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What if My Child Resists the Treatment, or the Therapist?

It can be hard to get kids to agree to see a mental health professional. It’s not enough for you to see them suffering, or for it to be obvious to everyone around them that they’re not themselves and they need help. Adolescents need to want to get better and be willing to work with someone to make that happen.

For treatment to work kids need to buy into it, at least a little.

So, it is important to get to the bottom of why your child is saying no and try to change their mind. Here are some common reasons why a kid might say no to treatment:

  • They don’t think they need help. They might say, “This is just how I am.”
  • They don’t think therapy or medicine would work.
  • They already tried it and didn’t like it.
  • They think getting help is embarrassing.
  • They’re feeling defensive.
  • They’re feeling hopeless.

Teens might not always be the best judge of what they need, but it’s essential for parents to give them a chance to explain how they feel and then give a thoughtful response. It will improve your relationship with your teen, and also make them more likely to listen to you. Here are some strategies to try:

Frame it differently

If your teen thinks it’s embarrassing, or a sign of weakness, to ask for mental health care, point out that it’s no different from going to a doctor when you’re sick. In both cases, you want to feel better.

And encourage them to forget the stereotype that therapy means sharing your darkest secrets with some stranger. Think of it more like working with a coach. Even professional athletes need coaches to learn new strategies, practice new skills, and think about different ways to succeed. Mental health providers also teach you skills that enable you to think differently and feel better.

Identify negative thinking

Sometimes teens will think that what they are struggling with is a part of them that can’t or shouldn’t be treated.

For example when kids are depressed it affects how they think, so they might not be able to imagine feeling better. The hopelessness and lack of enthusiasm they’re feeling may make them think that it’s not worth trying to change. In that case the first step in treatment is getting them to recognize that this pessimism is part of the disorder — that the negative thinking is the depression speaking.

Focus on your teen’s priorities

When discussing treatment, starting by asking your child what they might want to get out of it — not what you or their teachers or anyone else wants. What are they looking for at this stage? What kinds of things would they like to be able to do, or do better? Are they having trouble with friends? Struggling in school? Are there things they used to enjoy that they can’t enjoy now?

This is similar to a technique called motivational interviewing, which therapists use to help kids resolve their ambivalence about treatment by finding their own motivation for getting better.

Find the right doctor or therapist

It is important to find a treatment provider who is a good match for your child’s personality. If they don’t like or respect the person that they’re working with, it isn’t going to be a good fit.

You may need to keep looking until you find the right person for your teen. Sometimes parents come in first, without their child, to meet the clinician and ask some questions. A good place to start is asking the clinician how they would approach working with a reluctant teen.

If your teen has already tried getting treatment but it hasn’t helped, or they didn’t like the therapist, try asking your child why they think that is. For example, what wasn’t helpful or what didn’t they like about therapy? What did they like? You can keep these qualities in mind and work together to find a therapist who does more of the positive things.

Don’t give up

If your child says no the first time you talk about starting treatment, keep trying. Use the strategies above and try asking clinicians what they would recommend.

It’s also important to continue making an effort to listen to how your teen is feeling and what they think they need. Important things usually aren’t settled in one conversation. If you lay the groundwork, they’ll be more likely to turn to you for support when they’re finally ready. 

Return to Connect to Care for more information about getting kids help.