Getting Resistant Teens with ADHD to Attend Therapy Sessions

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

When your teenager is struggling, you naturally want to do everything that you can to help them. For many teens with ADHD, that means working with a therapist as part of their treatment plan. But what can do you do as a parent if you know that your teen needs therapy, but they refuse to attend sessions? How can you get them the help they need if you can’t even get them into the therapist’s office in the first place?

 

It’s very common for teenagers with ADHD (and teenagers without ADHD for that matter) to be resistant to the idea of working with a therapist. There isn’t usually one single factor driving the resistance, and the underlying reasons vary from teen to teen, but there are usually some similar themes. For starters, some teens are generally opposed to anything that they perceive as being their parents’ idea. They want to be in control of their own decisions, and they certainly don’t want to do something just because their parents tell them it’s in their best interest. For teens with ADHD who have a history of Oppositional Defiant Disorder, this reason alone may be why they are refusing treatment. Other teens don’t want to meet with a therapist because they have misconceptions about what therapy is, or they view therapy as a sign that there is “something wrong with them.” While this line of reasoning may not be accurate, it can be hard for parents to convince their teen to change their point of view. Lastly, there are some teens who worry that the therapist won’t be able to help them and sessions will be a waste of time, and others who fear feeling uncomfortable in sessions if they are asked to discuss things they would rather avoid.  

 

So, as a parent, what should you do? With any one of the scenarios above, how do you convince your teen to go to therapy? And if you succeed in getting them to see a therapist, how do you make sure that your teen will cooperate once they are in the session? There is no easy one-size-fits-all solution here, but there are a few strategies that may help.  

 

  1. Approach the situation from the teen’s point of view. When it comes to getting your teen to go to therapy sessions, talking to them about the reasons why you think they need treatment is not going to work. Instead, look at the situation from the teenager’s point of view. Think about the things that are most important to them, and which of those things may not be going very well right now. Maybe they can’t participate in extracurricular activities because of poor grades, are struggling with friendships, are worried that they won’t get into college, or are tired of arguing with their parents all the time. Whatever it is, talk to them about how therapy can help improve these aspects of their lives.

 

  1. Engage a respected peer or adult. Often teenagers are simply not in a mental space where they are able or willing to hear what their parents are saying to them. No matter what their parents say, they refuse to listen. To really get through to your teen, they may need to hear about the benefits of therapy from a respected peer or adult in their life. Ideally, this person will have had experience with therapy themselves and can talk about their experience. Sometimes it just takes the right messenger to get a teenager to listen.
  2. Provide incentives. If all else fails, consider providing incentives or rewards for your teen if they attend therapy sessions. Remember that the primary goal at this stage is to get your teen into treatment. If incentives, either in the form of privileges (e.g. a later curfew on the weekends) or tangible rewards (e.g. gift cards or money toward a big-ticket item that they would like to buy), do the trick, then it may be a short-term solution that ultimately gets them one step closer to accepting the help that they need.

 

When you succeed in getting your child to attend therapy sessions, try not to worry too much about how they behave once they are actually in the room. It can be frustrating to think that your teen may be “wasting” valuable time and money by not giving 100%, but as a parent, there really isn’t much you can do to control what your teen does during therapy sessions. Fortunately, good therapists who have experience with adolescents can form close bonds with even the most resistant teens. The best thing you can do as a parent is research therapists ahead of time and find one who seems like they will be a good fit for your teen. If, after a couple of months, the therapist and teen tell you that your teen isn’t participating in sessions, then it may be time to look for a new therapist. In the meantime, do what you can to get your teenager into the therapist’s office, and then let the therapist take the lead from there.


 

ABOUT DR. MARY ROONEY

Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.

ABOUT HUNTINGTON

Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit www.huntingtonfranchise.com.

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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