One of the questions I get asked most often by parents this time of year is “how do I know if my kid needs therapy?” It’s a valid question, especially considering the ups and downs most tweens and teens experience on what can feel like a daily basis. Some of those mood swings are developmentally appropriate and do not mean that a therapist’s intervention is required. Here is a list of things to keep in mind if you’re deciding whether or not to seek some professional help for your teen:
- They ask for it. Seems pretty obvious, yes, but I’ve seen quite a few teens who tell me they had been asking to see a therapist for awhile, with parents’ sheepishly agreeing and giving excuses like, “well I thought she was just being dramatic” or “I thought it was a phase and he’d get over it.” The stall tactic does work sometimes; our profession jokes about something called “wait list therapy,” meaning that the problem a parent was initially seeking help for resolved in the weeks (or unfortunately sometimes months) that they were waiting for an opening to become available. However, I’ve seen too many kids who would have greatly benefited from therapy much sooner if their mom or dad had only listened to their initial cries for help.
- Whatever symptoms they are experiencing are getting in the way of their typical functioning. If they can’t get out of bed for school, if they’re failing classes when once they were a good student, if they drop out of once loved activities, if they’re not sleeping much because their worries are so intense, these are all reasons to seek therapy for your child. Whatever the symptoms might be have gotten bigger than they can manage, and they need some professional intervention and support to help them get the symptoms back to a more manageable level.
- They’ve been acting out of character for awhile. Usually 2-4 weeks or more. If they’ve become really secretive all of the sudden, or there has been a dramatic shift in their angry outbursts, they stop eating meals with the family, or you catch them crying more frequently, these can all be typical changes we see in adolescence, or it could be a sign of something more serious. Use your intuition. If something seems off, it probably is.
- You see any signs of self-harm. Scratches or cuts on their arm that weren’t there before are always concerning and you should get them in to see someone as soon as possible. During the winter months it’s often easier for kids to hide any self-imposed cuts or scratches because they’re always wearing long sleeves or shorts, so make sure to (as casually as possible) check out their forearms or find an excuse to look at their legs every once and awhile.
If you’re in the position of dragging your child to therapy and you aren’t sure how to convince them this could be helpful, I usually encourage parents to ask them to attend 3 sessions. A skilled therapist will often have some luck in building rapport and can help them see the benefit of having an impartial confidant. If after 3 sessions they still hate it and don’t want to do it anymore, then fine. At least they tried it. And then you as the parent should keep going to learn strategies for how best to respond to what’s going on.