The Therapist Can’t Get My 13-Year-Old To Talk


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 130 · Duration: 00:15:48

The Therapist Can’t Get My 13-Year-Old To Talk

The Therapist Can’t Get My 13-Year-Old To Talk

What do you do when your 13 year old is having problems, but is unwilling to open up in therapy?

And if you have a question you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my website, click on either For Families or For Treatment Programs, then click on any podcast and scroll down to the end where it says “submit your question” and enter it there and why not do it today.And while you’re there, download a free copy of my Parental Burnout Recovery Guide.

Today we’re hearing from Roxanne, and she writes:

My 13 year-old daughter isn’t willing to go to counseling.As parents we put our foot down and told her she would be going because we are trying to do what is best for her. We have been to three different counselors now, all with the same end result.They say that if she is not willing to talk, they cannot make her talk.So far the counseling efforts have been a waste of everyone’s time and a waste of money (something we don’t have a lot of). We’re not sure what to do next or how to proceed.Any ideas?

Thanks for your question Roxanne, it’s an important one and I wrote a blog on the subject of teens refusing to go to counseling in November of 2017 and because it was so popular, I republished it in October this year.Now, with your question, I’ll make it the subject of this podcast. 

Roxanne, if you’re telling your daughter to go to counseling – and she’s refusing, or if she does go, she’s not cooperating-- it’s probably like other parts of your relationship where you want your daughter to do something, and she resists and refuses to cooperate. 

I’m not sure what the issues are that you want her to go to counseling for but whether it’s

  • school effort,
  • home responsibilities,
  • personal hygiene,
  • time on the computer,
  • curfew,
  • substance abuse,
  • or any other behavior...

the underlying issue is that you, the parents, want a change, and your daughter, the teenager, is refusing.

So when your teenager 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.

So when a parent tells me they can’t get their kid to come to counseling, I hear, “my youth and I are in a control battle and we need help.”

Guidelines for Ending the Control Battle

Here’s an important principal for solving problems:If we keep applying the same solution and it isn’t working ask yourself, “is the solution another iteration of the problem itself, is the solution part and parcel of the problem.” 

I’ll give you and example of the solution becoming the problem, that isn’t about parenting at all.When I was about 12 years old, I got a bad case of poison sumac, it’s a lot like poison ivy and my mom treated me with of course, Calamine Lotion.But my rash didn’t get better; in fact it kept getting worse.We applied more Calamine lotion.When we went to the doctor he said, your poison sumac is all gone, what you have is an allergic reaction to Calamine lotion.In this case, the solution was the problem.

It is the same with your situation, Roxanne.Your efforts to get your daughter to go to counseling is simply another round of you trying to get her to do something she doesn’t want to do.The harder you try, the more she resists.All that’s happening for your daughter is that she’s getting darn good at resisting and that of course is not your goal.So regardless of whether your daughter’s issue is school-work, cutting, hygiene, now the biggest part of the problem is the Control Battle and if we can end that, then the initial problem will be much easier to solve. 

Of course you’re thinking, “Okay Neil I get it, but how do I do that, how do I end the Control Battle?”Roxanne, I can give you some critical guidelines but ending a Control Battle must be based on changing elements in the interaction between you and your daughter that you most likely aren’t aware of and I certainly don’t know about. 

It’s not your job to get your daughter to do anything, it’s her job.Click To Tweet

Here are a couple of critical guidelines:

1.It’s not your job to get your daughter to do anything, it’s her job.

2.Your job is simply doing a good job at parenting and that consists of:

  • First, having and communicating a positive vision of your daughter.Believing in her, knowing her strengths and seeing her weaknesses as manageable; and communicating clearly and often that you have faith in her. Kids need their parents to have a strong positive sense of their capabilities because adolescence creates insecurity in many kids and they need to borrow the faith their parents have in them until they can own it themselves.
  • And second, having the essential parenting principle that kids get privileges by earning them and they earn them by demonstrating their ability to manage their responsibilities and having a good attitude.Of course many if not most 13 year olds can be a bit snippy with their parents, but outright disrespect and unwillingness to cooperative does not earn privileges.

An Empowered Parental Voice

Right now Roxanne, you sound frustrated and helpless.So let’s take a step back, regroup, let go of frustrated and helpless, and find a positive and empowered voice. 

Since I don’t know what specific behaviors other than not going and cooperating in counseling you want your daughter to change and I don’t know what privileges she currently enjoys, I’ll make some up and I’ll show you what owning an empowered voice can sound like.

I’ll call your daughter Daphne.

Daphne, right now you’ve made it clear to us that you’re not willing to cooperate with our requests and your behavior isn’t changing.You aren’t doing your schoolwork, you’re refusing to be part of the family, not joining us for dinner, and you’re on your phone constantly.Obviously something is wrong and what we are doing to help is not helpful.In fact, our efforts to help are only making our relationship worse.That’s not what we want. 

We want an excellent relationship with you; we love you and admire you.You are smart, talented and are very strong willed.You certainly have proven that to us.Now it’s time for us to acknowledge that it’s up to you to commit to your responsibilities and for us to quit trying to get you to do things.

It is up to us to make sure you’ve got the privileges you’re ready for, the one’s you’ve earned, and not one’s you aren’t ready for or haven’t earned. 

Obviously, you are struggling with how to be a happy and successful 13 year old and we’re having trouble knowing how to be parents who know how to support you in being happy and successful.

We’ve got an appointment with a therapist who can help us all learn how to work together. They can help us understand you and support you and help you know how to deal with your feelings and achieve what you want. 

In the mean time, privileges will be suspended and privileges include phone use and time with friends after school.

Privileges will return when they’re earned and that means being committed to your schoolwork, joining us for dinner, and going to counseling together. 

We are totally in support of you having privileges, but it’s not right for us to offer them, when you haven’t earned them.If you have depression or anxiety that’s in the way, we’ll support you in getting on top of that.Therapy can help, but it will only get better when you commit to making it better.When you’re ready for the privileges of having a phone and going out, you’ll need to tell us and show us.You don’t need to be perfect; you need to be sincere in your commitment.

Roxanne, a single talk and even a major tonal change from you, the parents, isn’t going to change everything and it certainly won’t change things on a dime.Your daughter has been struggling for a while and we don’t know what’s going on with her emotionally or developmentally.Is she temperamentally highly sensitive, is there something going on socially at school? There is a lot to uncover here, but we won’t uncover it while a Control Battle rages on

Parental Involvement in Counseling

Find a good therapist who is experienced working with families with teenagers; one who won’t throw up their hands with your daughter’s oppositional behavior, and let that be a start.Click To Tweet

Find a good therapist who is experienced working with families with teenagers; one who won’t throw up their hands with your daughter’s oppositional behavior, and let that be a start. Make an appointment and let your daughter know that you are going together, that you all need to get on the same page for moving forward and that you and her dad need the help as much as she does.Remind her of the appointment as it nears and then state, in a matter of fact manner, that it’s time to get in the car.If she refuses, don’t fight.Remind her that privileges are contingent on a commitment to cooperation especially with counseling and then go, without her if necessary, and use the appointment as an opportunity to get support and guidance from the therapist.She’ll very likely come to the next appointment once she realizes that you are committed.

Your daughter may very well benefit from individual counseling as well, but it will only be effective when she opens up and is out of the Control Battle with her parents.

So listeners, parents and therapists; beware of the trap of being hamstrung by a youth who won’t go or cooperate with individual therapy.That’s your red flag that a Parent-Teen Control Battle is raging and that’s the place to start.Therapy with a teenager should virtually always start with a family session so that the therapist understands the family’s dynamics and parents and youth are given responsibility for learning and growing together.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program, and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website and shoot me an email or give me a call.I’ll be happy to talk with you.

And please, especially during the stress of the holiday season, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.Bye for now.

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Posted in The Healthy Family Connections Podcast.