Teen Therapy: 4 Common Pitfalls and How to Troubleshoot Them

In an ideal world, after only a few sessions with a therapist, your child would emerge smiling and problem-free. But, of course, life rarely works that way.

Though therapy can be invaluable for a troubled child, it’s not without bumps in the proverbial road. Here, we name a few common problems and suggest ways to deal with them.

1. “My therapist understands me, and you never will.”

While it’s essential for a teen to feel a strong connection with a therapist in order for the therapy to be effective, the relationship can get too close. Sometimes the teen idealizes the therapist, demonizes the parents and tries to engage the therapist in an alliance against the parents, according to Dr. John Duffy, a psychologist with private practices in Evanston and Hinsdale.

How to respond: If your teen has engaged his or her therapist in an alliance against you and talking to the therapist doesn’t help, it may be time to make a change, says Dr. Diane Fisher, a psychologist with a private practice in Evanston. Try to include your teen and make it a collaborative decision. You might even try some other therapists before ending treatment, she recommends. But in the end, it’s up to the parent to make the final call.

2. “My therapist said I’m [insert mental disorder such as bipolar or OCD], so that’s why I can’t [insert goal].”

Teens sometimes use diagnoses as crutches, Duffy says. And some therapists have more of a tendency to diagnose than others. When this phenomenon occurs, the therapy, which should be empowering, can have the opposite effect.

How to respond: Remind your teen that “therapy is about learning how to take responsibility for yourself,” says Peggy Kubert, a licensed clinical social worker and executive director of Erika’s Lighthouse, a nonprofit dedicated to education on adolescent depression. Be clear that a diagnosis of a mental health disorder is like diabetes or anything else—it’s simply a condition the teen must learn to manage. It’s not an excuse.

3. “I have so many problems.”

Sometimes therapy can become too problem-centered and overly negative. Therapists forget to help teens take a broad view of themselves, which would also focus on their strengths.

How to respond:
Remind your child of his or her strengths, and look for ways to turn a trait identified as a negative into a positive. Therapists can work with you and your child to help identify such qualities.

If your child is already seeing a therapist and the therapy seems to be constantly negative, discuss your concern with the therapist, but don’t waste too much time before moving on, Fisher says. She recommends giving it a couple of months at most.

4. “But I don’t want to leave my therapist.”

In some cases, teens can become over-dependent on their therapists, especially if the therapist makes himself or herself available ’round the clock via phone and texting.

How to respond:
If your child seems over-dependent, stop, pull back and set limits. And enlist the therapist’s help to do this, Kubert suggests. If your teen’s therapy is ending, make yourself a little more available, and let your teen know that he or she can always talk to you.

This is the last installment in our three-week series on teenage mental health. We’ve also published:

For more information on understanding your teen, Dr. Bob Noone, executive director of the Family Service Center of Glenview, Kenilworth, Northbrook and Wilmette, recommends “Connecting with Our Children: Guiding Principles for Parents in a Troubled World” by Roberta M. Gilbert.


For a complete step-by-step guide on dealing with adolescent depression, download the free “Parent Handbook On Childhood and Adolescent Depression” from Erika’s Lighthouse.