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Three Ways to Talk to a Treatment-Resistant Teen


If you’re a parent or caregiver of a teen with mental health, behavioral, and/or substance abuse issues, you might be pushing for them to seek professional treatment. However, as you’ve probably seen, this is easier said than done.

Evidence shows that most teens resist mental health or substance use treatment. Whether they refuse for practical reasons (they don’t want to miss school or leave their friends) or because they have preconceived notions (i.e. treatment is for everyone but them), convincing them to seek treatment can be difficult.

What Can You Do?

“Often times, teens feel stripped of their own control and agency, so resisting treatment is one way they can stay in the driver’s seat of their life, for better or for worse,” says Alexa Boffoli, LMFT, Clinical Program Director of Evolve Treatment Centers in Danville, California.

Even though refusing to go to treatment can be counterproductive, it still allows them to remain in control.

In order to elicit change or increase motivation to seek help, Boffoli offers three ways to talk to your teen about treatment. These are the same methods therapists use when dealing with treatment-resistant teens.

Top Three Ways to Talk to Treatment-Resistant Teens About Treatment

1. Ask questions from a non-judgmental point-of-view. In order to understand their resistance, ask your teen open-ended questions in a curious tone. Like this:

“Hmm, why do you think you won’t benefit from treatment?”

2. Explore what they do want to change. Give them a voice, and ask how they want to make things better, advises Boffoli. This sort of method is also known as change talk or motivational interviewing. For example, you might ask:

“What would you like to see different about your current situation?”                 

“What do you think will happen if things don’t change?” 

“If things were to change for the better, what would be different?”

3. Validate them. Validate and normalize how they feel. Going to treatment is nerve-wracking. It can be scary. “Reflect that making change is hard and scary and allow the conversation to be as collaborative as possible,” advises Boffoli. If you’re the parent of the adolescent, explain how you will also change and seek support while they’re in treatment. Tell them that you will go to parent support groups, Al-Anon meetings, one-on-one therapy, and family therapy sessions.

Avoid Getting Emotional

As always, remember to stay calm and clear-headed when discussing the idea of teen mental health or substance abuse treatment. If you find yourself getting angry, stop the conversation, give yourself time to cool off, and come back to it later.

Also read our article “Five Ways to Convince Your Teen to Go to Mental Health or Drug Rehab (When They Don’t Want To)

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