Parents often choose to seek therapy for their teens during times of transition or challenge. Almost every parent that walks into my office wants the best for their teen and is hoping therapy will provide their teen with relief or solutions. Many parents ask me how they can best support their teen while they are in therapy. Here are five techniques parents can use to support their teen:
1. REMIND YOUR TEEN THAT THERAPY IS THEIR SAFE SPACE.
Building a solid therapeutic relationship requires a great deal of trust. When a teen enters therapy he or she is being asked to open up to an adult stranger about some of the most challenging details of their daily lives. Their ability to connect requires that they trust that their therapist will keep their challenges confidential. Parents can support this trust building by saying things like, "Therapy is your safe space. What you say there is between you and your therapist. I am always here to support you but you never need to feel obligated to tell me the things you tell your therapist." You can also say, "Your therapist is there to support YOU not me. You are allowed to say anything you want to your therapist, even if it is something you don’t want to share with me.”
Trusting a therapist in this way can be difficult for parents. After all, they care deeply about the safety and emotional well being of their teens. However, a therapist who specializes in working with teens will be very clear about boundaries and what they can and cannot convey to parents. This helps them to establish trust with teens and families.
2. CELEBRATE EVEN THE TINIEST VICTORIES.
Making a change is very difficult for all of us. Although it can be easy to tell teens, "All you need to do is..." it’s important that we realize how challenging it really is to make a significant change in our lives. How many times as adults have we said to ourselves, "If I just went to the gym more..." or "Next week I'll..."
Supporting your teen in therapy means celebrating even the smallest victories. If you have been struggling to connect with your teen and they ask you to play a video game with them CELEBRATE THAT VICTORY. Don't wait for your teen to invite you to spend an entire day with them. Instead celebrate even the smallest steps. Small steps turn into big changes.
3. CREATE SPACE AND LISTEN
Many parents expect changes in their teen to be immediate. However it is helpful to remember that your teen didn't develop into their current persona or issues overnight and the "solutions" won't happen overnight either. Instead of hunting for signs of change in your teen, take a step back during the first 4 or 5 sessions. The most helpful thing you can do for your teen during this time is to create space for them to share with you.
Just like younger children, teens fall into patterned behaviors. Here is one very typical pattern I see with teens:
• Teen encounters a problem - Teen seeks out parent - The problem begins to cause the parent anxiety or worry - Parent fixes the problem for the teen
It is helpful when parents take a step back and allow space for their teen to share their experiences and talk about or attempt a solution instead of jumping in and tying to "solve the problem" for the teen. One thing many parents begin to realize is that their tendency to want to "fix" might have been making the problem worse.
Creative space involves asking open-ended questions without expecting a certain result from your teen. Here are some examples:
• What are you noticing about yourself these days?
• Are there any ways that I can be helpful to you in your therapy journey?
• What interesting things did you do today at school?
• How are things going with your friends?
Creating space also involves not jumping in, interrupting, correcting, or fixing the situation for your teen. No parent wants his or her teen to feel distress. However, in situations where the stakes are low its important that parents allow their teen to identify stressors, process those stressors, and move forward toward managing those stressors on the own. Part of my work with teens in therapy is to teach them to reach out and ask for support when they need it.
4. TRUST IN THE PROCESS
The decision to seek out therapy can be very scary. You are trusting an outsider to care for your family. However one of the most important parts of supporting your teen is to trust in the process. There will be days that your teen comes home from therapy and says something like, "That was so dumb," or, "You are the worst dad for making me talk about my feelings." and your temptation as a parent is to wonder if this is a waste of your time and money. Before jumping to conclusions remember that a good therapist will be honest with you and tell you if therapy doesn't seem to be effective for your teen. Sometimes teens will have negative reactions to therapy because therapy is challenging. That is totally okay. They’re allowed to complain about being vulnerable. After all, it’s just as hard for teens, if not harder, as it is for us as adults. As parents it’s your job to remind your child that therapy is their safe space and even though it might seem boring, difficult, or lame at times. It’s important to trust that showing up at therapy will be of value to them. That being said, I always tell teens and adults to give it three therapy sessions. If you are still feeling like therapy is ineffective after that time then you should definitely bring these feelings up with your therapists.
5. TELL THEM HOW PROUD YOU ARE OF THEM
Showing up, engaging, and changing is difficult. No matter how slow your teen is moving forward ALWAYS make sure to tell them how proud you are of them. Find little ways to tell them this every single day. Tell them you are proud of the way they handled a situation with a friend. Don't take the small stuff for granted. Take notice of even the smallest things they do each day such as packing their lunch, saying good morning, or giving hugs. These things matter and the more you acknowledge the small things, the more they will understand that you are noticing them. Even if this progress is not clear to you, be sure tell them how proud you are that they were willing to show up to therapy and try.