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teens and therapy

Does Your Teen Need Therapy?

Hey there parent-of-teen! Losing your mind yet??

It’s so hard to know what’s normal, particularly if you are going through your first teen-dom…

teens and their problems

This month I thought I’d give you a guide as to what I believe is worthy of concern. I get a lot of inquiries asking if a child or teen ‘needs’ therapy. It can be a tough call. I tend to steer away from words like ‘normal’ or ‘pathological.’ My belief is that we have become overly concerned with medicalisation and diagnosis. It seems that we are experiencing a surge in ADHD for example – but is that a surge in real incidence? Or a surge in diagnosis? They are different things. And we are starting to rethink our use of diagnostic manuals.

The internet is full of drama and bad science

I know a lot of parents are on high alert for mental health issues with their kids. I truly applaud this. This generation is lucky to have parents who are better educated and more alert and aware  of emotional difficulty. Unfortunately, this new access to information creates a lot of unnecessary stress for parents. For example, I’m thinking of a dad show shared his experience with what he diagnosed as obsessive compulsiveness. His child arranged clothes by color, then dad ran to Google only to discover it to mean his child has “obsessive compulsive” behavior.

Liking things to be arranged in a pretty way is not a disorder. So I think we need to pull back from that or perhaps going to Google for just about anything. If your teen is behaving in odd ways and unlike ‘normal teenaged behaviour’ then counselling/therapy for you or for them might be useful.

As a parent, it is really important to know that having a child in therapy is NOT a sign of parenting failure. In fact, it is quite the opposite. It means you have heard your child and witnessed the difficulty he or she is going through and you have accessed support in a helpful, independent manner so that private space is possible. What a gift for a teenager!

Even though therapy has become more mainstream now there can still be some stigma around it and so do let your teen know that it is normal to have difficulties and that it is brave, not cowardly, to seek help.

If they see the look of shame on your face, they will surely feel the same. If they see you being at ease, they will be more likely to feel that ease themselves.

What it's like to raise a teenager

What’s normal?

It can be difficult to  tell the difference between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behavior with teenagers. As a quick guide to what is NOT NORMAL I would suggest the following:

  • If they used to sleep really well and now don’t.
  • If they suddenly start sleeping for longer.
  • If they stop eating with the family and being secretive about their food.
  • If they dump old friends and get new ones in a short period of time.
  • If they stop socializing.
  • If they engage in risk taking or self harming behavior.
  • If you find drug paraphernalia. And if you don’t know what this is- time to learn!(Visit here: http://www.theantidrug.com/ei/watch_for.asp
  • If they are grieving and appear to be making no recovery when a year or more has passed. (Please seehttp://www.barnardos.ie/information-centre/young-people/teen-help/death…. which I co-authored while working in Barnardos as grief therapist for children and families.
  • If there is a severe drop in school work standards and interest.
  • If there is school avoidance.

There are many signs that could help you address the things that are wrong in your teen’s life. Teens often behave in ways to flag their feelings and ‘get’ you to do something about it. It can be difficult to ask for help straight out at any age.

In my experience teenagers respond very well to therapy and often the work is shorter than it is with adults. Perhaps this is because they are younger, have less ‘baggage’ and are already in the habit of learning new things by virtue of the fact that they are still being educated.

For more help with parenting issues check this site and I write for Voiceboks.com and here is a link to pieces I’ve written for them – I hope you find them helpful.

Things to note

While the space for a teenager is confidential, therapists are ethically bound to report anything that concern them or that they consider a child protection issue. This should be explained clearly to both parents and their teenagers for transparency purposes. In this way, I hope to make therapy feel safe for everyone, and you have a right to ask for it to happen that way.

Sometimes parents and teens come together for sessions, more often though, the teenager comes by him/herself. It is important to respect their privacy. They see themselves as adults so to treat them as children will feel condescending.

If it becomes apparent that your teenager is addicted to drugs or alcohol during the course of therapy, they may be referred  to a specialised treatment centre. The evidence for 12 step programmes has become mixed recently. In the past, teens were by default referred to addiction treatment centers, residential and outpatient. Now, there are newer ways of treating addiction and emerging addiction. Use Google Scholar rather than Google to inform yourself. If your teenager is at risk through disordered eating the therapist will be requesting that the family medical practitioner become involved in his or her therapy. A referral to a treatment center may happen here too.

And of course, if your child discloses sexual or physical abuse the Child Protection Services must and will become involved.

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O’Reilly is an IAHIP, ICP and EAP accredited Counselling Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor with nearly twenty years of professional experience. Her particular area of expertise and interest is work with teenagers. She enjoys a busy full-time private practice and has developed and facilitated a personal development, substance misuse and sexual health programme for teenagers for over 15 years. She is a regular contributor to national print and radio media.
Sally is also the co-author of Two Wise Chicks.
Feel free to follow Sally on: Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin

28 comments

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  • Whilst the internet can be a great source for people I also feel that it causes anxiety at times as well. When I was growing up as a teenager my parents didn’t have this at their finger tips to do searches to see what was wrong with me they just took it that I was a teenager trying to find my own way in the world – surely even with technology today – parents can see that.

    • Hi Tam, thanks so much for reading and commenting. Yes, things were very different for you parents. Very. I guess tech makes ‘advice’ easier to access and so it’s easier now for parents to become anxious – so much online is about what’s ‘wrong’ – the ‘normal’ stuff can be subsumed. Awareness and critical thinking is key to our sanity!! Thanks again, warmly, Sally

  • The teenage years are filled with changes and can be very rough on your teen. Therapy can help and if my son needed it I would be sure he got that help.

  • I think if a parent thinks there child needs therapy then they should ensure there child gets it but as I am not a parent I can’t speak for all

    • Hi Anosa, and thanks for reading. Yes it’s a different story when you are the parent involved, it can be harder to see potential issues when we are literally living with them! Warm wishes,
      Sally

  • Important topic, thanks for covering it Sally. I’m not ashamed to admit I went in and out of therapy a few times during my teenage years. It was good in a lot of ways, and not so helpful in others. Overall, I felt it was beneficial because it at least gave a bit of understanding and additional perspective into the issues I was going through at the time.

    I’m glad to see some of the stigma going away. I never really felt bad about it, but I could tell that my parents seemed disappointed in themselves, as if it were a personal attack against them or their parenting skills (of course this wasn’t the case, they were great.) I’d hate to hear any negative feelings prevented someone from getting the help they need.

    • Hi James and thank you for your considered and honest feedback – I’m sure that parents reading this will find that helpful. Open dialogue is a wonderful thing, and this is exactly how stigma ends. Thank you for contributing to that. Warmly, Sally.

    • Hey Channel and thanks for weighing in. Yes, I really do think it ha made things more complicated in many ways. We are really starting to see the effects of it now. Thanks again, warm wishes, Sally

  • My kids are still little, but I know we are in for some difficult teen years. I’m already seeing signs in my seven-year old that indicate he’s pretty impressionable and has a “need” to be liked. But what I’m seeing is that he doesn’t care who likes him, he just has to be liked by them, which is dangerous if it’s the wrong crowd. I hope he doesn’t need therapy one day, but you never know what can help. I had therapy as a teen for some things, and I do believe it helped me.

    • Hi Heather. Yes that’s a worrying thing. But he is only 7, and there is a lot of time to support him with this. So that’s a good thing, and also good is that therapy is very effective for exactly this kind of issue. He sounds like he has a mom who clued in (you:)) so I’m sure it will work out, one way or another. Your own experience will help whatever direction you take. Good luck, warmly, Sally.

  • I’m glad my daughter has a good 10 years before she will be a teenager. I didn’t need therapy when I was a teenager, but have to remember this information for the future. Just in case.

    • Hi Liz, yes I absolutely can never stress that enough. Instinct, gut, intuition – whatever we call it – is SO important and useful. Ignore it at your peril! Thanks for reading and commenting, warm wishes, Sally

  • I have two teens ages 14 and 16. It is such a delicate age because they are changing both mentally and physically. My older son has had therapy before, and we have learned so much about how to approach parenting our teens.

About Author

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O'Reilly

Sally O’Reilly is an IAHIP, ICP and EAP accredited Counselling Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Clinical Supervisor with nearly twenty years of professional experience. Her particular area of expertise and interest is work with teenagers. She enjoys a busy full-time private practice and has developed and facilitated a personal development, substance misuse and sexual health programme for teenagers for over 15 years. She is a regular contributor to national print and radio media.
Sally is also the co-author of Two Wise Chicks.
Feel free to follow Sally on: Facebook | Twitter | Linkedin