So, you’re thinking about getting your teen into counseling, but you’re not sure if it will be helpful or not. 

Here’s how therapy with teens and adolescents work.

First of all, let’s start by dividing our teens into 2 groups:

1.  The first group of teens are somewhat familiar with therapy, perhaps because various members of the family have been in therapy; or perhaps the teen has friends who have found therapy helpful. There is a growing number of teens who will directly ask their parents to find a therapist for them to talk to.

Being a willing and motivated participant in mental health counseling is half the battle in developing an effective treatment plan with your teen. In this case, I have done a previous video on How Therapy Works which could help your teen think about using the time in therapy well.

2.  The second group, and perhaps the larger of the two, is the number of teens who have little to no interest in sharing anything about themselves with a total stranger. The thought of opening up to any adult feels awkward and vulnerable.

An adolescent from this group is being encouraged and perhaps even given ultimatums to go to therapy. The therapy space can look really different with these kids, and it’s important for parents to recognize the difference.


Effective therapy with teens who are unsure of this process first and foremost, takes time. The initial goal for a therapist with an ambivalent adolescent is building authentic rapport. This means that the therapy may not immediately be focused on the issues and concerns the parent or guardian is needing addressed. 

I totally get that that can feel frustrating, but if time is not spent developing strong rapport with doubtful or resistant teens, the therapy likely will not have the desired impact. As a parent or guardian, please be patient. Some teens are able to trust the space within 2 or 3 sessions, but others could take 2-3 months. Hang on and trust the process. 

Another thing to remember is that effective therapy with teens requires confidentiality. Your teens therapist will explain before therapy even begins how confidentiality works, and it’s really helpful for parents and guardians to encourage and respect their teen’s need for privacy. All therapists are required to communicate any information regarding behavior that could be harmful to the teenager or others. 

So, with that understanding work to respect that confidentiality. Part of your teens work with their therapist will likely be related to the question “What would it be like to share this with Mom?” or “Let’s think of some way we could talk to your parents about this. We could do it together.” 

The therapist is not encouraging secrets kept from Mom and Dad, as that is rarely an effective tool in healing relationships. Trust that your teen’s privacy is benefitting their process. 

That being said, it is important for parents to have a general understanding of their teens process and progress in therapy. Some practices encourage a 4:1 ratio. In other words, every 5th session, the parent will be invited in to hear, in a general way, how the therapy is developing, goals being worked on, and also to hear from the parents or guardians any questions, concerns, or encouragement they have to offer. If this feels particularly important to you talk to your teen’s therapist before therapy begins to state that you would like for that to happen.


There are probably lots of things I could mention that will contribute to your teen’s positive experience of therapy, but I will leave you with this one: 


Remember that your teen has not developed in a vacuum. He or she has been impacted and influenced by the world around them and they have been impacted by you. Therapy is not about finding who to blame, it is much more about understanding ourselves and how our environment impacts our emotions and our behavior.


It is so helpful to teens in therapy when parents are prepared to own their own work or unhelpful behavior. For example, an anxious parent might agree to do some of their own work to understand their anxiety and how it impacts the family system. Or a parent who unintentionally uses lecture to communicate their expectations might commit to working within a word quota when talking to their teen. 

Be prepared to do your part. If your teen sees that you are willing to acknowledge that there are things you could do better, they are much more likely to buy into their own work. 

Therapy with reluctant teens takes a patient, warm, non-judgmental therapist, who actually likes working with teens. Ask the therapists you interview lots of questions and give your teen some options, and when possible let them choose who they’re going to sit with.


If we at Cedar Tree Counseling can be of any help to you in your search for the right therapist for your teenager, please give us a call. We’re here to help.

Matthew Hanlon

Matthew Hanlon

Men & Couples Therapist | MA, LMFT

I help men and their families, who are hurting, angry, and struggling to find their way through life’s challenges, to create real and lasting change.

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