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What to Do When Your Child Refuses Therapy?

Black child with both hands showing thumbs down.

Many parents have come across the issue where they feel like their child could benefit from therapy, but their child refuses to go. In Ontario, if a child appears to have the capacity to consent to treatment (there is not specific age for this – at least coming from a social work perspective), then they have the right to consent or refuse counselling services. In this article I want to discuss what you can do as a parent to support your child if this is the case.

  1. Open discussion about emotions: Often, emotions are something that are not discussed between family members. If you have a youth who struggles to open-up, it can be helpful to start small discussions about feelings. I would encourage people to have this be an entire family shift, versus just having the child discuss their emotions. When starting this, it’s important to not have all the discussions be about negative emotions, or how their behaviour affected you. It’s important to approach their emotions with curiosity and understanding.

  2. Educate yourself on emotions and mental health: Its important for your youth to understand what is happening for them, and for them to feel comfortable about receiving help, it’s important for you to also understand what is happening.

  3. Get help for yourself around your emotions and parenting: Mental health is a complex issue, and it can be difficult to know the appropriate way to respond to problems. If your youth is refusing to get support, it can be helpful to learn about different ways that you can respond more effectively to their emotions and behaviours. Caregivers often have their own history with emotions that may block them from responding in a helpful manner. Through parent counselling you can better understand the role you are playing in the family dynamic and make shifts that could alter the way things are going. By doing this, you are also highlighting to the youth that the entire family is going to seek support versus just them being the one that needs to change. From the many years I have worked with youth, I have found the focus on “family change” to be one of the most effective strategies to help shift the blame off of individual.

  4. They may not have found the right support: Not every therapist is going to be the right match for your child. Sometimes it may take a few therapists before your child can find someone, they feel comfortable talking with. Some youth prefer to talk to a younger counsellor who may better understand technology and social media. Some may prefer a counsellor who is of a similar sexuality or race. Others (especially younger kids) may want the sessions to be centered on an activity (art, dance, horseback riding, music, or games).

  5. Be patient: if your child is not ready to admit that they need help it can be a scary time for a parent. It’s important to give your youth time to get used to the idea of support, and really try to understand what support might look like to them. Often, refusal for help, or only showing the emotion of anger is your youth’s way of hiding the shame they carry for what they are dealing with. Many times, you must start where they are at and gradually increase the support. They may not accept therapy but may be open to the idea of getting a diagnosis from a doctor, reading a book, or attending a self-esteem group for teens.

At the end of the day, it can be just as damaging to force someone into counselling when they are not ready. If someone you love is at a danger to themselves or others, it’s always encouraged to seek professional in any capacity because this trumps their ability to make their own decisions.

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