Many parents struggle with teens who have emotional, behavioral, or substance abuse issues — like depression, anxiety, trauma, ODD, DMDD, ADHD, prodromal psychosis, or addiction. What makes it even harder is when these teens are reluctant to go to therapy or seek mental health/substance abuse treatment.
There are a number of reasons why teens can be treatment-resistant. They could say they don’t need the help. Or that therapy won’t help anyway. Whatever it is, they are absolutely refusing to go to treatment. You’ve tried rational explanations. Begging and pleading. Bribing them with things they want. Nothing is working. Your last resort is to force your teen to go to treatment – whether they like it or not.
Now, you’re just wondering if you can actually, legally force them to go.
Can I force my teen to get mental health or substance abuse treatment?
Whether you can actually force your teen to seek treatment depends on the type of treatment we’re talking about. And of course, the age of your child.
Let’s first talk about the latter. If your teen is over 18 – even a day past their 18th birthday – they are technically an adult. That means you cannot schedule an appointment on behalf of your teen. You cannot “force” your adolescent to sit in the therapist’s office. The therapist will not speak to your teen without their consent.
The same goes for a teen mental health or drug treatment center. Once your teen turns 18, they are technically not bound to you anymore, and you cannot legally bring them to mental health or substance abuse treatment without their consent.
If Your Teen is Under 18
If your child is a minor – meaning, under age 18 – then technically you can bring them to therapy against their will. You can call the therapist, give them information about your teen, schedule an appointment for them, and force your child to get in the car to go to treatment.
Teen residential treatment works similarly. If your child is under 18, you can physically escort your teen to a mental health or drug treatment center, even without their consent. In fact, in extreme cases, parents have hired transport services who come and bring the teen to treatment. Note: that these transport services are usually not affiliated with the treatment center but a separate company.
Some States Require Minor Consent
However, while technically you can drag your child into the mental health or drug treatment center kicking and screaming, keep in mind that some states require the minor to consent to treatment before it begins.
Every state is different with regards to minors and treatment. Laws vary based on the level of care you’re seeking, and the type of program, e.g. whether it’s a teen mental health treatment center, drug treatment program, dual diagnosis center, or detox facility. For example, many adolescent mental health treatment centers in California will ask the teen to sign a document indicating their consent to stay. The best thing to do is check in advance with the admissions team of the adolescent mental health or substance abuse program you’re considering for your teen.
Outcomes are Better When Teens are Willing to Stay
In any case, forcing your teen to go to treatment is not an ideal solution. If you force your teen into mental health treatment, you risk the chance that your teen will be so angry at being there that they will remain treatment-resistant. That means they may choose not to participate in group therapy, to stay silent during individual/family therapy sessions, or to act willfully against staff and others. In extreme cases, treatment-resistant teens might even run away from the mental health treatment center.
And in most cases, staff cannot restrain your child or physically prevent them from leaving. Unless it’s a locked facility, which has different rules and regulations regarding physical restraint of minors.
That’s why, if you decide your teen needs treatment, and even if your teen isn’t happy about it – they should still be willing to stay at the adolescent treatment center. Generally, outcomes are better when teens are willing to stay and engage in mental health or substance abuse treatment.
How to Secure Buy-In
Work on getting your teen’s buy-in by discussing the benefits of treatment. Listen empathetically to the reasons they don’t want to go to residential treatment or a partial hospitalization / intensive outpatient program. Read our article on common reasons why teens are reluctant to come to treatment, and how to respond to each concern. Additionally, some parents find it helpful to take away privileges as necessary (e.g. car, phone, etc.) if teens refuse treatment. Hopefully, your teen will come to a realization on their own that treatment can help them, and even if they aren’t thrilled about the idea of going to treatment, they might agree to try. Or, even if they need to be brought in by force, your teen should at least be willing enough to stay.