Why Therapy Fails Most Teenagers
Published on February 23rd, 2021
Updated on January 3rd, 2024
Every therapist has a story of that one teenager. The one who sat in their office and stared at them. The one who laughed at everything they said. The one who said “I don’t know” after every question. Teenagers are often forced into the therapy office against their wishes. Their parents or guardians ‘force’ them to see a therapist, but they cannot be forced to participate.
Many of them take full advantage of that bit of control. Therapy often fails teenagers by mirroring the patterns in their life, especially their lack of control.
Myths about Teenagers in Therapy
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Myth 1 – Teenagers need to want to be in therapy
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Myth 1 – Teenagers need to want to be in therapy
Yeah, good luck with this one. Some teenagers may request therapy, and some are willing to come to therapy, but most teenagers are forced to be there. They are in therapy because someone believes there is something wrong with them. Therapists and parents expecting teens to want to be in therapy are setting themselves up for frustration. It’s the therapist’s job to show the teenager why therapy might be beneficial for them.
Myth 2 – Teens don’t engage in therapy
Most teenagers are not going to plop down and start spilling everything. They probably are not going to trust their therapist right away. And why should they? The start of therapy is often the result of some sort of trouble in school or at home or issues the teenager may not want to discuss.
Therapists have usually spoken to the parents before meeting the teen. The therapist is on the parent’s ‘side’ until proven otherwise. Teenagers engage in therapy when they trust the therapist. This will take some effort and definitely takes clear boundaries on what information goes back to the parents.
Teenagers engage in therapy when they see the value of talking to the therapist. This may also take more work than with adults or children.
Myth 3 – You just have to get them to talk
I have heard so many new therapists ask, “how do I get them to talk?” That seems to be the focus of many therapists working with teenagers. The idea that “getting them to talk” is getting them to engage in therapy is misguided. Getting them to engage in therapy may or may not mean they talk more. Some teenagers will spend their whole therapeutic journey with minimal answers.
The goal should not be to “get them to talk,” the goal is to get them to process, consider, make changes or even just get the message that someone is there when they are ready to process, consider and make changes. Yes, sometimes, our role is to plant the seed that help is available later if the teen is not willing to accept it now.
Sometimes the most productive sessions are the ones talking about her dog or his favorite video game. The idea of getting teenagers to talk puts pressure on the teenager to “do it right” and puts pressure on the therapist to “get the teen to do it right.” In the end, both fail to meet the expectations, which causes frustration and a lack of trust in the relationship.
Myth 4 – Teen Therapists Should Be Young and Cool
It may help if the therapist is cool! But honestly, the therapist will never be cool enough. The therapist is still going to be an adult the teenage client is forced to come to see. What the therapist needs is to be is authentic and, maybe, a little goofy. Being authentic means asking questions when you have no idea what “on fleek” means or laughing at yourself when you said something weird.
Most teenagers do not want to come and sit in the office and talk about all the bad stuff, and using humor and playfulness can help defuse the tension while working through the issues in a more subtle way. Being the cool therapist is great, but being the real therapist builds the relationship.
Myth 5 – Teens are Adults in Training
No, teens are not adults in training. No, they are not still children. They are in this very challenging phase of life between being under their parents’ supervision and learning the skills to leave home in a few years.
Therapy with teenagers is not the same as therapy with adults or children. Therapists interested in working with teenagers should seek training to work with their unique set of challenges and phase of life issues.
Myth 6 – Teenagers are Dramatic
Ok, this one is half true. Yes, teenage problems can seem a bit… over the top. But in their life, the problems are very big and very real. Remember when you were a teenager, and you got in a fight with your friend, it was a big deal! Treating teenage problems as dramatic or less important than adult problems dismisses their emotions and challenges as trivial and unimportant.
Therapy is not going to work with a teenager when their issues are not seen as important. Now, some perspective-taking activities may still be warranted, but dismissing or trivializing their issues does not help.