Think Your Teen Should Try Therapy? 5 Easy Ways to Start the Conversation


Statistics About Teen Mental Health

Teens are struggling. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows more than a third (37%) of high schoolers had a tough time with their mental health during the thick of COVID-19. In the past year, an overwhelming 44% of teenagers also reported feeling persistently hopeless or sad. Fortunately, teens are speaking up about what they need, saying connectedness and feeling cared for at school are where they need support. As parents, there are ways you can build that foundation at home, too.

How to Help Your Teen

While most parents may think they know their kids well enough to notice when things are “off,” teenagers are private people, and signs of a mental health issue may not be so obvious. If your teen is acting outside of their norm, such as withdrawing from friends or they’re moodier than usual, those could be signs and symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression in your child. Kara Magnison, LISW, UnityPoint Health, offers five strategies parents can use to find out if therapy can support your teenager’s mental health.

1. Make it comfortable for your teen to share. Teens are usually more willing to open up when there's an activity involved, and it's not the two of you staring at each other across the table. If you want more insight into what’s taking up space in your child’s head, engage them in something that feels natural and free of pressure. Shooting hoops or getting ice cream are great options. If you’re up against a busy schedule, look for small chat windows, like in the car on the way to practice.

Use your time together to get a feeling for whether teen therapy would provide additional help for your child that might be outside your skillset.

2. Create a safe space for your teen. Teenagers can hold some anxiety about confiding in their parents, because they’re worried about how they’ll react. It’s OK to prompt your child and say you’ve noticed they’re dealing with something tough. Lead with empathy during these conversations, and let your child know you’re a safe space. Ensure they know they can talk to you without worrying about getting in trouble, too. Then, honor that promise. If your child doesn’t feel comfortable opening up, suggest a therapist. This way, what they share is confidential, and you’re still supporting them.

3. Address your teen’s concerns about therapy. If your teen thinks talking to a mental health professional is weird, ask what feels weird about it. Is it because they don’t want to leave school for appointments? Find a therapist who has openings outside of school hours. Are they worried the therapist will share their secrets? Talk to your teen about patient confidentiality. A therapist may share generalities with parents, like it was a hard session or a good discussion, but they won’t get into specifics without your child’s permission. An exception to this rule is if your teen plans to commit suicide, hurt others or has been abused.

If your teen needs additional convincing, share your own experience with therapy, or invite a trusted friend or family member to do the same. If your teen is still on the fence, ask if they’re willing to go to an initial evaluation or the first few sessions. Then, let them decide how they feel about it and what to do next.

4. Help your teen find the right therapist. Mental health services are in high demand right now. This is especially true in our post-pandemic environment, where teens are facing a national mental health crisis. According to another CDC report, teenage girls and LGTBQ+ youth are experiencing the highest rates of sadness in the last decade.

If you think your teen could benefit from therapy, start by talking with their doctor for support with interim resources while you research therapists for teens near you. Read online profiles and make sure the counselor specializes in therapy for teens. It’s also a good idea to understand the different types of therapy used and to consider your child’s preference for the therapist’s gender, age, race, etc.

5. Let your teen decide if therapy is right for them. The decision to talk to a mental health professional should be something your teen is comfortable with, too. Sometimes, it takes a few sessions and the right therapist to find a rhythm. If your teen is resistant to trying therapy, parents should avoid using therapy as a consequence or bargaining chip. For example, avoid giving your teen something they want in exchange for talking to a counselor.

Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open between you and your teen. Even if your child continues to keep their feelings close to their chest, stay engaged and keep trying. The effort shows you care, and they appreciate it more than they let on.

Signs Your Teen May Need Therapy

  • Sudden changes in sleeping, eating or hygiene patterns
  • Substance abuse or suspicion of use
  • Withdrawal from, or changes in, friends or social groups
  • Obsession with social media
  • Excessive guilt, worry or talk of death
  • Risk-taking, suicidal behavior or self-harm

If your child is showing the signs above, start by talking to your child's doctor. 

Signs your teen may need therapy