Encouraging Your Young Adult to Seek Treatment

Even when adolescents or young adults are willing to consider treatment, it’s not uncommon for them to still feel hesitant or unsure. They may think that the problem “isn’t that bad” or that there’s no need for formal treatment. A child may think that help is needed for only the mental health part, like anxiety, but not substance use problems. In some cases, he or she may be reluctant to try treatment for fear that it will get in the way of school, work, sports or other activities. Stigma related to treatment may be a contributing factor to this resistance, too.

So how do you convince your son or daughter to try treatment? Prepare yourself before you sit down to have this important discussion. The following guidelines may help:

  • Make an effort to see matters from your child’s point of view. How will treatment benefit your child? Will he feel healthier? Will she be more successful at school, work or sports? Will he get into the college of his dreams? What will your child see as the downside of treatment? Will he have trouble socializing without substances? Will she have to give up certain friends? Acknowledging both the positive and not-so-positive aspects of engaging in treatment can help the conversation go more smoothly.
  • Determine what’s important to your child and frame the conversation. For example, some kids are reluctant to talk about substance use, but may be more comfortable talking about their mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety. If this is the case, talk about getting help for the area that they are willing to work on. Discuss with the treatment team you choose how to include other concerns.
  • Do your homework and be ready with treatment options. Research programs to find ones that are a good fit for your child. If possible, it helps to offer options so that young people can make their own decision as opposed to being told what to do. For some kids, starting with a “consultation” with a counselor is less threatening than talking about long-term treatment.
  • Use motivational “hooks.” Highlighting what your adolescent or young adult might gain related to treatment (e.g., better sleep, higher self-esteem, less stress) will likely be better received than talking about substances to give up. Some parents use incentives tied to something a child wants as a way to get them to engage in treatment. For instance, you could say something like, “If you complete eight outpatient sessions, we can discuss getting the video game you want.”
  • Consider past attempts. If previous attempts to suggest treatment haven’t worked as planned, take time to consider why the discussion didn’t go well. What didn’t work? What would you change? Was the discussion too lengthy? Was it bad timing? What got in the way? Try to incorporate what you’ve learned to make this go more smoothly, including the timing of the conversation, a collaborative tone of voice, providing options, and incentives.
  • Consider barriers to treatment. Does your insurance cover the cost of co-occurring treatment? Can you pick up costs that aren’t covered? Will transportation to and from treatment be a problem? Will your child be able to keep up with school? Address these matters before you talk to your child.
  • Practice what you want to say. Once you have gathered the relevant information suggested above, it can be helpful to write down what you want to say. As you write, think about how your child might respond.

A Note About Required Consent for Treatment

If your child is a minor under the age of 18, you may assume that your consent is sufficient to get treatment started; however, this may not be the case. State laws vary considerably in terms of age of consent, in some instances being as low as 12 years of age. Additionally, who can consent may change depending upon whether the treatment program is for mental health or substance use and whether the facility is outpatient or inpatient. Often there is no guidance in situations where the parent and child disagree, leaving it up to the courts to figure it out.

If your child refuses consent, asking other family members or friends to step in may help, especially if there is someone your child trusts and respects. Some parents look to educational or religious organizations to forcefully encourage young people into treatment, although research shows that outcomes are more likely to be positive if your child voluntarily agrees to treatment.

Alternatives to Treatment

If your child flatly refuses to seek treatment, there may be other healthy alternatives to consider in the meantime. Mindfulness meditation, for instance, is an effective way for many people to decrease their use of drugs and alcohol, and has also been proven to help with depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders.

Exercise is another useful strategy. It may be worthwhile to pay for a gym membership or yoga or dance classes. Is your child interested in music? Guitar or singing lessons may be a great diversion and an excellent way to increase confidence and self-esteem.

There are a number of ways kids can get help and support, even if they aren’t ready to make significant, long-term changes. An agreement to experiment with abstinence or to reduce their substance use by engaging in healthier activities can be considered a big win that often leads to greater changes.

Addressing Crisis Situations

Call 911 immediately if you’re concerned that your child is violent or may be suicidal or overdosing. Tell responders that your child is having a mental health emergency with as many details as possible so they can be prepared when they arrive. You can also call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The free hotline is available 24 hours every day.

  • Some states offer mobile response services that respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week, providing help at your home to assess your child and help calm the situation. In addition, services include supportive counseling and referrals to community-based mental health, usually provided free of charge.
  • You may consider driving your child to the nearest emergency room or crisis center, but only if you can do it safely. If possible, call and let the ER know when you leave, so they can be prepared when you arrive. If you don’t feel you can drive, ask for recommendations on what you should do next. Don’t transport a child against his or her will.

Non-Emergency Situations

If you think your child isn’t in immediate danger, but is still in need of help, there may be several options to consider depending on available services in your state or community. The following suggestions may help you determine the best course of action:

  • If your child has a therapist or treatment team (e.g. psychiatrist, therapist, nurse, etc.), they should be the first point of contact. People who know your child’s history are in a good position to help you figure out the next step.
  • Call your local community mental health crisis center, which can be found using an internet search. Specific services vary widely depending on the state or county, but most offer specialized outpatient treatment for youth. Staff usually includes a team of mental health professionals, such as psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers and nurses.

Regardless of whom you call, the first step is an evaluation or screening. Every effort will be made to understand your child’s needs and to consider various alternatives for treatment.