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Should I Make My Child or Teen Attend Therapy if They Don’t Want to?

This is a question I often get asked by parents, and the answer’s a little complicated.

In my experience, when a child or teen is reluctant to attend therapy, it’s typically because they have a preconceived notion of what therapy will be like. They have an image in their minds of an adult who’ll ask too many questions or force them to talk about uncomfortable things. They fear that the therapist will take their parents’ sides and lecture at them about their mistakes or behavior.

Almost always, when parents manage to convince their child or teen to try therapy, they end up coming around to it. I, and many other child and teen therapists, do not force kids to talk, nor interrogate them, nor lecture at them for “being bad.” I simply try to get to know them through whatever means they feel most comfortable. I want to know how THEY want to spend their time in therapy, too. What they want to work on, talk about, or do. I also tell the truth to kids, which means saying, “I can’t make you talk about things you don’t want to talk about.”

(I’ve always considered it a high compliment when a hesitant, surly teen tells me that their first session “wasn’t as bad as they thought it’d be!”)

As I said, that’s the case the majority of the time, which tells me that yes, you should probably “make” your child try therapy if you determine they’re in need of it, much like you’d probably “make” them go to the doctor if they had a broken bone.

But there are exceptions. If your child or teen has already had a few sessions with someone and still absolutely hates it, it’s worth pondering whether 1) their therapist is right for them (client-therapist fit is extremely important!) and 2) if they’re truly ready for therapy. While it’s normal for your child or teen to not feel that therapy is hard sometimes and not love every single session, it shouldn’t feel like a torturous, miserable experience. If it does, talk things over with the therapist and see if there are other alternatives that can be tried, such as:

  1. The therapist changing up their methods and strategies for working with the child or teen
  2. Decreasing the frequency of therapy sessions
  3. Providing referrals to other clinicians
  4. Shifting focus to parent coaching or family therapy

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