Should I make my kid go to therapy?

I was recently asked by a friend of a friend if she should make her kid go to therapy. She writes,

“11-year-old son who is struggling with depression but is refusing to go to therapy. Are there things that have helped some of the boys in that age range that you have worked with other than going to therapy? As in, things you have had them do that have helped?”

I really want to examine 2 sides of the coin for this issue. There’s making the child go to therapy despite him refusing and there’s not making him go and creatively exploring other options. Let’s look at these sides a little more in-depth.

Making the child go to therapy

The idea of “making” your child go to therapy already sounds forceful and opposite of what therapy or counseling should be. However, as parents, you make your child do all kinds of stuff they don’t want to do. You make them go to school, bathe and brush their teeth. You make them go to the doctor’s and get shots or get that cavity taken care of at the dentist. Mental health professionals are just like doctors, except we work with the mind/body, not just the body. 

I can see how parents are hesitant making their child go to therapy. You don’t want them to associate therapy with “consequences” or something terrible like the dentist. If you make them go, they may see it as punishment or that the therapist is on the side of the adults. As a counselor for kids, this is what I suggest:

  1. Ask yourself if there’s a safety concern. – If this is about health, wellness and ultimately you’re concerned about the child’s development and safety? Then make them go to therapy. Just like a dentist – you may say, “I know you don’t like this but it’s my job to keep you safe and healthy.”
  2. Shop around and explain the situation to a therapist – Find someone that understands that the child is not on board with this process. Specifically, find someone that is ok with this idea and willing to “roll with resistance” when kids don’t want to be there. 
  3. Do the intake alone. – Meet with the therapist for the initial intake alone. Don’t have the child join. This is because you’ll be answering all kinds of sensitive questions and the child may link the therapist with the parent. You want to create a welcoming environment and even though the child will know you’ve already met the therapist, it will be different if they meet separately – without all the symptom-talk and history-taking. 

Alternatives to therapy

If there’s not a safety issue or you, as a parent, feel that maybe he’s/she’s struggling but not enough to need therapy, you can explore other options. In the case described, depression, we want to find opportunities for physical activity and connection.

  • Sports
  • Social Activities
  • Youth Groups
  • After-school activities
  • Theater

Getting a depressed child into these activities can greatly enhance their mood. You don’t want them to be completely booked in their schedule – you need to find balance. Be sure to allow “down time” and time for them to be alone. But with depression, we want to actively seek ways to get them out of isolation mode. Connection with others is extremely important. 

If it’s another issue like anxiety, you may want to explore options that promote calming and relaxation. Again, this can emphasize activity and social connection.

  • Hiking
  • Yoga (group classes for youth!)
  • Art Classes
  • Spending time with animals (Horses, animal shelter)
  • Music

Modeling that therapy is a good thing!

As parents, you want to deliver the message that therapy can be good, helpful and an avenue for self-care. Just like a massage or going to the gym, it may be hard but it’s for you and you’re worth it. The best way to deliver this message is to go to counseling for yourself and talk openly about it. I tell the kids that I work with that I go to counseling regularly. You don’t need to get into the details but simply say, “We all go through tough times and having someone to talk to can help.” So parents, be the model and deliver the message that therapy is a privilege and seeking a counselor is a strength, not a weakness.

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