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Being a teenager has never been harder. Around one in seven adolescents globally experience mental health conditions, yet these often remain undiagnosed and untreated. The numbers are so alarming that it is important to ask why teens are not getting therapeutic help when required. For many teens, it is difficult to approach the subject of mental health and therapy with their parents or family members.
Teens may find it hard to talk to their parents about mental health issues that are common in their age group, such as depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bullying, loneliness and anxiety. This could be due to a number of reasons. Some find it hard to admit to their parents how they have been feeling due to cultural stigma, while others may worry that they will be disappointed or angry. Many fret that their parents won’t understand, or even believe them. Another fear is that their parents won’t support them in seeking therapy.
How to tell your parents you need a therapist
You can emotionally and mentally prepare yourself for having this difficult conversation with your parents. We urge all teenagers to talk to someone about how they feel, whether it is with a parent, a family member, or even a trusted adult such as a school counselor. This is a mature decision and a great first step that you should be proud of. You know your feelings and experiences better than anybody. Here are some tips on how you can have this conversation with your parents and broach the topic of therapy.
Organise your thoughts
Sometimes when we are preparing to have a difficult conversation, we seem to forget all of our well-thought-out reasons or examples due to nervousness. The anxiety of talking about the issues that we’re facing can be overwhelming. Organising your thoughts beforehand can be a useful strategy for feeling more confident before going into the discussion. Try writing down your reasons and experiences so you have something to refer to if you get stuck. You could even try practising the conversation ahead of time. The mental health app Wysa has several tools such as Find Perspective, Empty Your Mind, Manage Anxiety, Sooth your Mind and Inner Strength, which may help you prepare yourself better. These tools are based on guided mindfulness practices that help you cultivate strengths, become self-aware, feel grounded, in control and emotionally regulated to be able to think clearly.
Timing is everything
When you talk to your parents, consider what they’re doing at that moment. If they are rushing to the office or absorbed in work, they are less likely to be in the right mindset to listen. Choosing a time when they are free and without too many distractions will help you have a productive and well-thought-out discussion. Quiet time together such as going for a walk or having a cup of tea is a great starting point.
Try to be comfortable
You don’t have to tell your parents at the same time. If you find it easier to speak to one parent first, that’s okay too. You might even find it easier to have a conversation whilst doing something, to avoid the feeling of being observed. For example, cooking together or walking the dog are both great settings for talking to your parents.
Increase awareness in your parents
Remember, being a teenager today is completely different from what it was in your parents’ time. They didn’t have to contend with social media or online bullying. Coping strategies like self-harm were far less common than they are now. This difference in personal life experiences can make your parents react with shock and fear. Often, when teens tell parents about their depression or other mental health concerns, they either assume the worst or don’t take into account the severity of the experience. So it can be helpful to explain the severity of your experiences, how they make you feel, or even to direct your parent to research and resources on therapy.
Discuss the cost of therapy
When discussing your desire to see a therapist, there are a few key things to remember. Many countries, including the UK and the US, offer free mental health resources for young people. These can be accessed by a referral from your GP, and your parent can help you make an appointment. However, in many other countries, therapy has to be paid for, and even in countries where there are services available, many young people won’t meet the threshold for professional counselling.
In these circumstances, it is important to have an open conversation with your parents about the cost of therapy. You may need to tell your parents to help you look at the family’s insurance policies to see if they cover mental health. They may not be able to afford professional fees, in which case it can be helpful to look into other options available, such as a guidance counsellor at school or college, counselling offered by local charities and free helplines.
Online counselling is also an excellent option as it is comparatively more convenient and more affordable. With the consent of your parents, you can also try finding a good therapist online. However, it’s important to check the credibility of the online therapy platform beforehand and pick one that offers the most secure and affordable options.
Slip a note if talking seems difficult
Sometimes initiating a face-to-face talk about wanting to seek mental health support with your parents may feel like the hardest part. The best option then is to leave a note for them to read and get back to you to start a conversation.
The content of the note may include details of how you are feeling lately or the areas in which you are struggling, for example, academics, sleep, friendships etc. In case you struggle to give words to your feelings, the feelings wheel is one of the most helpful resources to access the vocabulary of emotions.
Watch movies about mental health concerns with your parents
Movies are a great resource and can be an effective ice-breaker. Watching movies that present mental health issues with your parents can set the reference point for you to sit and talk to them. Discussing the movie can help them get a better understanding of mental health and the context to your problems. You can pick up an example from the film and relate it to your life. For instance, movies like A Beautiful Mind, Dear Zindagi and Perks of Being a Wallflower represent mental health conditions.
Be prepared that your parents might not support your decision
Sometimes, our family members or caregivers may not agree with our need to see a therapist because of their apprehensions. The stigma attached to it is so high that it can make anyone feel afraid. Their reasons could include their biases, prejudices and beliefs which make it difficult for them to decide. Or maybe the mental space they are in at the moment may not allow them to think reasonably or empathetically, and therefore resist your decision. Remember, it has nothing to do with you and doesn’t make what you are going through any less important.
What can you do if your parents are not supportive?
Do not internalise their lack of support
Often, when the adults around us do not support what we feel, think or need, we start to doubt our own experiences and self. Remember that it is not a reflection of your worthiness to receive help. Do not minimise your difficulties just because the person you rely on the most for your needs is not supportive. Remember you are worthy of getting support for your concerns and deserve to feel heard and seen.
Talk to someone you trust
It could be your friends, a teacher with whom you feel safe, a school counsellor or a trusted adult, such as your mentor in school or someone in your family and community. Sometimes talking about what is bothering you to a person you trust can be transformative. All you have to do is ask them to sit and listen to you uninterruptedly and validate that whatever you are going through is difficult. Allowing yourself to trust whatever you are going through is real enables you to then deal with it effectively.
Going through mental health problems all alone is scary. Having just one person whom you can trust and talk to, and who can make you feel seen and heard can make a significant difference. Engage in conversation around these concerns with people, and it may answer questions you could be wondering about. This will help you realise that you are not alone and spark hope.
Consider seeking self-help resources
It’s important to understand yourself and track your mood. You can find many online tools which may help you to learn more about why you are feeling the way you are, and some self-help tips to help improve your mood and work towards your goals. Digital tools can’t always help with severe feelings of depression. However, they do make great listeners, and you never know, you might just learn a new skill that helps you to get back to feeling like yourself again.
⚠️If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, help is at hand. Please visit this list of helplines and resources for different countries.
Frequently asked questions
Do I have to tell my parents that I want to go to therapy?
Yes, therapy as a process includes engaging in conversation with a professional and sharing all your ugly, vulnerable, pleasant and unpleasant experiences and emotions. Although the professional does not tell your parent what you talk about in a session, they do need parental consent for safety, and security protocols, especially if you are legally a minor. Counselling and therapy are mental health interventions by a trained professional, and can’t be offered without the consent of the parent.
What should I do if I am too embarrassed to ask for help?
Remind yourself that it is not your fault that you are struggling with concerns that teens usually experience. All of what you are going through is real and difficult. Asking for help may feel scary at first, but you don’t have to go through it alone. It is not a sign of weakness. Acknowledge that you are worthy of support and that asking for help gives others the opportunity to serve you. Embarrassment is an emotion which is a reflection of how you may be seeing yourself. One step towards asking for help may enable you to work around this emotion and your self-image.
What kind of resources are available for teens?
Young Minds UK is an informative website where you find resources like books, articles, training materials, other young people’s stories of challenges, advice etc.
Wysa is an app where you can talk to a clinically safe artificial intelligence bot, access various self-help tools, and also book a session with a trained mental health coach.
The Youth Mental Health Project is a website providing information on crisis helplines, mental health resources for youth and families. It also contains articles and podcasts.
The Trevor Project is an online community and safe space for LGBTQ youth between 13-24 years old. It has members across the world and offers advice, information and support.
YouthLine is a US-based youth crisis and support service that connects young people between the ages of 11-20 years with trained teen and adult volunteers via call, text and online chat.Crisis Text Line provides free 24/7 mental health support and crisis intervention in the US, UK, Canada and Ireland via WhatsApp and text.
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Photo by Julia M Cameron