What to Do If Your Teen Refuses to Go to Counseling

Teen talking to a therapist
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Some teens are happy to go to therapy. They enjoy talking to an objective adult who can assist with some of their problems. But not all teens are on board with therapy, and convincing a reluctant teen to go to counseling can feel like an uphill battle.

The experience may leave parents asking questions like, Should I force my child to see a therapist? Can I bribe my kid to go? Should I just give up on the idea of therapy?

If you suspect your teen has a mental health problem, behavior disorder, or substance use issue, treatment is important. There are several things you can do to help your teen get the treatment they need.

Should You Force Your Teen to Get Treatment?

A teen who feels forced to get treatment isn’t likely to be motivated to change. So even if they get dragged to their appointments, they aren't likely to talk about their issues—at least not in a productive manner. 

That's not to say you shouldn't make it mandatory that your teen attend at least a few appointments.

Sometimes, a skilled therapist can help a teen feel more comfortable after a few sessions. And sometimes, a teen who tells you they hate therapy or that they don't need help might be talking openly to a therapist.

Your teen might just not want you to know that they actually like therapy.

Of course, there may be times when your teen needs help regardless of whether they agree. If they're at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, call 911 or take them to the emergency room. If they're engaging in risky behavior, treatment should be mandatory.

How to Bring Up the Subject With Your Teen

If you think your teen might need counseling, the way you bring up the subject is very important. The first conversation you have will likely set the tone for your teen's attitude about therapy.

It’s common for teens to be embarrassed by their problems and it can be hard for them to admit they need help. So it's important to avoid sending a message that could cause feelings of shame.

Don't imply your teen is crazy or that they're not smart enough to make good choices. Instead, share why you think counseling is important and how it could be helpful. Ask for input from your teen and be willing to listen to your teen's opinions.

Say something like, "I wonder if it would be helpful for you to have someone to talk to besides me." Or say, "I don't always know how to help you with problems so I wonder if it could be helpful for you to talk to someone who works with teens."

If you experience with therapy yourself, considering sharing that with your teen, which can normalize it and remove some of the stigma.

Talk to Your Teen's Doctor

Whether you are concerned about possible ADHD, or you think your teen may have depression, start by talking to your teen’s primary care physician. A doctor can assess your teen's needs and help determine whether they would benefit from counseling.

If further treatment is necessary, a doctor can identify the most appropriate services and treatment professionals for your child. Even if your teen isn’t willing to attend those services, understanding your options and resources is important.

Even if your teen isn’t willing to listen to your recommendations about how counseling can be helpful, they may be willing to listen to their doctor. Your child's doctor may be able to explain how counseling works and how treatment could address the symptoms.

Options for When Your Teen Refuses Counseling

If your teen refuses to go to counseling, don’t despair. You still have several options about how to get help.

  • Seek counseling on your own without your teen. Often, parent-training can be one of the most effective ways to help teens. A therapist may be able to teach you how to coach your child. If your teen knows you're going to counseling to talk about them, they might also be interested in going to share "their side" of the story.
  • Speak with your teen’s school guidance counselor. Discuss whether there are any services available within the school system to help your child. A teen who won't meet with a counselor outside of school may be willing to speak with a guidance counselor.
  • Create a contract with your teen. If it's a mild issue that you're concerned about, create a contract with your teen. Tell your teen that they have to go to a certain number of sessions before they can make a decision about whether to continue treatment. 
  • Consider online counseling. Sometimes, teens who won't speak to someone face-to-face will consider talking to a therapist online. Online treatment isn't appropriate for every condition so it's important to talk to a therapist or your teen's physician about the potential pros and cons before you begin treatment. 

By Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a licensed clinical social worker, psychotherapist, and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.