Mom consoling daughter struggling with mental health.

I’m a Teen in Therapy, Now What?

4 ways to make the most out of therapy, especially when you don’t want to be there 

It’s hard to be a teen. As an adolescent, you’re coping with pressure from school and parents, balancing clubs and extracurriculars, and trying to have a social life. It’s normal to go to therapy to deal with everything that comes with being a teen. The adolescent years can feel really overwhelming. 

A lot of teens are in therapy. Anywhere from 20–25% of teenagers have a mental health condition, and many more report significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

Therapy can be helpful for reducing depression and anxiety, making friends, discovering identity, and other mental health concerns. Going to therapy is more normal than you may think, especially given how stressful it is to be a teen. 

Sometimes you don’t have a choice in whether or not you go to counseling. You might have to go because of school or because your parents/caregivers want you to. 

We get it. It’s really annoying when you have to be somewhere you don’t want to be, especially when that place is counseling. Unfortunately, not being able to make your own decisions is one of the hard things about being a teen. But if you have to be in therapy, you might as well make it bearable, maybe even helpful. 

Regardless of why you end up in therapy, here are three tips to help make the most of the experience, especially when you don’t want to be there.

Be honest and open as possible

Trusting relationships take time to build. In therapy, building a trusting relationship with your therapist is essential to get the most out of counseling. It’s important for you to know that relationship building takes time, but it also can’t happen at all if you aren’t open and honest with your therapist and with yourself. 

Therapists know that in order to help teenagers, they have to set up a “zone of privacy.” A zone of privacy is a confidential space you can feel comfortable in — especially when you’re telling a therapist uncomfortable things. In these zones of privacy, therapists will keep what you say confidential, unless there is something that affects your or someone else's immediate safety. This should be set up from the first counseling session.

This zone of privacy is developed so you can be as open and honest as possible. Therapy works by talking through challenging issues, rather than holding them inside. A therapist will help you navigate difficult life challenges, but they can’t help if they don’t know. That’s why it’s important for you to have a safe place to communicate what you need. 

A good therapist should also make you feel comfortable enough to open up. If you are uncomfortable or it doesn’t feel like a good fit for your needs, you can ask to change therapists. 

Take the lead

A therapist is a mental health professional who is trained to help you get your needs met in the therapy space. The therapist has probably been given some initial information from your parents, so they know why others want you to be in therapy. A good therapist will also ask you why you think you’re in therapy, and what you want to get out of it.

If you don’t want to be in therapy, it’s hard to know what you might get out of it. But therapy can be helpful for a lot of people, so it’s in your best interest to explore some reasons for being there.  

Have some specific goals in mind. Do you want to make more friends? Learn to better manage emotions? Better deal with stress? Communicate better with your parents or friends? Discover more about yourself?

If you don’t know what you’d like to work on, recruit your therapist for help. From there, you can have a collaborative conversation about what could be helpful for you.

Schedule a free consultation. Speak with one of our care coordinators and learn more about working with a Joon therapist.

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Be realistic 

It’s hard to know what to expect when you’re a teen in therapy, but easy to let expectations about therapy spiral out of control. Some teenagers feel hopeless about therapy, like it will never help with anything. Other adolescents have a rosy view of therapy, thinking that it will solve all their problems. What really happens is somewhere in the middle — therapy can help give you skills that make your life better, but it’s not a miracle cure.

Research shows therapy does help teens. According to a recent study, teenagers say therapy helps them open up, feel more connected to others, name emotions, and know themselves better. Adolescents also note therapy helps them better adapt to challenges in life. 

Remember to keep your expectations about therapy realistic. Don't expect things to change overnight, but remember that things are not hopeless either, and chances are you’ll learn something about yourself and others.

In order to benefit from therapy, teenagers have to do some hard work. This usually involves talking about tough things, communicating with your parents, and can even involve changing the way you do things in life. That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect in therapy, it just means you have to try your best.

Try your best 

Therapy is really hard. One of the traps teenagers fall for is thinking there is a “right” way to do therapy. In actuality, there are no “right” or “wrong” answers in therapy. 

Therapy is a process. There is no step-by-step manual on how to do therapy. Instead, it’s a process where you and your therapist ask questions, be curious about your problems, and try new things. Counseling takes time and collaboration between you, your therapist, and sometimes your parents.

All you need to do in therapy is show up as your true self — not who you think your therapist or your parents want you to be.

The takeaway

When you’re a teen, therapy is tough. It can feel really hard to be somewhere you don’t want to be, especially if you don’t know how it can help you. It’s important to know that therapy services help a lot of teenagers, and it’s very normal to go to therapy for teenage concerns. 

Start by being open and honest with your therapist. Therapists are professional guides and can help you navigate the process. Let them know your interests and what your goals are. From there, you and your therapist can set realistic expectations about what therapy can help with. Therapy for teenagers is effective, but it’s still good to have realistic expectations about what counseling services can do for you.

Using these tips, therapy can feel bearable, doable, and even helpful. 

December 1, 2021
Marina Harris, PhD | Clinical Psychologist

Marina Harris, PhD | Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Harris is a psychologist with specialties in eating disorders, athlete mental health, sport psychology, perfectionism, mindfulness, and trauma-informed care. She earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and trained at Duke University Medical Center and University of North Carolina Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders (UNCCEED).

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