My Child Refuses Therapy But They Need Help. What Now?

As a parent, it can be an incredibly difficult and sometimes terrifying experience to see your child emotionally hurting.  You might start noticing little changes at first.  Maybe they're starting to miss school, grades are slipping, arguing, crying or isolating, or maybe lacking motivation to do the things they used to enjoy.

However, sometimes these little changes turn into big problems.  School may now be calling saying your child is failing or not showing up.  Perhaps they've been getting in fights.  Maybe they're refusing to leave their room.  Or maybe, in worst cases, they are engaging in self-harm or have suicidal thoughts.

You see these small changes turn into big ones, and you suggest to your child they get therapy.  They outright refuse.  This could be a parent's nightmare.  Your child is struggling, you feel like you can't help them, and they refuse to help themselves. 

What do you do to get them the help they need?

First, here are a few reasons children, particularly teenagers, may be hesitant to try therapy.

  • They don't want to tell all their deepest thoughts to someone they never met.
  • Therapy makes them feel interrogated as opposed to having a real conversation.
  • They want to save face by not accepting help so they can try to solve the problem on their own (which, in some cases, they cannot).  Seeking help is interpreted as a sign of weakness.
  • Going to therapy may be interpreted that they are broken.  They may think "If I'm broken, there is no point in trying to fix me.  I'm just messed up and that's how it is."
  • Poor past experiences in therapy or with adults in positions of authority.

Those are just a few reasons.  So how do you respond to your child if they refuse therapy but you know they need help?  Let's assume you've taken necessary precautions, and the house is safe from objects that could harm oneself or others.  Here are some ideas:

  • Listen, listen, listen.  Try not to lecture or tell them what they are going through.  Validate, be non judgmental, and be accepting.
  • Do not try to fix the problem.  Unless the issue has a direct solution like they can't do their homework because their computer is broken and they didn't want to tell you.
  • Resist the urge to hover or crowd your child with "please talk to me," "I can tell something is wrong, just tell me," "You need to stop this and tell me right now what's going on."  Instead of this simply offer your hand and let them know that they can come to you if and when they want to talk.
  • In my opinion, the two most powerful phrases one can say to another is "I love you" and "I am here for you."  Let your child know these things.  You don't need to repeat them everyday.  But make sure you tell them so they hear you.
  • If they do not want therapy yet, come to an agreement with your child so you can know they are safe.  "You don't have to tell me everything, but can you send me a text everyday to let me know you're okay."  
  • When they are ready for therapy, sit down and look for a therapist together online using psychologytoday.com or simply do a web search for counselors in your area.
  • Scheduling an appointment without your child's approval is NOT recommended.

These are just a few things to consider, and it is by no means a full list of ways to respond, but hopefully this will provide you a starting point.  One very important thing to remember is:

Therapy can only begin with the individual is ready.

Therapy, especially for a teen, can be a new and scary thing to begin.  Give them time, make sure they are safe, let them know you are there for them, and when they are ready find a therapist together.  Remember, although therapy can be scary or not always fun, the benefits your child can get from it are incredible.