Simon went to therapy 2 years ago when his parents were getting divorced. Although he no longer goes, he feels the 2 months he spent in therapy helped him get through the tough times as his parents worked out their differences. Melody began seeing her therapist a year ago when she was being bullied at school. She still goes every 2 weeks because she feels her therapy is really helping to build her self-esteem. And Britt just joined a therapy group for eating disorders led by her school's psychologist.
When our parents were in school, very few kids went to therapy. Now it's much more accepted and lots of teens wonder if therapy could help them, too.
What Are Some Reasons That Teens Go to Therapists?
Sometimes people who are trying as hard as they can to get through a rough time, such as family troubles or problems in school, find that they just can't cope by themselves. They may be feeling sad, angry, or overwhelmed by what's been happening — and need help sorting out their feelings, finding solutions to their problems, or just feeling better. That's when therapy can help.
Here are just a few examples of situations in which therapy can help someone work through problems:
Making the decision to seek help for a problem can be hard at first. It may be your idea to go to therapy because of a problem you're having that you want to get help with. Other times, parents or teachers might bring up the idea first because they have noticed that someone they care about is dealing with a difficult situation, is losing weight, or seems unusually sad, worried, angry, or upset. Some people in this situation might welcome the idea or even feel relieved. Others might feel criticized or might not be sure about getting help at first.
Sometimes people are told by teachers or parents that they have to go see a therapist — because they have been behaving in ways that are unacceptable, self-destructive, dangerous, or worrisome. When therapy is someone else's idea at first, a person may feel like resisting the whole idea. But learning a bit more about what therapy involves and what to expect can help make it seem like a good thing after all.
What Is Therapy?
Therapy is the treatment of a disorder or illness. Therapy isn't just for mental health, of course — you've probably heard people discussing other types of medical therapy, such as physical therapy or chemotherapy. But the word "therapy" is most often used to mean psychotherapy (sometimes called "talk therapy") — the psychological treatment of emotional and behavioral problems.
Psychotherapy is a process that's a lot like learning. Through therapy, people learn about themselves. They discover ways to overcome troubling feelings or behaviors, develop inner strengths or skills, or make changes in themselves or their situations.
A psychotherapist (therapist for short) is a person who has been professionally trained to help people with their emotional and behavioral problems. Psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, counselors, and school psychologists are the titles of some of the licensed professionals who work as therapists. The letters following a therapist's name (for example, MD, PhD, EdD, MA, LCSW, LPC) refer to the particular education and degree that therapist has received.
Some therapists specialize in working with a certain age group or on a particular type of problem. Other therapists treat a mix of ages and issues. Some therapists work in hospitals, clinics, or counseling centers. Others work in schools or in psychotherapy offices.
What Do Therapists Do?
Most therapy is a combination of talking and listening, building trust, and receiving support and guidance.
Through talking, listening, and observing, a therapist is able to evaluate the problem situation that needs attention and care. In doing so, the therapist can help a person figure out what's been making him or her so unhappy and how to get things going on a better track again.
It might take a few meetings with a therapist before a person decides to talk openly. Trust is the most important ingredient in therapy — after all, therapy involves being open and honest with someone and talking about sensitive topics like feelings, ideas, relationships, problems, disappointments, and hopes. A therapist is trained to be patient with people who need to take their own time talking about themselves and their situation.
Most of the time, a person meets with a therapist one on one, which is known as individual therapy. Sometimes, though, a therapist might work with a family (called family therapy) or a group of people who all are dealing with similar issues (called group therapy or a support group). Family therapy gives family members a chance to talk together with a therapist about problems that involve them all. Group therapy and support groups help people give and receive support and learn from each other and their therapist by discussing the issues they have in common.
What Happens During Therapy?
If you see a therapist, he or she will talk with you about your feelings, thoughts, relationships, and important values. At the beginning, therapy sessions are focused on discussing what you'd like to work on and setting goals. Some of the goals people in therapy may set include things like:
During the first visit, your therapist will probably ask you to talk a bit about yourself. This helps the therapist understand you better. The therapist will ask about the problems, concerns, and symptoms that you're having.
After one or two sessions, the therapist will probably explain his or her understanding of your situation, how therapy could help, and what the process will involve. Together, you and your therapist will decide on the goals for therapy and how frequently to meet. This may be once a week, every other week, or once a month.
Once the therapist has a full understanding of your situation, he or she might teach you new skills or help you to think about a situation in a new way. For example, therapists can help people develop better relationship skills or coping skills, including ways to build confidence, express feelings, or manage anger.
Sticking to the schedule you agree on with your therapist and going to your appointments will ensure you have enough time with your therapist to work out your concerns. If your therapist suggests a schedule that you don't think you'll be able to keep, be up front about it so you can work out an alternative.
How Private Is It?
Therapists respect the privacy of their clients, and they keep things they're told confidential. A therapist won't tell anyone else — including parents — about what a person discusses in his or her sessions unless that person gives permission. The only exception is if therapists believe their clients may harm themselves or others. If the issue of privacy and confidentiality worries you, be sure to ask your therapist about it during your first meeting. It's important to feel comfortable with your therapist so you can talk openly about your situation.
Does It Mean I'm Crazy (or a Freak)?
No. In fact, many people in your class have probably seen a therapist at some point - just like students often see tutors or coaches for extra help with schoolwork or sports. Getting help with an emotional problem is the same as getting help with a medical problem like asthma or diabetes.
There's nothing wrong with asking for help when you're faced with problems you can't solve alone. In fact, it's just the opposite. It takes a lot of courage and maturity to look for solutions to problems instead of ignoring or hiding them and allowing them to become worse. If you think that therapy could help you with a problem, ask an adult you trust — like a parent, school counselor, or doctor — to help you find a therapist.
A few adults still resist the idea of therapy because they don't fully understand it or have outdated ideas about it. A couple of generations ago, people didn't know as much about the mind or the mind-body connection as they do today, and people were left to struggle with their problems on their own. It used to be that therapy was only available to those with the most serious mental health problems, but that's no longer the case.
Therapy is helpful to people of all ages and with problems that range from mild to much more serious. Some people still hold onto old beliefs about therapy, such as thinking that teens "will grow out of" their problems. If the adults in your life don't seem open to talking about therapy, mention your concerns to a school counselor, coach, or doctor.
You don't have to hide the fact that you're going to a therapist, but you also don't have to tell anyone if you'd prefer not to. Some people find that talking to a few close friends about their therapy helps them to work out their problems and feel like they're not alone. Other people choose not to tell anyone, especially if they feel that others won't understand. Either way, it's a personal decision.
What Can a Person Get Out of Therapy?
What someone gets out of therapy depends on why that person is there. For example, some people go to therapy to solve a specific problem, others want to begin making better choices, and others want to start to heal from a loss or a difficult life situation.
Therapy can help people discover more about themselves. Those who work with therapists might learn about motivations that lead them to behave in certain ways or about inner strengths they have. Maybe you'll learn new coping skills, develop more patience, or learn to like yourself better. Maybe you'll learn new ways to handle problems that come up or new ways to handle yourself in tough situations.
People who work with therapists often find that they learn a lot about themselves and that therapy can help them grow and mature. Lots of people discover that the tools they learn in therapy when they're young help them cope with all kinds of difficult situations when they're older.
Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.
Reviewed by: David V. Sheslow, PhD, and D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: August 2004