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There’s lots of advice out there on how to talk to your teen about the possibility of seeing a therapist. For example, you might want to normalize and destigmatize therapy or leave a lot of space for questions and concerns.
But the conversations about therapy don’t stop there.
What if your teen is already in therapy? How can you talk to them about how it’s going while still protecting their privacy? What sorts of questions should you ask? Should you even approach the subject at all, or allow them to come to you?
It’s understandable to have these questions as a parent. There is a part of you that wants to respect your teen’s space, but you also feel it’s important to know how your teen is doing in terms of their mental health. Maintaining this balance can quickly become exhausting.
Although your teen’s therapy sessions should be kept confidential to an extent, there is also a place for supportive parents before, during, and after sessions. Here are some tips to keep in mind for how to talk to your teen about therapy while still respecting their boundaries.
Should Parents Be Involved in Their Child’s Therapy?
Most child and teen therapists believe that parent involvement is critical in teen therapy. Research shows that child and adolescent therapy is more effective when parents are part of the process.
Although 1:1 time with a therapist can provide your teen with a safe place in which to explore their feelings—and learn new tools to manage them—the fact is that they spend most of their time at home with you. It’s important that the therapist, the teen, and the parents are all on the same page about what the goals of treatment are, and how parents can support the teen’s progress at home.
This doesn’t mean that parents should be present during the teen’s therapy sessions. Therapy is a sacred space, whether the client is an adult, a teen, or a young child. Adolescents, in particular, start to form their own identity away from their parents during this stage. This is an important developmental task for teens, as they need their own space to figure out who they are outside of the context of their family relationships.
Your teen’s therapist may want to talk with you individually. They will protect your teen’s right to confidentiality, so they will not disclose exactly what your teen discussed (unless your teen is a danger to themselves or others). But they may ask you questions and consult with you about your teen’s behavior at home and at school, their psychiatric and medical history, family dynamics, discipline strategies, and more.
In some cases, the teen therapist may request a family session to discuss important topics or work out conflict with you, the teen, and (possibly) other family members present.
How Do You Ask Your Teen How Therapy Went? 5 Tips for Parents
What your teen talked about during a therapy session may not be disclosed to you by their therapist, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t ask your teen about it. It’s okay to show your support by asking your teen how therapy was—just like you would ask any other person you love.
However, it’s important that you talk to your teen about therapy in a way that makes them feel supported, and not pressured or judged. Here are 5 tips for parents.
1. Don’t pressure them
This may be the first time in their life that your teen has had their own space in which they can express themselves. No matter how supportive you are as a parent, this space needs to be honored. Don’t pressure your teen or try to force your way into this sacred therapy space.
Most parents know this, but still may find themselves feeling so curious about what their teen is talking about with their therapist that they become frustrated. This is completely —you’re the parent, and you want what is best for your child.
At the same time, pressuring your teen to talk about therapy will only drive them further away. Let them know that you’re there for them if they do want to talk, and trust that their therapist will consult with you if your teen is in any way a danger to themselves or others.
2. Keep the questions vague
Asking about specifics may seem to your teen like you’re fishing for information. Instead, focus on what’s really important to you—which, for most parents, is how your teen is feeling.
For example, instead of asking, “Did you tell your therapist about getting suspended from school?” or “What did your therapist say about your breakup?” ask them:
“How do you feel now, versus before you had therapy?”
“What’s one big takeaway you got from today’s session?”
“How do you feel about your next session?”
These types of open questions may also elicit a deeper response from your teen than simply asking, “How did it go?” Asking questions about therapy will also let your teen know that you’re interested, and that they’re welcome to talk to you about their therapy experience if they wish to do so.
3. Be okay with family secrets getting spilled
Some parents may also worry that their teens are spilling family secrets to their therapists. You might prefer to keep certain things quiet or “within the family” and feel uncomfortable with the idea that an outsider may find out about them. For example, maybe you don’t want anybody to know that your other child has a problem with substance use or that you and your partner are having conflicts.
This is understandable, especially given that many of us were raised with the idea that certain things should be kept between family members only. At the same time, your teen cannot heal from whatever they’re going through if their topics of conversation are limited. They need to be able to share anything that may be affecting their mental health—which sometimes might include things you’d personally rather keep private.
Learn to accept the fact that your teen may be sharing these things with their therapist. Remember that the therapist’s role isn’t to judge your family or to blame you (or any other family member) for your teen’s struggles. By sharing openly with their therapist, your teen can process how all of their experiences have impacted them. This, in turn, can lead to healing.
4. Directly express your support
Don’t assume that your teen knows you want to support them. Teens can make many assumptions, especially if they experience something like depression or anxiety that can affect their thinking patterns.
Express your support directly and explicitly. Make sure your teen knows that you are there for them to talk about their therapy session, or anything else, if they need you.
For example, you might say something like “The time you have with your therapist is really important, and I don’t want to push my way in. But if there is ever anything you want to talk over with me, or anything I can do differently in order to support you, please let me know. I love you and I want to support you.”
5. Don’t talk to the therapist behind your child’s back
Lastly, don’t try to get information about your child’s therapy sessions by talking to their therapist behind their back. First of all, if there’s a confidentiality agreement in place, then the therapist may not be able to ethically reveal any information.
Secondly, going behind your teen’s back can break the trust you have with them. They may feel like you and their therapist are plotting against them, and it’s critical that they feel that their therapist is in their corner.
This includes things like talking to the therapist about your teen’s behaviors. It’s completely okay to be concerned and want to express those concerns to the therapist to make sure they’re getting the full story—but your teen needs to be included in those conversations.
Instead of going behind your teen’s back, talk to them directly. Let them know that you are going to set up an appointment with their therapist for all three of you together so you can better support them.
Our clinical team at Idaho Youth Ranch involves parents in teen mental health treatment whenever it’s safe and appropriate to do so. You are already in your teen’s corner—and our therapists can become another supportive member of their team. Learn more about how Idaho Youth Ranch can support your teen.