Note: This blog post was originally published 08/23/16 and has been updated and republished on 11/15/17.
“Help! I Can’t Get My Troubled Teen to Go to Counseling!”
Commonly, a parent will call me with a challenge they are having with their teenager, and then tell me they don’t know what to do since their teen is refusing to go to counseling.
When that happens, I know that the conversation I’m about to have with the parent is actually the first counseling session.
Think about it.
If a parent is saying that they want their teenager go to counseling — and their son or daughter refuses — it’s probably like other parts of their relationship where the parent wants their teen to do something, and their kid resists that as well.
Whether the issue the parent wants their kid to address is…
- school effort,
- home responsibilities,
- personal hygiene,
- time on the computer,
- substance abuse,
- or any other behavior…
…an underlying issue is that the parent wants a change, and the teenager is refusing.
So when the teen refuses to go to counseling, it’s more of the same.
The parent wants a change, and the kid resists.
I call this relationship pattern, the Parent-Teen Control Battle.
Find Your Parental Voice
So when a parent tells me they can’t get their kid to come to counseling, my conversation with the parent is designed to help them get out of the Control Battle. I base this on the relationship they currently have with their son or daughter, and help them find a positive and empowered parental voice.Find your positive and empowered parental voice:Click To Tweet
An important first step in making the shift out of a Control Battle-based relationship is for the parent(s) to acknowledge that they too have a problem.
Namely, that they want to help their son or daughter make an important change, and — for whatever reason — have been unable to find a way to be successful. They need help — as parents — knowing the best way to help their teenager.
When parents own their part of the problem, it creates a shift and takes the pressure off of the teenager to have to be the only one with a problem, and it gives them less to resist. And this can be the first step in ending the Control Battle, and getting to counseling.When parents own their part of the problem, it creates a shift & takes the pressure off the teen.Click To Tweet
Getting Professional Help Is Important
Let’s look a conversation I had with Mary calling about her struggles with her daughter Megan (15).
Mary: Neil, my husband Pete and I have been struggling with our daughter Megan. She’s been holding up in her room all summer and I’m very concerned. She says she can’t stand us (her parents) and doesn’t want to spend any time around us. She says we’re just too creepy and don’t get her. We can’t even get her out of her room to come to dinner.
Neil: Your daughter spending her summer in her room does sound serious. What is she doing in her room?
Mary: Mostly playing video games. We’re concerned because we moved here a year ago and she hasn’t made any good friends. When we tell her she needs to try harder to make friends, she says the kids here are all weird and she has plenty of friends that she plays her video games with. When we try to tell her those aren’t real friends she gets furious with us and she insists they are. She’ll just go to her room and slam the door.
After talking with Mary for a while longer, it became clear to me that this 15 year old girl had issues with social anxiety, self-esteem, and related to that, depression.
Getting her professional help would be very important.
But the underlying problem of the Control Battle in the family exacerbated these issues and was in the way of the solution.
In other words, the more the parents pushed to get Megan to change, the more she resisted. Now the parents felt as if their hands were tied.
- If they pushed, she dug in her heels and fought back.
- If they didn’t push, the problem persisted with no solution in sight.
And to make matters worse, they couldn’t even get Megan to go to counseling where she might be able to get some help.
So my first job was to help these parents take initial steps to end their Control Battle and come to therapy with Megan.
Neil: Mary, I’m glad you are seeking help for Megan and yes, she needs to come to therapy. Here is what you can say to her. “Megan, we’re very concerned that you are spending so much time in your room, haven’t made friends in our new town, and won’t talk with us. We know you’re a fabulous kid, you’re extremely smart and talented, and you have a lot to offer. But somehow we’re letting you down and haven’t found a way to support you in moving forward since our move here last year. We’ve made an appointment with a counselor for Thursday afternoon at 4:00PM and we’re all going together.” I’m guessing Megan will respond negatively and say she isn’t coming and that you and her Dad can go if you want, but that’s your problem.
Mary: That’s exactly right, Neil. That’s exactly what she’ll say.
Neil: And then Mary you can respond by first validating her feelings. Say, “I know you don’t want to come. Most teenagers don’t want to go to counseling.” And then continue with, “But this is important. You are important! And things cannot keep going on this way. We need a better way to work together and being on the computer all day and night is not an option. We have the appointment and we all are going to go. Your dad and I know the computer and your gaming friends are important to you, so we don’t want you to lose the privilege of having it. But in order to keep that privilege, you need to cooperate with us.”
Mary: She’ll just have a fit and slam the door.
Neil: I’m sure she will, Mary. But just let it be. Remind her an hour before the appointment and then call her when it’s time to go. If she flat out refuses, just come without her and we’ll talk more about what’s going on and what to do next. If Megan is choosing not to cooperate, you do not want to let that control you and Pete. That’s too much power and responsibility for a troubled 15 year old.
We discussed how she needed to let Megan know that having and using her computer and gaming was a privilege that she needed to earn. And to earn that privilege, she needed to demonstrate a good attitude and manage certain responsibilities.
Mary explained that Megan had threatened to kill herself if she lost her computer and I advised her about ways to keep Megan safe and accountable.
On Thursday, Mary, Pete, and Megan all came. Megan was in a pretty foul mood, but she did reluctantly participate and with enough empathy and support over the course of the session, she opened up about her social struggles, depression, and even specific issues in her family that bothered her.
Her parents and I all gave her a ton of credit for sharing what was going on and we agreed that with the help of counseling and her parents understanding her better, she could start to feel better about herself, resolve her depression, and build a social life at her school in her new town.
Rules of Thumb to Apply:
Over the course of the next six months, with family and individual counseling, Megan grew into a more solid and happier version of herself.
Among other things, she learned to appreciate who she was, and how to deal with her feelings and her emotional needs in healthier ways. In fact, so did Mary and Pete who realized that they didn’t teach many of those skills to Megan because they didn’t have them themselves.
So if you’re struggling with how to get your teenager to counseling, here are some things to think about and rules of thumb to apply:
- Not getting your teenager’s approval for your idea to go to counseling is more common than not.
- If you are struggling with issues with your teenager, and they are fighting against your parental requests and limits, refusing to go to counseling is simply more of that pattern and your goal is to change that pattern. I call that pattern the Parent-Teen Control Battle.
- Start with validating their feelings. Such as, “I understand that counseling is not something you’re dying to do. A lot of kids feel that way so I understand.”Start with validating the feelings of your teenager.Click To Tweet
- Next, let them know that you, as parents, own part of the problem. For instance, “Mom and I are struggling with knowing the best ways to support you, and right now we aren’t doing a very good job. We need help knowing the right things to do.”
- Emphasize how wonderful they are and how important they are to you. For instance, “We know you are a fabulous person and being the right parents to you and helping you discover and develop your potential is our most important job. We won’t let ourselves let you down.”
- State that counseling will help you and them to work together to support them in reaching young adulthood ready to be successful in their life. For example, “We all need to go to counseling together so that rather than fighting against each other, we can all work together so that your teenage years are happy for you, and prepare you well for your next stages in life.”
- If you still meet resistance, let them know that their privileges are contingent on them cooperating and managing their responsibilities. Do not threaten. Only clarify with a neutral tone of voice. Remember, you control the expectations and the privileges. They control whether they cooperate or not.
- Then let go. If they don’t go to the appointment, you go anyway and get the help you need to help them move forward.
- Feel good about these actions! You just took your first steps to end your Parent-Teen Control Battle.
What definitive steps have you taken to end the Control Battle in your family?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below: