Working with Your Teen and Your Teen’s Therapist
When your teen starts working with a therapist, it can be a confusing time. You might wonder how therapy will work, when you will get updates, and whether you can talk to your teen’s therapist. You may want to make sure that the teen is working on things that you are seeing as their challenges. Your teen may talk to you about what they work on in therapy, or they may give you little to no details. Sitting with the unknown can be uncomfortable. You likely want your teen to be safe and happy, and it can be hard to balance these desires with not knowing exactly what is going on in therapy.
Setting Expectations for Communicating with Your Teen’s Therapist
The therapist is there to support and help your teen. Your teen’s therapist should talk with you about the guidelines and boundaries at the beginning of therapy. At the intake, we recommend asking the therapist questions like, “What is the best way to communicate with you, and what happens when I have questions about what is going on in session?” At WBMA, we have a confidential messaging system that we recommend using for anything that contains private and specific information. Your teen’s therapist can always receive information from you, and actively listen. However, the therapist is limited to what they will share out of respect for your teen’s confidentiality. Of course, if your teen shares a safety concern, you will be contacted right away and appropriate recommendations will be made. Otherwise, we’ll likely talk with your teen about what they're comfortable with us sharing, particularly if there is something we think you should know that is not safety related, and we’ll share more generally about themes we are covering in therapy (like friendship struggles, self-esteem, etc.). If there’s something your teen wants your help working on at home, we’ll make sure you know about that too!
The therapeutic alliance between the therapist and client (in this case, the teen) is the most important factor in predicting a successful therapeutic outcome. If a teen feels they cannot trust their therapist, it will be difficult to make progress. So, if a parent is consistently contacting the therapist about what they believe the teen should work on, or telling the teen what they should work on, the teen may feel ganged up on and may feel like the therapist has an agenda. It is important for the therapist to meet your teen where they are, and for your teen to feel they have a certain level of autonomy and the ability to guide the session. Most of the time, teens have things they want to focus on, and often, these things align with or underlie concerns shared by parents.
Also, it generally takes about six sessions to develop a foundation of rapport. During this time, sessions are spent building the therapeutic alliance and doing activities that facilitate the therapist’s basis of knowledge about the teen.
“Did You Talk About…?”
This is a question therapists often receive after the session. Your teen’s therapist may not confirm or deny what was said in the session, to ensure your teen’s confidentiality. Maintaining confidentiality with your teen is important, and it protects the therapeutic relationship. A teen must feel like they have a safe space to discuss what is going on for them in order to open up in therapy. So again, the therapist will generally share overall themes and topics with parents, but the specifics of the teen’s session will remain confidential.
Ready, Willing, and Able
While you may see something your teen can work on in therapy, the most important piece is that your teen has to be ready, willing, and able to talk about the topic. Working on change takes time, especially if the goal is to change something that has been occurring for some period of time. We often remind clients that if they have been practicing something one way for years, it will take more than a few sessions to “undo” or change this way of thinking and behaving.
How the Parent Can Help
Let your teen go through the first several sessions of rapport building before asking them specific questions about what they are talking about in therapy. After several sessions, let your teen know that you would like to get an update from their therapist and ask the teen if they want to be present for the conversation.
When you have a conversation with your teen’s therapist, let your teen know ahead of time that the conversation will be happening. Hear your teen’s concerns and see if they have anything they want you to share. Help them feel like they are part of the process. Letting the teen know that they have a say, and even decision making power about their engagement, is empowering and helpful.
If you do feel like it is important to share something that you would like the therapist to discuss with your teen, it is usually most helpful to let your teen know, and give your therapist permission to bring it up with the teen in session.
“I want to tell you about x, but don’t tell my teen I told you.”
Sometimes parents want to share something with their teen’s therapist, but they do not want the therapist to share with the teen that they are aware of this information. This creates a tough situation for everyone. The parent may feel relief immediately, but then what? The therapist knows information about the teen, but cannot address it and also has to make sure they don’t slip up and share what they know. And the teen has no awareness that their therapist knows something about them, which means it can’t be addressed directly in session.
Some alternatives include the parent bringing the concern to their own therapy, or sitting with the discomfort of not knowing specifics of their teen’s therapy even if it is really challenging to do so. This is a great opportunity for parents to model self awareness for teens, to demonstrate that they can accept help if necessary, and to acknowledge their own need for growth.
Parent coaching is another option that can help parents support their teens. Maybe you are having a really tough time with your teen at home. Maybe communicating is a constant challenge. Maybe your team slam doors in your face every time you reach out to them. Maybe you are unsure of how to set limits around social media and screen time. Maybe you are worried that your child is engaging in unsafe behaviors. It is most important, regardless of the concern, to meet your teen where they are, to offer emotional attunement and coregulation, and to create a space where conversations can safely occur, without judgment or punishment. To learn how to do this or how to tweak what you are already doing to meet the specific needs of your unique teen, you might consider parent coaching, a service provided at WBMA. Parent coaching is an opportunity for parents to learn more about affirming and validating approaches to working with teenagers. Teens face an abundance of questions and challenges, from school to sports to relationships to questions about their identity, just to name a few.
It can be really tough to acknowledge that your teen is growing up, becoming more independent, and beginning to lead their own lives. This may even include sharing things in therapy that you might not know about. As hard as this is, it is natural and healthy. When entering into a therapeutic relationship, it is important to establish an understanding of boundaries and expectations from the beginning to help navigate the process. Remind your teen that you want what is best for them, and that you are trying to support them. You can certainly suggest to your teen something to bring up in therapy if you noted something important, while also giving them space and trust that they’ll engage in the process in the way they need it most. You can reach out to the therapist as well, and the therapist can listen, but may not always provide you with the answers you are seeking. Help protect the therapeutic relationship that the teen and therapist are building by including the teen in conversations you have with the therapist. It is also ok to acknowledge that you, as a parent also, need support.
If you are interested in exploring therapy for your teen, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bridget Dromerick, LGPC
Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor