Can you force a teenager to go for therapy?


By David Joel Miller.

How do you get a teen to go for help?

Sad teenager

Can you force a teenager to go for therapy? Photo courtesy of pixabay.

The question of getting a teen, or any other person for that matter, to go for mental health treatment is always problematic. With teens, you sort-of can and sort-of can’t. Let’s see why.

First, it depends on what you mean by “force.” With children and teens no matter what they may think, they are still minors and under someone’s supervisor. So technically yes parents can most of the time require a child to go for any kind of treatment even if the child does not want to go.

From here on out let’s call teens “children” because parents have responsibilities for the child regardless of the child’s wishes and teens are for most legal purposes still “minors” until they turn 18. I will let you know if there are reasons to separate teens from children.

Exceptions to making a child go for treatment would come from legal issues. Are you divorced? What does the custody agreement say? Is there legal involvement? What do the courts and Child Protective services say?

Even if the custody order says you can make those decisions for the child, most therapists will want both parents to sign giving consent for treatment. We, professionals, like to stay out of court as much as possible, and seeing a child without one parent’s permission opens you up to all sorts of legal risks that may not be worth taking if you do not have to.

One aside here, the child may consent for themselves if there are crisis issues or if they say you are abusing them, then they can seek outpatient treatment with or without parental approval in some places. This all gets complicated and most times the counselor will already be on the phone with someone for legal advice before they start seeing this child. If the child was suicidal whoever has the legal authority to put them on an involuntary hold and send them for evaluation or treatment can also do that whether you want your child’s suicide attempt treated or not.

Back to our original question. You want this teen to go and they do not want to go. How far can you go to force them?  Physical force is not a good idea. For counseling to work the person receiving the treatment needs to talk and they need to think that there is some reason that this person can help them.

People forced to treatment do not get as much work done and it takes longer. Any good counselor will spend the first few sessions trying to build a relationship with this teen so the teen decides that this might be a good thing. At that point please do not start asking the counselor to betray the teen’s trust and tell you everything they have been up to.

I hope it does not surprise you that teens who are abusing drugs and alcohol and those who are very violent and oppositional do not show up for treatment a lot of the time.

Rather than call this treatment “forced” I like to think of it as encouraged.

One rule of parenting I like to tell clients about is that “Parents need to be parents and children need to be children.” Letting kids decide if they need counseling or any other treatment procedure may violate that principle. How can an emotionally disturbed teen make a good decision about going for treatment?

Do you let drunks drive your car? That would be risky for you regardless of who they were. So if you suspect that your child is abusing drugs or alcohol you may find it difficult to get them to go for treatment but one way to motivate them to attend sessions is to take away or restrict their use of the car, or something else they care about if they will not go for counseling. This making the cost of not going higher than the cost of going for treatment works some of the time but not all the time.

If they refuse even with the car taken away, you will need to go to more drastic measures. Also if once you take the car keys away and they do take the car and drive you may be forced to call the police and report the car stolen. Either that or explain to your insurance company and the police why you let a child you suspected of abusing drugs or alcohol take your car and then you did nothing about it.

If you have any reason to think your teen or younger child for that matter, needs to see a counselor or therapist and it is legal for you to take them in, by all means, have them go. The best case is that the counselor will tell you they do not see anything out of the ordinary and what your teen is going through is just a normal part of being a teen. So you spend a little money on an office visit for some peace of mind.

But if after that visit they suggest that your child needs to keep coming, make a serious effort to get that teen to the appointment.

If the teen refuses to go you will need to enlist the help of anyone and everyone who can get that kid into treatment before they get in serious trouble.  Try to do this before you need the help of his parole or probation officer and before he has harmed himself or others.

Ignoring mental health problems does not make them go away. In plenty of cases, people saw that there was something wrong with a teen or younger child and yet the child did not get treatment until they did something that ended up on the news.

A few early interventions with teens in distress could save a lot of pain for them and for other people down the road.

Staying connected with David Joel Miller

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24 thoughts on “Can you force a teenager to go for therapy?

  1. so i have nothing wrong with me and im not depressed or anyhting but my dad thinks i am so he is forcing me to go to therapy and if i refuse to go he will say he is going to take away my phone or something like that.

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    • A couple of things you should consider about this situation.
      1. Just because you go to see a counselor doesn’t mean there is something wrong with you. People go to doctors for annual physicals, and athletes have coaches who help them improve their game. Probably the counselor could help you with improving your relationship with your dad. There’s likely some reason your dad thinks you’re depressed and you don’t.
      2. I’m guessing that your dad pays for your phone. So you have to do what he says if you want to keep the phone. There’s no law that requires him to provide you with a phone. As you get older you will probably work a job and the boss will want you to do things. If you don’t do what the boss asks you don’t have a job and you don’t get a paycheck. With no money to pay for a phone, you won’t have a phone then either.

      While it may not be fun now to do what dad says it’s probably a lot easier to do it than to suffer the consequences. My suggestion to you is to try counseling, you just might find the suggestions the counselor makes to be helpful.

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  2. I’m 17 and living apart from my parents. Some neighbors took me in. They are trying to get me to participate in counseling because they consider me a problematic person, more like a bad influence in need of help. They have no legal rights to me but I have no clue how to go about the situastion. If I do I could get kicked out, but then again I be!I’ve there beliefs are insane. I’m fine with everything but them.

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    • Interesting situation. I think you could really benefit from talking to a counselor. Regardless of whose idea was for you to go the counselor can probably give you some information that will be helpful. While it’s pretty hard for them to “force you” to go to counseling, you’re staying with them and if they want you to go either have to go or move out. My suggestion is when you go to the counselor explain the situation to them and ask them what they will tell the adults and what they won’t. Beliefs are just that – beliefs. People can believe pretty much whatever they want. What they shouldn’t do was harm others with their beliefs. Not sure if that is any help or not. Best luck to you on this situation.

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  5. Im 18 and I’ve been struggling with social anxiety and past traumas for a few years now. I recently got a sirius mental problem where I feel like I’m constantly dreaming and I feel like nothing is real, sometimes I feel like my body is moving on its own. This has made me completely terrified and paranoid now. This is my 66th day of dealing with these problems. In the beginning I would splash cold water on my face to snap myself out of this weird mental state, but now that dosent help anymore. I now have to cut my arms alot to remind myself that I’m real. Another problem is when I try to get myself to go to therapy I imideitly feel like I’m fine for some reason? I go back and forth of feeling completely crazy to feeling normal and it’s tearing me apart inside.

    I really need to go to therapy, but I’m terrified of leaving my house and meeting new people because of my social anxiety and also because of these new mental problems. I’ve been trying to get myself to go to therapy for so long, I feel totaly helpless now. My only question is, how do I get professional help if my symptoms are keeping me from going to therapy? I feel like I don’t have the strength to force myself to go. I feel so confused about what to do :c

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    • Your situation sounds very serious. If you are at risk of hurting yourself you should be able to call an emergency number and they will send someone to help you. It can help to make use of informal supports. Maybe a friend or family member could go with you to counseling appointments. Some counselors are able to do sessions by telephone or Internet. In the future, I hope there will be a lot more distance counseling available to help people in your situation. Please reach out to someone and get some help.

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  6. My parents forced me to go to a counselor or they said they would take me out of college being someone who had just made friends and has social anxiety this didn’t help me at all so I went to the counselor for a whole year week after week she eventually ran out of things to say and my dad would bring up whatever he believed was wrong with me, the counselor damaged my relationship with my Dad Even more than it already was and now I can’t even think about him without becoming upset. Forcing your children does nothing you simple drive a wedge between them my relationship with my dad is permanently damaged because of this idiotic attempt at therapy try talking to your kids as equals instead of acting like their betters, just because your older doesn’t make you wiser and it certainly doesn’t make you a better human being.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience. Ths is not the way counseling is supposed to work. I can see several problems with what you describe. I am assuming you were over 18 when you started college, so you were an adult. He could not have taken you out of college. My guess would be he was paying for your schooling and you had to do what he said to get him to pay.You could have said no and paid for school yourself but that makes it harder. Saying no probably would have damaged your relationship with your dad also. Does not sound like this was your counseling. What was your dad doing in the room? Sounds like you and he went for relationship counseling and he tried to use the experience to get you to think, feel, behave, the way he wanted you to. Lots of parents use money and relationships to control their children and it often turns out badly.Dad may have been right that there were things you needed to work on, but this tag team approach in counseling usually does far more harm than good. Using counseling to coerce someone typically damages relationships.Hope you are able to create a happy, productive life.

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  17. I have a suggestion for parents who are worried that they cannot get their child to at least attend one therapy session. It has been my privilege to help out several friends by having a chat with their offspring who either didn’t want to attend counseling or who didn’t know their parent was considering getting them to counseling. These teens all knew me vaguely as their mum/dad’s friend about the place, knew I had no kids of my own but also that I was a researcher with a psychiatric unit (“your friend who works at the loony bin”). I had 100% success in that all those kids went along at least once and only one was deeply troubled. However, the outsider approach may be something other parents can try, or they can appeal to the kids’ grandparents or uncles/aunts/cousins if there is no one suitable among their friends. I think the teenagers saw me as a credible person, but not someone who could compete for their parents’ money or attention and they had little basis for evaluating whether they liked me as a friend or not. There was no particular social cost to their chatting with me because they felt they were doing their parent a favour. Then the parents felt I had done them a favour by getting their offspring to agree to therapy! I didn’t have any emotional stake either because I didn’t start with an expectation of a positive outcome and I never promised the parents I could persuade the kids! Something to think about!

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    • Great idea to involve another adult outside the family that the child may trust. Family friends, grandparents, aunts and uncles or just family friends are all possible resources for some families. Thanks for the suggestions.

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    • Thank you for this. I am in that stage now, and I know my son will give me H… before he will go. I have already told him I have the legal right to make him go and left it at that. It will be a tough one. He isn’t on drugs or alcohol, thank god, no trouble of that sort. he is autistic and needs guidance in maneuvering the world around him. he is having a terrible time with authority and self-awareness and we have pushed it off way too long. we are so at our wit’s end, so we will just have to make sure he gets into her office. she helped us at the beginning of the school year when he refused to go back to his current school, and was successful, but at the time, all i was able to focus on was getting to school and not having another crisis with that. so we didn’t take him for further therapy. it is evident now, 5 months later, that he needs the help. I was also thinking of enlisting the help of a good friend of ours who has been very helpful with him in other ways and whom he trusts (and who is also autistic but an adult).
      please send your prayers up to heaven for Jonathan son of Ruth to get there! thank you

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