Adolescent Psychotherapy: Worth a try?

Today’s teenagers are asking for therapy, and with good reason.

“We’ve always had a close relationship, and I feel kind of bad she can’t just talk to me. How will talking to someone else help her?

-- Initial phone call, mother of 16-year-old girl

“Help!”

-- Email subject line, mother of 15-year-old boy

Parents unfamiliar with psychotherapy may be unsure of whether therapy can help their teenager. Even parents who have themselves had successful therapy may have trouble imagining how it might work with an adolescent --  no less one who mutters one-word answers to thoughtful, well-intentioned questions, or appears decidedly disinclined to reflect on his own contributions to various “situations.”

For some parents, the notion that their child might benefit from -- or even prefer -- talking to an adult outside the family is surprising and may feel like a rejection. Let me be clear on this matter: A child therapist is never a replacement parent. However, your teenager’s wish to talk to someone else is normal, healthy . . . and wise. American adolescents are supposed to be becoming more separate and independent from their parents, so keeping some matters private is developmentally appropriate. That said, most teenagers are navigating significant life challenges, so actually need adult guidance more than ever!

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Psychotherapy helps teenagers much in the way it helps adults -- by providing empathy, non-judgmental listening and supportive, directed conversation with a highly trained adult. Having a private space in which to troubleshoot academic, athletic and creative challenges, explore emerging identity and navigate increasingly complex relationships is invaluable for adolescents. Effective adolescent therapy also helps kids understand their own motivations and even those of others, facilitating clearer communication and deeper, more satisfying relationships with peers, teachers, even parents. And who among us can reliably provide such a patient, unintrusive space for our own children?  

For teenagers, psychotherapy also provides an essential developmental “push” that enhances the emotional growth that is occurring naturally, or may have been interrupted by a life event or emotional stumbling block. In some ways, teen therapy offers more “bang for the buck” than adult therapy because it dovetails with natural psychological progress and taps into kids’ growth potential while their mindsets and behaviors are still highly malleable.

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While most of us are familiar with the cartoon stereotype of a glaring, cross-armed adolescent coerced to see a therapist against his will, contemporary teenagers are much more likely to ask for counseling than those in previous generations.Some referrals to my psychology practice come from schools or pediatricians, but many parents contact me because their teenager has requested therapy. Increased public awareness of mental health issues (including schools’ inclusion of “health and wellness” courses), reduction in stigma, innovations in both psychological and biological treatments, and more parents who have themselves benefitted from psychotherapy are some of the reasons teenagers know they can ask for professional help. Doing so is itself a powerful testament to their increasing self-awareness and -- at least in this instance -- sound judgment and maturity.