Therapy for Teens
The teenage years are a mix of excitement and difficulty. There are many developmental changes happening in the brain and body and there are also social and academic changes which lead to increased pressures to fit in and perform.
One of the greatest developmental tasks for an adolescent is establishing an identity and developing independence. As peer relationships take priority, family tensions develop and the increasing pressure to fit in can lead to stress.
Common Life Challenges Among Teens
While some changes and difficulties are to be expected, some are a cause for concern. See the chart below to better understand what changes are typical and which are a cause for concern.
|Typical||Not Typical: Cause for Concern|
|Increased Moodiness||Intense, painful, long-lasting moods; risky mood dependent behaviour, depression or panic attacks; self-injury or suicidal thinking|
|Increased self-consciousness, feeling like everyone is focusing on them, increased focus on body image||Social phobias or withdrawal; perfectionism and unrealistic standards; bingeing , purging, or restricted eating; obsessive about or neglectful of hygiene|
|Increased dawdling (procrastination, slow to get going)||Multiple distractions to point of not being able to complete homework or projects, lack of focus that interferes with daily work or tasks, regularly late for appointments|
|Increased parent-adolescent conflict||Verbal or physical aggression, running away|
|Experimentation with drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes’||Substance abuse, selling drugs, substance-using peer group|
|Increased sense of invulnerability (may lead to increased sensation seeking or risk taking)||Multiple accidents; encounters with firearms; excessive risk taking, getting arrested|
|Stressful transitions to middle and high school||School refusal; bullying or being bullied; lack of connection to school or peers; school truancy, failure, or drop out|
|Increased argumentativeness, idealism, and criticism; being opinionated||Rebellious questioning of social rules and conventions; causing trouble with family members, teachers, or others who attempt to assert authority over the adolescent|
This chart was adapted from DBT Skills Manual for Adolescents, by Jill H. Rathus and Alec L. Miller.
While each family’s values, cultural, and religious expectations impact what is considered acceptable, the chart above distinguishes typical behaviours from a cause for concern.
There are also some serious life challenges that impact teen’s mental health and well-being.
- Trauma – If a traumatic event is not processed, teens can go on to develop trauma related complications such at PTSD or other emotional and behavioral difficulties and problem behaviours in an effort to cope with the event and it’s effects. This can often look like the behaviours that are listed on the cause for concern area of the chart above. Events such as violence (bullying, assault), accidents, and natural disasters are traumas that can be common.
- Loss – Loss can come in the form of a death of a loved one, including a pet, and it can also come in the form of parental separation or divorce. A loss also happens when a family moves to a new location and the teen must go to a new school.
- Stress – A little stress is normal in life and can even be motivating. But too much stress can cause burnout at any age. Many teens face tremendous amounts of stress to do well in school, hold down a job, and be accepted by their peers. Developing strategies to manage stress can help teens cope.
This is not an exhaustive list of reasons why a teen may want to, or benefit from, speaking with a therapist. If you think your teen could benefit from therapy, please reach out to discuss your needs.
How Can Therapy Help?
When working with teens, the research suggests that teen therapy, parent therapy, and family therapy are effective in improving teen’s mental health and wellbeing.
These private, one-on-one sessions, typically begin with an assessment that provides the therapist with an understanding of what the teen is experiencing, their strengths and challenges and goals. Sometimes, parents are invited to participate in the assessment.
Following the assessment, the therapist develops a treatment plan drawing on evidence-based therapies that will be most suitable for the difficulties and goals that were outlined.
Strategies typically will provide various skills to regulate and understand the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviour.
A heavy focus of therapy initially is developing a trusting relationship with the therapist – this is essential for a teen to feel safe and comfortable during the therapeutic process.
Individual therapy will only be effective if a teen is willing to participate. In situations where a teen is not ready for therapy, it can be helpful for parents to participate in parent therapy to help their teens.
Parent therapy can be effective because it allows parents to receive support in supporting their teens. Let’s face it – children and teens don’t come with parenting manuals. As a parent, you have spent over a decade honing the craft of parenting a child and now your child has entered a new developmental stage requiring a whole new set of skills. It can be difficult to adjust and to know the right way to respond and support your teen. Often it can feel like nothing that you’re doing is right, no matter how hard you try. This is where parent therapy can help.
When parents work with a therapist they can learn skills to better support their teen and for parents who are divided in their strategy, a therapist can help them come together as a team.
Research shows that teens do much better when their parents are also receiving support. Please note that this support is best when it does not come from the teen’s therapist and from a separate parenting therapist.
Teens exist within various social contexts with one of the most significant influences being the family. Often during adolescence the family experiences quite a bit of conflict and family therapy can be helpful.
Family therapy can provide an opportunity for the entire family to receive support which can improve communication and create for a more respectful environment for everyone.
Family therapy can take place with different family dynamics including single parent families, blended families, and co-parenting dynamics. Family therapy can occur with only parents or also siblings. Each family dynamic is different and our intake and clinical staff can help you determine what will be best for your family.
Teen Therapy FAQs
What do I do if my teen does not want to participate in therapy?
We hear this frequently! There are many reasons for it – it can be related to a teen not being ready, feeling worried about what therapy will involve, or thinking that therapy is a punishment.
Having a conversation with your teen about the pros and cons of therapy and exploring some of their concerns can help. So can giving your teen a chance to participate in the quest for a therapist by allowing your teen to view therapist biographies and to attend consultations with the therapist to ask any questions they might have. This gives them some control and increase their comfort in participating in therapy.
Can I communicate with my teen’s therapist?
In order for therapy to work, your teen needs to feel comfortable speaking with them. It’s unlikely that they will speak candidly if they think that their parents and therapists are regularly communicating.
We appreciate that as a parent you may have questions and concerns about your child’s therapy and wellbeing. Please be assured that the therapist will be in touch if there are any safety concerns (harm towards self or others). Additionally, the therapist will be encouraging the teen to communicate with you about what they are learning and how you can support them. Aside from this, it is best if the therapist not communicate with the parent.
We’re happy to answer more questions about this.
If I can’t communicate with my teen’s therapist, how will they know what to work on?
Parents and guardians know their teens better than anyone else and their input is important. In most cases, parents and guardians will attend an initial appointment with the teen’s therapist to share their observations and understanding of their teen’s difficulties as well as essential background information. This will help the therapist conceptualize your teen’s difficulties and select an effective treatment plan.
Once a treatment plan is developed and initiated, it might be tempting to call the therapist or to provide email updates about difficulties or recent events. When this happens, it can divert the therapist and teen from their goals and treatment plan and reduce the effectiveness of the therapy. Additionally, this can lead to ruptures in the therapist-teen relationship.
If any significant life events occur such as an accidents, parent’s separation, suspension, etc. our recommendation would be to discuss this event with your teen and whether it would be helpful for them to process it in therapy.
The therapists at New Moon Psychotherapy are highly skilled and committed to using evidence-based therapies. They are also effective at engaging teens in the therapeutic process and will always be acting with your teen’s best interest in mind.