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How can I get my son who has trouble socializing into a group treatment like DBT?

Answered by Lauren Allerhand, PsyD

Q My son was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. He expressed to me that at times he does not like anyone. I told him that it is totally okay to feel that way sometimes and I think many people, including myself, feel that way sometimes and it usually passes. Did I answer okay? He is at home and has no social contact except for people online. My goal is to try to motivate him to enter into DBT treatment. He says he can’t handle the group sessions with peers. Any ideas?

Having challenging relationships or difficulty maintaining healthy relationships with other people is often a facet of borderline personality disorder. Not wanting to be around a group of peers could also be a sign of social anxiety. As a clinician I wonder what it is about socializing that your son doesn’t like — whether it’s a fear of rejection, a social skills deficit, or an aversion to people based on their personalities. But that’s something for him to discuss with his therapist and not necessarily something for you to get to the bottom of.

It sounds like you did a great job answering him! You validated him by saying that how he felt was okay. You told him that a lot of people feel that way, which is something that therapists do. It’s called “normalizing,” and it helps people feel less shame about what they’re experiencing, which helps them feel better. Most importantly, you responded in a nonjudgmental fashion. You were open to what he had to say without trying to solve the problem for him in that moment. These are all great ways to help him feel supported and comfortable communicating with you.

Now in terms of getting him into a DBT group, my recommendation is to get him to a DBT therapist and that person will help prepare him for the group. In my mind that is more of a clinical task and less of a parent task. In fact, the first phase of DBT treatment for anybody is what we call the “commitment phase,” which is when we’re preparing the client for DBT treatment. So if you can get him in the door, hopefully a therapist who is experienced in DBT would be able to get him walking down the path towards group.

To help motivate him for trying a new kind of therapy, you might ask him what he wants out of life. Does he want to have friends? Or a job, or to live independently? If you can ask in a nonjudgmental way, the answer might provide the motivation that will get him into treatment.