Ideas for getting a reluctant teenager to see a therapist
By Karen Hathaway
The following extract is based on an example of Karen’s work within the NHS, in getting ‘difficult to reach’ young people to engage.
“I’ve never been so frightened by someone in my life” said the youth worker I called, to discuss a young boy who had been referred to me. I was looking for anyone who had developed a relationship with this “angry” and probably very sad young man. I booked an appointment in, assumed he wouldn’t come and was surprised when he did. I was apprehensive. A background in forensic adolescent services has put me in one to one situations with individuals capable of doing a great deal of harm in both hospitals and prisons, and yet, here I was feeling apprehensive about meeting a 14 year old with no history of harming anyone.
I won’t say that the session went well. At first, when he became angry I looked for and failed to find an ending that wouldn’t make the situation worse. I decided that in the absence of a good option I should carry on, intuition and experience told me that the anger would subside. My goal was to meet the lad, to start the session and to end it without a full blown incident or him storming out or me running out. That goal was achieved and he even came back again, a number of times in fact. Each session the aim was to go slightly further than the one before, start and end with no incident, start, end and have some kind of middle with no incident. It was a very slow process.
He was an extreme version of the other teenagers I see, the teenagers shrouded by a hood so that you can barely see their face, making no eye contact, playing with their phones, won’t take their coat off, won’t take their headphones off and so very often start the session by asking when its going to end.
But, at least he had agreed to come, so often young people don’t.
So how can you help your child to get support and see a psychologist? As usual, there is no clear formula but here are a few ideas that might help.
- Find the right therapist
This is essential and maybe obvious but you really don’t want to put in a lot of hard work and effort convincing your child to go and see a professional to get there and find that they are like chalk and cheese. Its likely to be your one shot, they need to be the right person. This means do your research and shop around. Talk to a few different therapists, we all have different approaches and different personalities, one size does not fit all. Keep your teenager in mind, is this person right for them. The right person might not be the one who agrees with your view of the problem.
- The therapist is likely to have some ideas about getting your child to a session.
They might be able to offer some flexibility initially. This could mean agreeing to meet at a neutral place, a coffee shop or cafe, or coming to the home. They maybe able to offer short, 15-30 minute appointments initially for introduction.
- Rewards – maybe sometimes
Fear of the unknown is one of the reasons young people don’t want to meet someone and talk about their problems. One/two sessions in they are likely to overcome this to some extent. But how do you get them to take the steps to overcome that fear, one option is to motivate them with an external reward. Its not a long term plan, its a short-term crisis intervention. You’re not going to keep doing it, ultimately they can then decide whether they get something out of going and the reward will become that. Of course, Teenagers cannot be motivated to get past bad anxiety and worry so if that is case this is probably not the right plan.
- Use the good relationships they already have
Who does your child talk to? Has he/she got a teacher, a SENCO, youth worker, club leader, etc. who they talk to, could this person help? Consider whether it might be helpful to let that person go with them to the appointment. Similarly, would the therapist be open to them coming with their friend. Therapists can have mixed feelings about this but in my view, if its one or two appointments and the session is “low key” then it isn’t really a problem and can be helpful.
- Be patient and if your child won’t go it may help for you to schedule appointments with the therapist.
Work between yourself and the therapist may build your insight into the difficulties, generate new ideas for dealing with things and show your child that you are prepared to do what you are asking them to do.
- If you’ve been encouraging them for a while it might help to step back a bit and leave it for a while (assuming they are not in danger/at risk).
Just stating, “I know you don’t want to go thats ok”. You can then give them control to let you know if they change their mind.