Advice For Teens And Parents: How to Make the Most of Your Counseling Experience
As a teenager, you’re juggling schoolwork, home life, relationships, extracurricular activities, perhaps anticipating the start of college. You’re discovering your identity, maybe thinking about deeper issues than you previously thought about during middle school. You’re also trying to navigate this new stage of your relationship with your parents – you’re not a child, but you’re not quite an adult yet and you’re wanting your parents’ support, but you’re also wanting more independence. Every stage of life has its unique challenges and joys, and adolescence is no exception.
In addition to experiencing the regular transitions and changes of adolescence, you’re also not feeling quite like your normal self. Maybe you or your parents noticed that you’ve been acting differently or that your mood has seemed more anxious, depressed, or irritable than usual, so you decided to see a counselor for some help. This article is for you and your parents/guardians.
Advice for Teens and Parents
I’ll provide 5 tips for you and your parents to help you make the most of your counseling experience:
1. Remember that reaching out for help is healthy.
For some reason, our society sends the message that it’s not okay to need help. But, you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t need help, because humans are naturally imperfect!We all need help in some way and when we do, it’s important to reach out to others for support. If you were physically sick and experiencing a high fever that wasn’t going away, your parents would take you to see a doctor. When you’re feeling mentally or emotionally sick for an extended period of time, it only makes sense to see a professional counselor that specializes in helping people to feel well mentally and emotionally.
As you participate in counseling, also remember that how you feel, whether happy, sad, angry, or scared, does not determine your value or worth. God says that you were created in His image, meaning you were created to take after Him, like a child takes after his parents (Genesis 1:27). You are loved, you are valuable, and God has a hopeful future planned for you (John 3:16, Jeremiah 29:11-13).
If you find yourself feeling depressed or more anxious than usual, that doesn’t mean that you’re any less valuable or worthwhile or wonderful than you were before. You’re not a failure if you feel emotionally “stuck.” Feelings are just emotional reactions – they’re a part of you, but they don’t have the power to determine who you are.
There are multiple factors (i.e., your thoughts, behaviors, brain chemistry, genetics, the environment) that can influence the way that you feel. And many of these factors you can’t control, but some you can – like your thoughts and behaviors. Your counselor can help you learn how to think and respond in ways that improve your emotional health.
To Parents: As your teen participates in counseling, please remember that your needs are also important. I’m sure you have lots of demands and responsibilities on your plate. One of the best ways to care for your teen is actually to care for yourself. When you’re feeling rested, filled, and supported, you’re going to be able to care for your teen well. You can model to your teen what it looks like to care for yourself and seek support in healthy ways (i.e., eat healthily, exercise, reach out to trusted loved ones, friends, and God).
2. Embrace your ability to choose.
Your parents can encourage you to go to counseling, but ultimately, you have to choose whether or not you want to participate. In fact, Washington State law states that minors 13 years and older have the authority to consent to outpatient treatment (i.e. counseling in an office setting) without the consent of their parents. The state considers you to be independent enough to make decisions about your counseling.
Legalities aside, you’re going to get the most out of counseling if you’re invested in it—if you choose to actively participate. So, don’t just attend counseling – be mentally present, be honest, listen, give your counselor feedback. The more you participate, the more you’ll get out of counseling and the more you’ll grow. Don’t just participate to appease your parents, think about how it can be helpful to you.You can think of your counselor as a personal coach who’s devoted to helping you get “unstuck” from patterns of behaving that aren’t helpful. Counselors can help you increase social confidence, develop coping skills to manage your emotions, help improve your relationships, etc. And you’re the one that gets to choose your goals.
To Parents: Honor your teen’s ability to make choices. I know (and they know) that they don’t make the wisest decisions all the time, but maturity is a process and wisdom is developed. Giving your teen the freedom and space to make decisions when it’s appropriate and safe will allow them to learn from their choices and develop greater maturity.
3. Be honest.
This tip may be obvious, but it’s worth empathizing because your honesty is crucial to your counseling experience. Let’s say you are participating in counseling to address depression; you’d like to feel more like yourself again, which is typically more positive and energized. Your counselor may ask how often you feel down, engage in self-harm, have suicidal thoughts, drink alcohol, etc. Information like this is personal, but the more your counselor knows about you, the better he or she can support you. The information you provide helps your counselor to help you work towards the counseling goals that you set.
It’s also important to remember that whatever you share with your counselor is confidential, meaning your counselor needs your consent or permission to share your information with other people. So, your counselor cannot disclose to your parents what you share in counseling unless you provide consent for him or her to do so. For example, your counselor cannot share that you drank alcohol with your friends last weekend, unless you give consent for him or her to share this information.
Now, there are some special exceptions to this confidentiality, which counselors typically share with clients at the start of counseling. The gist of these exceptions is that all counselors are required by law to report to the appropriate entities (i.e. law enforcement, emergency services, Child Protective Services, Adult Protective Services, etc.) when there is reasonable suspicion that you or someone else’s safety is in jeopardy. If your counselor has not explained the limits of confidentiality to you, please ask him or her to do so.
To Parents: You are your teen’s caretaker and one of their greatest sources of support. You deeply love your teen and it may be understandably difficult not to be privy to all the information shared in counseling. But, your respect of your teen’s confidentiality with their counselor will help to foster a trusting relationship between them. When they have a trusting relationship, they will be able to work better together. And ultimately, your teen will be more likely to get the help you’d like them to receive.
4. Ask questions and give feedback.Counseling is meant to be a safe place for you to learn and grow. So, all questions are “fair game” and welcome. You’re not supposed to know everything! In fact, your counselor might not know the answer to your questions. But, if that’s the case, he or she can help point you in the right direction to find the answers you seek. Asking questions is just one way to be honest. When you ask questions, that gives your counselor information about what you do and don’t know. And again, the more information your counselor knows about you, the better he or she can support you.
It’s also important to give your counselor feedback. If you have a suggestion about how you spend your counseling time, then I recommend expressing that to your counselor. Throughout counseling, your counselor might invite you to participate in activities or exercises that will help you work towards your counseling goals. You might find some of these activities more helpful than others.
Tell your counselor what you find to be most helpful and they can do more of that with you. Your counselor might give you counseling homework (i.e. skills to practice outside of counseling). If the homework is confusing or feels like it’s not manageable, tell your counselor and he or she can help modify the things they’re asking you to do.
To Parents: Although your teen has confidentiality with their counselor and it is your teen’s choice to determine how involved you are in their counseling, you are an important part of your teen’s life. You may have questions or concerns you’d like to share with your teen’s counselor. While your teen’s counselor must keep your teen’s confidentiality, he or she may be able to provide you with recommendations or suggestions regarding your teen’s care. So, please, express your questions or concerns to you teen’s counselor!
5. Remember that growth is a process.
Do you remember what it was like to learn to ride a bike? Play an instrument or a sport? Learn to drive? Learning and growing always takes time, commitment, and practice. Your growth in counseling will also require time, commitment, and practice.
Any counseling goal takes time to achieve. You’ll learn new skills, and different ways to care for yourself and respond to others. If your counseling goal is to feel less depressed and more energized, then you’ll have to be committed to the process of learning new coping skills. As with anything, the more you practice these coping skills, the easier and more natural it feels to use them.Think back to when you were learning any new skill. Perhaps you learned how to play basketball. It took a while to get the hang of it, right? At first, your dribbling felt awkward and it would take you a painstakingly long time to dribble down the basketball court. The referee would frequently call you on double dribbling.
You got frustrated, but you were determined to get better. So, you practiced – a lot. You practiced dribbling during team practice, during games, during your breaks outside at school. Now, dribbling is second nature to you and you can dribble wth your eyes closed!
Just like with any new skill, it takes time and practice for it to feel natural to you. And so it will be with the skills you’ll learn in counseling. It may take a while to learn them, but when you do, you’ll be able to use them to your advantage, to help you cope with your emotions and to feel better.
To Parents: You can support your teen in this counseling process by modeling patience and normalizing the fact that it takes time to make changes and learn new skills. You might get frustrated or even feel nervous that they’re not growing as quickly as you hoped they would. You can ask your teen if there are practical ways you can help them with their counseling goals. But, your teen might just want you to empathize with them – not to fix anything for them, but to listen and try to understand their process and struggles.
A Christian Counselor Can Help
Maybe you actually haven’t started participating in counseling, but you’re interested in it. If that’s the case, I’m glad you read this article and I hope it was helpful for you. Everyone needs support and if you feel “stuck,” not quite feeling like yourself, and your emotions seem to be overpowering your life, give a Christian counselor a call. He or she can help you understand what’s troubling you and ultimately help you to be more emotionally healthy. A Christian counselor can help you to feel more like yourself again, to feel free to grow into the young woman or man that God has created you to be.
“Come Together,” courtesy of clam113, Flickr Creative Commons; “Time out,” courtesy of KeithJJ, pixabay.com, CC0 Public Domain License; “Question Mark,” courtesy of Josh Tasman, Flickr Creative Commons; “Swish,” courtesy of Chilli Head, Flickr Creative Commons;