What Parents Should Know About Teen Counseling

How Therapy Can Help Your Teen

Girl talking to a counselor

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What Is Teen Counseling?

Teen counseling is a therapeutic approach specifically for teens. With counseling, teens participate in talk therapy in a safe environment with a mental health professional with the aim to better understand and express their feelings, identify and solve problems, and develop healthy coping mechanisms. Counseling can be in the form of one-on-one talk therapy sessions or group therapy.

Having your teen talk to a skilled therapist can support and help them through this crucial period of their life.

When Does a Teen Need Counseling?

Therapy can support your teen through a variety of things, such as self-discovery, stress, life events, or mental health issues. Therapy can also be used to prevent minor issues from turning into problems later on.

Sometimes, even just a few therapy sessions can make a big difference to your teen’s overall well-being. Common reasons and conditions for which teens attend counseling include:

If your teen is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

What Are the Types of Teen Counseling?

There are many different types of counseling for teens. Depending on the issue, a therapist may recommend a combination. Among the common therapy types used for teens are:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): Often used for teens with anxiety, depression, or trauma, a therapist specializing in CBT will help your teen identify harmful thought patterns and replace them with more positive ones.
  • Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT): DBT will help your teen take responsibility for and find healthier ways of coping with conflict and intense emotions. DBT is often used for teens who engage in self-harm, who are suicidal, and/or teens with borderline personality disorder (BPD).
  • Family therapy: Family therapy includes one or more members of the family, including parents, grandparents, and siblings. The goal of this type of therapy is to improve communication and support among family members.
  • Group therapy: In group therapy, multiple patients are led by a therapist. This approach can improve your teen's social skills and help them learn how other teens constructively cope with mental health issues.
  • Interpersonal therapy (IPT): Commonly used for people with depression, IPT focuses on a person's relationships, addressing relationship problems and how interpersonal events affect emotions.
  • Mentalization based therapy (MBT): MBT helps children and teens who are struggling with their identity and with who they are.
  • Supportive therapy: Supportive therapy helps teens address and cope with problems in a healthy way as well as improve their self-esteem.

Factors in Choosing a Therapist

There are a variety of therapists who work with teens so it’s helpful to know what to look for in finding the best fit. Here are important considerations when choosing a therapist.

Experience Working With Teens

Choose a therapist who has expertise and experience working with teens. Teens are unique; the problems they have and the way they deal with them are specific to their age group.

Search online for teen therapists in your area and carefully review their websites for information about how they work with teens and details about their practice. When possible, get referrals to a specific therapist that is recommended by another healthcare professional you trust.

Proper Credentials

In most cases, the therapist should be licensed. There are exceptions, such as a trained religious or drug counselor. Note, however, that insurance companies will usually only pay for sessions facilitated by a licensed mental health professional.

Therapeutic Approach

Consider the therapeutic approach and training of the therapist. There are many different ways to counsel teens. Familiarize yourself with the different approaches and make your choice based on the issues your teen is struggling with.

Personality and Rapport

Experience and credentials are important, but it’s usually the personality of a therapist and the therapeutic rapport that develops between the teen and therapist that is the most important factor of all. This relationship is ultimately the most critical factor in a therapist being able to successfully provide help to a teen.

In choosing a therapist, ask yourself which person is most likely to be able to bond with your teen. Pay close attention to your gut feelings in making your decision.

Think about the specific qualities your teen may need in a therapist:

  • Are they likely to respond best to someone who is direct and to the point, or to someone more nurturing and supportive?
  • Is there a preference for a male or female therapist?
  • Will they work better with someone young and energetic or benefit from an older therapist with more experience?

Questions to Ask a Potential Therapist

Interview potential therapists by e-mail, over the phone, or in a face-to-face meeting. Some therapists will conduct an initial consultation for free or at a reduced rate so you can meet them and have your questions answered. 

Asking the following questions will provide important information and give you a better sense of how the therapist will work with your teen to help facilitate positive changes:

  • What experience do you have with the particular problem my teen is struggling with?
  • How long have you been in practice?
  • Describe how you will work with my teen.
  • Will other family members be involved in the therapy process?
  • What license do you have and is it current?
  • How do you establish goals for therapy and measure progress?
  • Are you a member of a professional organization?
  • Can you explain the therapy approach you use?

After getting answers to these questions, consider how well the therapist has described their approach and how they come across in doing so. Ask yourself:

  • Does the therapist seem to know what they are talking about?
  • Do they seem to have genuine empathy for teens?
  • Are they patient in answering your questions?
  • How do you feel when talking to them?

How to Prepare

Your teen might be ready to meet with a therapist or they might be resistant to the idea of therapy. Either way, try to help them see that therapy is a collaborative effort. You might start by showing them the therapist's website, explaining what the therapist does and how they can help your teen.

You might say to your teen, "I know you've been struggling with your anxiety and this therapist has helped other people find helpful ways to cope." Explain to your teen that the therapist will ask them about school, friends, family, and other questions that will give the therapist a better picture of their life.

It's normal if your teen is nervous about going to therapy, especially if it is their first time.

Reassure them that they don't have to share anything they feel uncomfortable sharing. If they're not ready to talk about something, they don't have to—and the therapist shouldn't force them to.

Make sure your teen knows it's OK to say, "I don't know," or "I don't want to answer that." Knowing that they have power in the therapeutic relationship may help to relax your teen before the first session. It's important that they feel safe and supported throughout sessions. Over time, the goal is that they become more comfortable with the process. But there's no need to rush them.

Some therapists want to have an initial evaluation before prescribing long-term care. It's a good idea to speak to the therapist first and ask them for suggestions on how you and your teen can prepare. For instance, your therapist may ask to see report cards, notes from teachers, or other healthcare records.

What Results to Expect and How Long It Can Take

You, your teen, and the therapist will work together to establish treatment goals so that your teen's progress can be measured and you can track the results of therapy. How long it takes your teen to progress depends on their condition.

For instance, say your teen struggles with an eating disorder. One of their therapy goals might be to use healthy coping mechanisms (such as deep breathing or journaling) when they feel triggered to engage in disordered eating.

Or, maybe your teen is going to therapy to learn anger management strategies. Their progress may be measured by their behavior. Were they able to use tools they learned in therapy to calm themselves down instead of resorting to physical or verbal aggression?

Psychotherapy treatments commonly last for 12 to 20 weekly sessions. But many patients and therapists prefer to continue for a longer amount of time.

Some personality disorders or chronic conditions require a longer treatment duration. How long your teen is in therapy also depends on their individual preferences. Some people prefer to be in therapy to address a specific problem and move on, whereas others benefit from more consistent check-ins over a longer period of time.

A Word From Verywell

Ideally, your teen needs to be part of this process, even if you are the one encouraging them to try therapy. In most cases, it works well for parents to do the work of getting referrals and doing the initial screening. Then, provide this information to your teen and let them make the final decision. 

If, after a few sessions, the therapeutic relationship does not seem to be working out, it may be necessary to pick someone new. Many therapists are happy to refer you to another provider who may be a better fit for your teen.

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10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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