What is Going on With My Kid?!--And What to Expect When Taking Your Teen to Counseling

Adolescence is a really difficult time for parents. It feels as though your child has changed over night. Suddenly, they act like they are allergic to you. They are trying to establish their own identity, which means they are doing everything they can to distance themselves from you. It can be painful and confusing. First, I want to reassure you that this is completely normal. This is a healthy part of development for your child. And if you can support them through this, they will come out on the other side as a more well-adjusted adult and you can begin to create a new type of relationship with your child. 

Adolescence can also be a frightening time for parents. You might notice that your child is engaging in more risky behaviors or making impulsive decisions that you fear will impact their future. This is also normal. During adolescence, your child's brain experiences a dip in dopamine (one of the neurotransmitters that make us feel good), causing them to naturally seek out more thrilling experiences. This, combined, with the fact that their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed (the part of the brain responsible for considering consequences before action), means that your child is more likely to take risks for experiences that seem exhilarating, without much thought given to the potential outcome.

Because teens experience a lot of hormonal changes and changes in the emotional regulatory parts of their brain, you might also notice that your teens is more “moody.” They seem more sensitive and almost anything you say can trigger frustration and anger. Again, totally normal, but it can leave parents struggling with how to connect with their teen. You also might notice your child experiencing an increase in anxiety or depression during this time. This time can feel just as difficult for them as it does for you. They are faced with so many new challenges at this age—navigating changes in their body, shifting peer relationships, first dating experiences, forming their own sense of identity while also searching for acceptance and belonging. It’s a lot.  

Teens tend to benefit greatly from a counseling relationship. It gives them a safe adult they can talk to about the hard stuff. The stuff teens usually aren’t willing to talk to their parents about (no matter how many times you assure them that they can come to you with anything). Counseling can decrease the risks for substance use, suicide, and other mental health struggles. It can help them develop their identity and feelings of self-worth. It can help them learn to create healthy relationships with peers and partners. It gives them an opportunity to explore their choices/decisions and all the potential outcomes of those decisions. And it can increase the chances that your teen will successfully launch into adulthood.

But, taking your teen to counseling doesn’t always look exactly how parents expect it to. I know this can be confusing and you might be feeling desperate for a miracle right now. But I want to be honest with you about what the process will realistically look like and why.

As the adult, it's normal to feel that your goals and advice for them will help solve their problems and all you need to do is get someone to convince them to listen. Unfortunately, this usually doesn't play out the way we’d like it to. Teens (and adults, alike) aren't inclined to engage in therapy when they feel pushed to work on someone else's goals for them. The only way to see meaningful growth is to help them figure out what is important to them and what goals they would like to work toward. As their counselor, it’s my job to help them figure this out (and you might be surprised by just how thoughtful and meaningful their goals tend to be). This doesn’t mean your goals are bad or wrong. It just means that teens only invest when they are working toward their own goals. And if they aren’t invested, then we won’t accomplish much.

It is also my job to make sure that my clients feel understood and validated. Most teens feel chronically misunderstood, which can lead to feelings of loneliness, depression, and difficult behaviors. It can be really powerful (and healing) for them to have a safe adult in their life who "gets it." There are a few things that might come up around this, which I like to prepare parents for in advance. 1) They may interpret my validation of their feelings as an agreement with their decisions. This is not always the case. 2) They may try to use me as an ally in your arguments. Please know that while I will help your teen understand their frustrations and validate their right to those feelings, I will not question your right, as the parent, to make decisions for your family. Helping teens feel seen, heard, and understood creates the safety they need to really begin to grow. 

Taking your teen to counseling means that the parents will also need to be willing to grow and make changes. No relationship improves when only one side is engaged in the work. If you choose not to engage, there likely won't be many changes in your relationship. If you do choose to engage, you will have the opportunity to create a more positive dynamic in your household. 

You should also know that unless your teen is in danger, I will keep our sessions confidential. I have found that this is the only way to maintain trust with my teen clients. And if they don’t trust me, they don’t talk about the hard stuff.

I hope that this has helped prepare you for some of the things that can come up during the process of teen counseling. I’m happy to answer any other questions you might have in an initial phone or email consult.