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Therapy

Why Parents Can't Force Teens to Open Up in Therapy

Respecting autonomy, and looking out for ulterior motives.

Key points

  • In the U.K., parents can decide that their teen should attend counselling, but it is far better for the child to be involved in the decision.
  • Insisting on therapy without the child’s cooperation may undermine the good that counselling can do.
  • Sometimes, what seems like agreement arises from ulterior motives.
Kindel Media | Pexels
Source: Kindel Media | Pexels

In one sense, attending counselling is a bit like going to school. Technically, in the U.K., the parent of a child under 16 can, indeed, "require" their child to attend counselling, just as the law determines that a child under 16 must attend school. But in neither case can the child be forced to derive benefit from being there.

So, the reluctant school attender can mess around, bunk off classes, and look at their phone instead of listening. The child unwilling to attend counselling can just as easily refuse to engage.

Of course, there are ways that talented therapists can cut through the resistance and tap into a child’s curiosity to bring them onside. But a young person may still resent the fact that they were forced by their parent into a course of action that they did not choose to take.

It is not surprising that a parent may be desperate to find help for their struggling child. Many therapists will have had a parent plead, “My child doesn’t want therapy. But I know they will change their mind if you see them just once!”

The Human Givens Institute recommends that, in such situations, it is best for the therapist to hold an initial discussion with both parent and child to explain what therapy from our approach means (helping children identify and meet their emotional needs, take new perspectives, and learn useful life skills) and leave the choice to the child (after asking the parent to leave the room or the call).

Even if a child does agree to attend therapy, it is not up to mum or dad to decide what they need to talk about. A colleague mentioned a worried mum who phoned her to ask her to see her 13-year-old daughter: “I need you to focus on reducing how much time she spends on her phone, establishing a sensible bedtime and helping her to see that her father [from whom mum was divorced] is not Mr. Wonderful and always right," the mum said. "But you can’t mention that I said any of this.”

My colleague gently had to inform her that this wasn’t how the process worked, and offered a session to mum instead, to look at more effective ways to deal with her own concerns about her child’s behaviour and attitudes.

Family therapist Miriam Chachamu, author of How to Calm a Challenging Child1 and creator of the Enjoy Your Children YouTube channel,2 is a firm believer in making the boundaries crystal clear and bringing the child alongside every step of the way:

"Sometimes a parent and a child have different goals for the therapy. I say to the parent, 'I have to go with your child’s goals. If yours are in there too, all is well and good, but that is not up to me, although, very often, different goals lead to the same outcomes.'

For instance, one family was worried about their child’s anxiety around school, which they thought was due to worry about not doing well enough. In fact, it turned out that the young person was confused about their sexuality, which affected their behaviour at school and how they related to others. When we had worked through this, in confidence, the anxiety levels dropped and everything improved, including performance."

Consent is a tricky issue. I am reminded of a client of my own from some years ago—not a child but a 23-year-old man called Rob. He was in a deep depression, had stopped working, and was spending all his time on his own in his flat. His worried mother had contacted me, asking me to see him. She was paying.

Rob duly arrived. He was polite but lethargic. I explained depression to him and the ways out of it, which always involve meeting unmet emotional needs and engaging in life again. We looked at ideas for his future. He would agree to take on simple "homework," such as going for two local bike rides before our next appointment, and would report next time that he hadn’t done it. He found the guided visualisation3 we did pleasant enough but whatever positive actions I encouraged him to imagine taking didn’t have any lasting effects.

I was perplexed until it emerged that he had no interest in receiving therapy. He had agreed to see me purely because his parents were helping him with the bills at his flat and he didn’t want to annoy them.

Many young people may also "agree" to therapy for ulterior motives—such as not getting nagged at home or the promise of a new video game. Very often, even in such circumstances, there can be a great breakthrough with the right sort of therapy, and life-changing things happen.

But it is so much better if a young person’s autonomy is respected, whatever their age, and they can genuinely be brought on board at the outset.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock.

References

1. Chachamu, M (2008). How to Calm a Challenging Child. Foulsham Press.

2. Enjoy Your Children YouTube channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC10TzjEUSOCkAGASIZLns4A

3. www.humangivens.com/college/guided-imagery-and-visualisation-workshop/

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