in therapy, nothing is going to happen…for a really long time. It’ll cost a lot of money, and take a lot of time, and you will feel frustrated that all you keep hearing every time you ask how it went is: “Fine, we played a game.” Or “I don’t know.” Or “Whatever.”
I would be a very wealthy woman if I got paid for the number of times I have had consultations with parents who tell me “I had my teen in therapy once before, but he wasn’t really making any progress so we pulled him out.” Parents, I cannot tell you how detrimental this mindset could potentially be for your child. If you pull your kid out of therapy every time YOU deem they are not making progress, you are not giving them the opportunity to do the most important thing they can do in therapy – build a relationship with a trusting adult.
I have been working with youth and families for 15 years. I started before I finished my undergrad degree in Child & Youth Care at a youth homeless shelter. I worked the night shift at 21 years old, where kids not much younger than myself were being dropped off by police officers who had found them out on the streets, or who had been called to remove them from their homes because their families kicked them out. From there, I went on to work in Intensive Supervision and Support for children & youth in the system. This meant I worked as a CPS caseworker for a time and eventually I worked directly with youth (and their families) who were on probation for committing crimes, were being sexually exploited, were addicted to and/or selling drugs, were being groomed for gang networks, and were in foster care. I ran anger management groups, parent education, & support groups, offered parent & teen mediation programs, and built programs for these youth on the margins of our community. I then went on to develop a school-based curriculum for youth workers and school counselors to best support these kids and their families from a whole person perspective. Once I started in private practice, I was working with youth individually and also doing parent education & coaching. Many of the youth in these spaces were not “at risk” in the same way as the youth and families I had worked with in the past were. Their families were better able to recognize their child’s needs, and wanted to seek help for their mental health concerns.
I say all this because I have worked with every demographic you can imagine when it comes to children & teens, and one thing I have noticed in every area of this field is the impatience of the adults in their lives. Parents, even the ones with the best intentions, have a very difficult time waiting for change. Adults are often impatient on their own in a therapeutic setting, and any good provider will need to remind you how slow this process is for most people. But when it comes to their kids, parents often think that therapy or coaching is not working because their kids don’t have big emotional breakthroughs each session.
I am a parent myself and I get it! When we are worried about our kids, we want to jump in and fix their problems as fast as we can. It brings us more pain than anything that has ever happened directly to us to know that our children are in pain. I think this is the burden and the life’s work of every parent. We ache at their ache and want to scream out “Save my kid!” at their pain. We would trade places with them in a moment if we knew it would ease their hurt even a little. And yet, somewhere inside us we also know that they have to move through their own journey at their own pace. It cannot be rushed.
For those parents who can see that their children need help and are willing to seek out therapeutic care for them, thank you! You are doing good work. It is a hard thing to admit that you cannot be everything for your child. And, I want to remind you that when your kid goes to therapy it was likely not originally their idea or choice. They may be willing to go along with it, but they are not like adults. Their decision-making capacity is not developed to the point of being able to make critical decisions yet. Half the time, they don’t even know how they feel in a particular moment, so how on earth are they expected to talk about that with a stranger?
When you as adults go to therapy, most of the time you are coming with an issue. You’re seeking out care because you have a particular challenge in your life. So you pay an expert to help you navigate that challenge. When kids (especially teens) go to therapy, they are often there because their parents thought it would be a good idea. They are sitting in front of a stranger and are being expected to share intimate and vulnerable details of their lives. Think for a moment how that might feel as a teenager. Bring yourself back to that space and imagine what it would be like, how awkward and uncomfortable it would feel to talk to someone you don’t know about yourself for an hour.
So you’re back there, a teenager, sitting in front of an adult you don’t know who is asking you about yourself. If you are developing normally, guess what is going to happen? YOU WON’T TELL THEM ANYTHING! It is wired into your adolescent brain to believe you can do everything on your own, and that you are independent from the adults in your life. It’s also not developmentally normative for a teenager to even know what they are feeling most of the time. Or maybe you were one of those teens who would have “spilled your guts” to the first person who would listen to you. This does not mean that you had awareness. There is a big difference between venting and healing. Often, kids will vent in therapy for months before they are actually ready to do anything about it. Many times, they do this as a “test” with their provider, to see if they can be trusted. And that trust is imperative for them to really feel safe enough to go any deeper. It takes time.
So you might think to yourself, “Well if all they do is vent in therapy, it’s pointless. They can do that at home.” Do you know what else teens want to vent to most of the time? Their friends. Not their parents. They may complain to their parents, or have an attitude with their parents, but usually they do not want to vent about their relational, social, and emotional problems with their parents. They want to do this with their friends. It is actually not yet developmentally appropriate for them to understand that their peers cannot be the ones to give them good advice or hold space for their big emotions. This is especially true if there is any trauma, or attachment insecurity with a teenager’s primary caregivers. If they have not had the experience of a safe relationship with an adult in the past, the last thing they are going to do is feel safe talking to an adult therapist.
When I share this with parents, I often notice the hair raising on the back of their necks and the defensiveness come into play. “My kid feels safe with me!”, “We have a really strong, healthy family.” And let me tell you, this can be true AND your child may not perceive their relationship with you to be as strong as you hope. So often our own childhood experiences play out in our parenting without even realizing it, causing huge ruptures we didn’t even know were there. This is why it is so important that parents do their own work, in their own therapy too (this is another blog for another day).
So, if we know all this is true: teens don’t want to talk to adults and they would rather talk to their peers, they don’t know yet how to recognize a variety of emotions and thoughts, and they don’t have the same mindset around what therapy is in the first place; all of this is going to impact their therapeutic experiences. This is why an experienced provider who knows about adolescent development will tell you that the MOST important part of their therapeutic experience is going to be in relationship with their provider. And that relationship will take a long time to build.
I have spent a year or more with teen clients before, talking about anything and everything BUT the main issue that their parents wanted them to get help for before they felt safe enough to open up to me. It often takes a lot more self-disclosure from a provider, it takes a lot of joking around and remembering the names of friends and pets and teachers. It takes really caring about the little details of their friendships and high school romances. It takes listening to music together and talking about celebrity gossip. It takes gently and slowly introducing new ideas like how to talk so parents will listen, and how to set boundaries and ask for your needs to be met. It takes bringing something big up one time, opening the door, and then letting them take the lead when they’re ready to move through it, sometimes months later. It takes a long time.
And, there is hope. Because with all of this I have also had teenage boys break down and admit their fears of failure or rejection. I have had teenage girls trust me with heartbreaking disclosures that they know I must report, but they finally trust me enough to have their back. I have been able to walk with youth through thoughts of suicide and self-harm, anxiety, identity crisis’, and relationship ruptures. I have been the first person a youth has revealed their sexuality or gender identity to, and I have even been in the presence of youth who have been the bully, spending years victimizing others to come to terms with the harm they’ve caused and want to change. I have seen relationships heal between teens and their parents (the work I am the most proud of as this is always my personal goal if it is safe for the client). These are sacred moments that I do not hold loosely and I will not compromise in order to “hurry up the process.”
So, parents, this is my plea. If you are wise enough to know your child may need support outside of yourself, let the process happen. And with this being said, not every provider is going to be the right fit for your child, and this is where you can help them. Instead of asking “How did it go?”, here are some prompts you can use to help your child navigate if a provider is right for them:
“What do you like or dislike about your therapist?”
“Do you feel comfortable enough with them?”
“Do you trust that they will do their best to keep all your stuff confidential from me?”
“Do you like seeing them, even if you don’t like therapy?”
“If I told you that you will need to continue going to therapy, but you get to choose who you want to see, is this the person you would choose?”
“What do YOU want in a therapist?”
Good luck mom & dad. You’ve got this!
Rebecca strives to support others in building resilience, self-compassion, connected relationships and self-awareness. She loves to work with people who are ready for the hard work of inner growth and is passionate about helping others tap into their intuitive gifts and use them in this world.
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