getting your teen into therapy

How to Help a Struggling Teen Who’s Resistant to Therapy

You may have decided to get your teen into counseling because an issue has you concerned. But your teen is resistant to therapy. It doesn’t matter how obvious the signs are that your teen may need therapy. Signs that counseling is warranted include:

  • Your teen’s life seems full of anxiety or stress.
  • You’re worried about how much time they spend online or gaming.
  • You’re fighting all the time. You may want to connect in a more positive way.
  • Your child may be out a lot, and you’re worried about the lack of contact.
  • Your teenager seems shut down.
  • You’re worried about risky behaviors, such as cutting, alcohol or drug use.
  • You can see your son or daughter is emotional or hurting, and you don’t know how to help.

You want to see your child happy, enjoying friends, and embracing life.

Counseling can help when it seems your words and your love can’t get through. Your family may simply need more resources, especially if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Why Some Adolescents Are Resistant to Therapy

One challenge of raising a teenager is that everything is in flux. Your child is indeed thinking, feeling, and acting differently. You know that a teenager’s brain, and body are changing dramatically (something Dr. Dan Siegel calls a brainstorm). This means you both must find new ways to handle new problems.

For one thing, your child’s needs and wants are shifting. Your son or daughter has a natural desire for more independence. They are interested in more things that don’t include you, and less in things that do.

Your teenager will naturally seek out new relationships and experiences over which you have little control. He or she wants more privacy. They want to solve issues on their own. You can’t just pick them up and put them in the car anymore to make them go along with your plans.

Now you’re asking yourself:

  • How do I deal with my teenage daughter or son?
  • How do I know if my child needs counseling?
  • If my teenager is resistant to therapy and refuses to go, then what?
  • Is forcing my child to go to therapy a good idea?

Here are some of the most-asked questions about helping a teen into therapy, and how to find the right therapy for your teenager:

1) How to get your teenager to see a counselor?

Lead by example.

If no one in your family has ever been to counseling, it may seem like too much to ask your son or daughter to go first.

You may hear, “How can a complete stranger help?” Your teen may not believe talking to another adult could do any good if he or she can’t talk to you.

Teens may be worried they’ll be judged or get in trouble for things they say. It may feel terribly awkward to admit emotional problems. They may not want their friends to find out. Who wants others to know they’re struggling?

Your child may simply not believe anyone can understand. They lack life experience to know about the benefits of asking someone trained and objective for help.

Be willing to pave the way for your teen. Being open your own concerns and experience can provide meaningful support.

Family counseling can begin with one member.

Your decision to go to family therapy as a parent — alone or together with your spouse — says a lot. It shows you care. It may help make an idea that feels “weird” appear more normal. Your teen can see the results. You can explain how safe you feel, how you can handle tough situations better, and learn about yourself.

Your actions show there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. A good family therapist can give you new tools and ideas to approach problems new ways. Seeing you happier, more confident, and calmer under stress are powerful actions that can speak louder than words.

When you start feeling better when you get help, the benefits become clear. Your lead can help your child trust the process.

2) How do you find a good counselor for a child resistant to therapy?

Identify a few good therapists near you, with experience, and see if there’s a good fit.

Chances are you’ve already searched online for “teen counselor near me” and gotten a list.

Maybe you’re limited to services covered by your health insurance. They may provide too few or too many choices.

Okay, now you can contact any number of people you know nothing about!  Who can you trust? How do you find someone good for your teenager?

You want this to go right. It’s important for your teenager to have a good experience with someone they can connect with. You also want someone with solid skills in dealing with your specific issue. Ask the therapist about experience with:

  • Substance use
  • Addiction
  • Trouble with authority
  • Concerns about mood, such as anxiety or depression
  • Managing emotions related to an illness, or a difficult loss
  • Eating behavior

In addition to searching online, you may want to ask a few people you trust.

Some good options may include:

  • A school guidance counselor
  • Someone you respect in your religious community
  • A referral from a medical professional you trust  
  • A referral from a therapist or psychologist you know  

Next, call and talk to a few counselors yourself. Prepare some questions such as:

  • What is your experience with issues like your family is facing?
  • What is the process — Do you recommend sessions alone with your child, or some with child and parents together?
  • What can you discuss, and what is confidential? What can you tell me about your work with my teenager?
  • What is your availability? How often do you recommend meeting?
  • How would you talk with a client who is resistant to therapy?

3) “My teenager refuses to go to counseling. Now what?”

Should you force your teen to go to therapy? It depends.

Obviously, forcing anyone to do anything can work against you both.  However, some situations are more dangerous, and require you to do everything in your power to get help for your teen. Emergency issues that need immediate intervention include:

  • Talk of suicide (stop now and call a suicide hotline for guidance)
  • Talk or actions that hurt someone else
  • High-risk behavior that threatens safety or life, like running away
  • Alcohol abuse, drug abuse or addiction
  • Behavior that violates the law or causes legal trouble

If your teen shows dangerous behavior and refuses to accept help, promptly seek guidance from a therapist, the police or a drug abuse hotline. Some helpful resources include:

  • SAMSHA National Helpline: Help for families and individuals facing substance abuse: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: 24/7 support in a crisis (US): Text HOME to 741741
  • 911

Be Gentle and Direct

In other cases, you could start just by saying it’s time to get some guidance. Tell your son or daughter you’re concerned. It’s time for the two of you to meet with someone you both trust to help.

  • “I think you’re really hurting inside. I want to help you. But I don’t know what’s best. It might be helpful talking to someone who has worked a lot with teens.”
  • “I’m worried about you. Let’s stop struggling on our own. I want us to talk to someone besides each other.”
  • “Let’s start with three sessions. I want to work together to find a good person we both think we can work with.”

Your tone and approach are very important here. Lead with the love, care, kindness and compassion you feel as best you can. Your teen may be struggling with shame, guilt and feelings of failure and hopelessness. That’s on top of all the difficulty he or she is going through.

Showing up as an ally makes you someone safe to talk to. This is vital to anyone who is struggling, especially your teenager.

If your child is still resistant to therapy, and continues refusing to go, you may need to limit some privileges so your teen sees what consequences are in his or her control. Gently but firmly stating your limits can do a lot to help get your teenager to go to counseling, even if he or she is not happy about it.

Show You’re Open, and You’re Not Giving Up On Them 

Your teen may not be ready the first, second or third time you suggest going to therapy. Keep showing you care. Be present to listen to your teenager as much as you can. 

Let your child know that you’re concerned, and that his or her wellbeing matters. You want your child to know you are there for support. Ask what might make it easier: Do you want you go in together? Should you wait nearby or in the waiting room? Does your child want to talk as little as possible about it?

The more you can build trust and connection, the better chance you give yourself to be the one your child turns to for help.

We’re here for teen counseling in Alexandria VA: 703-768-6240

Call us to work with our counselors for teens in Alexandria Virginia:


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