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Choosing the Right Therapist When Your Teenager Needs Counseling

After her 13-year-old son ran into some behavioral and social troubles at school, Terri, an Oklahoma mom, went to see the school therapist. “She essentially told us that he was crazy and sent us to the emergency room for an immediate evaluation,” Terri recalls. “Which was a giant waste of time for the ER staff and us.”

The school therapist is often a starting point for help—even when, as in this case, they are not the best long-term fit for a particular child and family. So, where to go next?

Choosing a therapist is intensely personal. Teens and parents are both likely to have strong feelings about whether a therapist is the right fit. For therapy to be successful, the teen must be an active participant in the process.

3 Tips for Selecting a Therapist:

1. Get your teen to buy in.

“I tell parents that by the time their child turns 12, they become their own independent person,” says Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs for the nonprofit Mental Health America (MHA). “It’s not going to be effective if parents just bring kids to therapy. They will be blindsided by that.”

Stigmas around mental health have lessened, and today’s teens may be willing to talk about their struggles with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses. Nguyen notes that teens under 18 make up more than 40 percent of people using the online screening tools on the MHA website.

But while teenagers might know they need help, there can still be a disconnect between acknowledging the issue and seeking assistance.

“Help start the conversation and ask them if they’d like to talk to someone,” Nguyen says. “As parents, we have to be brave because our children often don’t know how to tell us when they need help.”

Other times, a teen might be defensive when a parent comments on changes in behavior, mood, or overall demeanor, but the parent should find ways to introduce counseling in a supportive, collaborative manner. “Talk about your concerns and how therapy or counseling can help,” says De’Asia Thompson, a licensed independent social worker in Dayton, Ohio, who specializes in adolescent mental health. “It may take some negotiation, but when you get buy-in, the counseling process will be easier.”

2. Have your teen participate in selection of therapist.

When it’s time to make an appointment, parents can ask for recommendations from trusted friends and colleagues or search online for providers. Nguyen says teens should be encouraged to think about what they want in a therapist and see if the profiles and websites match those needs.

“If a teen doesn’t know what they’re looking for in a therapist, sometimes just seeing the profiles helps to clarify if the person sounds like someone they can trust and get along with,” she says.

Since teens will be sharing intimate details of their lives with a therapist, their comfort level is crucial.

Parents and teens can also request a brief phone consultation before the first appointment to ask questions and see if there’s a connection, says Thompson. To make the most of this, it’s helpful to think ahead about the goal of therapy, says Nguyen. For example, is your teenager hoping to figure out how to talk to you, the parents, about these issues? Or are they hoping to feel less anxious?

Teens will spend the first few appointments building a relationship and working one-on-one with a therapist. At some point, the therapist should ask the teen how they want their parents involved, if at all, Nguyen says.

Family therapy could be another option that emerges as a teen grows more comfortable with the therapist. “When dealing with teens, it’s important to do some family work because teens don’t exist in a vacuum,” Thompson says. “What happens to them impacts the whole family.”

3. Stick with therapy, but be willing to change therapist.

Teens should give a new therapist at least three sessions before they determine that the relationship isn’t working, Nguyen says.

If teens are willing to talk about the therapy, parents can try to determine whether their teenager is balking simply because the topics are uncomfortable. If that’s the case, they should encourage their teen to ask the therapist to slow down the pace of the sessions. That way, the teen can still address the issues being unearthed, but in at a pace that makes them feel secure.

If it’s an issue of fit, however, it’s worth seeking out a better connection. At the same time, says Nguyen, parents might want their own therapeutic support to help with communicating and supporting their teen during recovery.

Maybe you don’t have health insurance at all, or you’re running into difficulties with your mental health coverage. Lack of nearby providers, few covered providers, caps on the number of covered sessions, and high copays and deductibles can all present barriers.

There are options, however—from sliding scale fees (based on financial need) offered by some practitioners to clinics offered by universities. 

Click for more information on finding a therapist:

For more information on free to low-cost mental health treatment options, check out mentalhealthamerica.net/finding-therapy.

Shannon Shelton Miller

Shannon Shelton Miller is a freelance writer from Dayton, Ohio. She has written for The New York TimesThe Washington PostESPN.com,ScaryMommy.com and more. For more, visit ShannonSheltonMiller.com and follow her on Twitter at @ShannonSMWrites and Facebook.