It's completely normal to struggle with knowing if, when, and how to recommend therapy to your teen. And even though there's ample advice on when to send teenagers to therapy, it can be even more challenging to know what to do after your teen begins treatment. While some parents distance themselves from the situation in the name of confidentiality, others might pry into their teen's therapy experience without respecting their privacy.
Ultimately, parents play a significant role in shaping the therapeutic experience, and your level of support can influence the effectiveness of your teen's mental health treatment. If you have a teen in an intensive outpatient program (IOP), here's how to help them get the most out of therapy.
The first step to understanding your teen's situation is to educate yourself. To get started, try asking the program staff at the treatment facility for any resources they think may be helpful. Many treatment centers focus on a central treatment philosophy, such as dialectical behavior therapy skills (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). By learning about your teen's treatment and mental health challenges, you'll be in a better position to help them during their IOP program.
If you've had your own experiences in individual or other types of therapy, consider sharing some of those experiences with your teen to help normalize treatment. With that said, your teen has to develop their own healthy coping strategies to recover from a substance use disorder or manage their mental health. You might have some ideas as to what might and might not work, but it's important to remind yourself that your teen is learning what will work for them in treatment.
Whether your teen is seeking treatment for addiction, anxiety, or another mental health condition, your support will play a significant role in their recovery. Depending on your teen's current level of functionality, you might try shifting more responsibilities their way to help them feel like they're adding value to the family. Often, the best way to show your support is to give them space, allow them to explore their emotions, and show an active interest in their mental wellbeing.
In addition, recognize your teen's accomplishments and achievements by telling them what they're doing right instead of focusing on problematic behaviors. It can be incredibly defeating for a teen to sit down with their therapist and parents only to be told what they're doing wrong.
If your teen's therapist recommends family therapy, try to identify positive changes you can comment on, along with any concerns you might have. If you're not sure how to show your teen that you support them, this is a great question to ask their therapist. At the end of the day, reminding your teen that your love and support are unconditional—and trusting their clinician to direct your involvement in their IOP—will go a long way in ensuring a successful recovery.
Throughout the therapeutic process, it's essential to respect your teenager's confidentiality. Even though it might be tempting, avoid prying into their IOP progress or oversharing with their therapist. Although your intentions might be good, telling the treatment team about your teen's mental health concerns can position therapy as overly problem-focused. It's important for your teen to develop their own relationship with their clinician—one that's not micromanaged by their parents. If your teen feels like you're constantly talking to their clinician behind their back, they might have a harder time trusting their therapist, which can impact the success of their treatment.
With that said, you (and other family members) should be prepared to be a willing participant in their intensive outpatient program. In most cases, mental health problems like substance use and depression don't occur in isolation. Family relationships, dynamics, and roles all play significant roles in determining a teen's behavior, academic performance, and overall mental health. Sometimes, therapists may recommend change at the family system level to support your teen's recovery.
In other words, if you want your teen's behavior to change, you should be willing to make some changes of your own. Let your teen know that you're all in this together, and set a good example throughout their treatment program by listening to their therapist's advice. If your teen's therapist recommends family therapy or group therapy as part of their treatment plan, be willing to go. An experienced clinician will be able to maintain a safe, supportive, and confidential space for your teen while engaging family members in the therapeutic process.
Therapy is rarely a linear process, and change won't happen overnight. Your teen will have good days and bad days—and they'll need your support every step of the way. They might relapse, skip therapy appointments, or resist treatment. Those are all normal parts of the journey. They might seem perfectly fine one day and down the next—that's also completely normal. Manage your expectations, be patient, and realize that healthy coping strategies will take time to develop. When you model patience and understanding throughout your teen's IOP, it'll go a long way in making them feel supported.
Even after their IOP ends, your teen's strategies and coping mechanisms might change over time, as will the ways in which they need your support. Recovery is often a lifelong process. Even if your teen doesn't show it, your support means the world to them.
You should play an active role in your teen's outpatient program by monitoring their progress and listening to their mental health concerns—but keeping an eye on your teen without inadvertently increasing their anxiety involves a delicate balance. To show your support, take the time to check in with your teen in non-intrusive ways. Instead of interviewing them about their therapy sessions and what progress they've made on a weekly basis, try using open-ended questions without pressuring them for detailed information.
By offering your teen a chance to fill you in about their therapeutic goals and IOP progress, you'll provide a supportive environment that encourages them to express their emotions. You might think your teen won't ever want to open up about their therapy sessions, but this usually isn't the case. Typically, teens want to keep their parents informed, but they won't respond well to questions that feel intrusive.
As your teen navigates their treatment program, you might grow and learn more about yourself, too. In many cases, parents with teens in IOPs must learn to handle the stress and anxiety they experience while their children are in treatment. If you're prone to anxiety, then plan—before your teen's treatment program starts—to participate in stress-reducing activities during their IOP. If your anxiety interferes with your ability to function, consider trying individual therapy yourself to gain invaluable insights into your mental wellbeing.
Even if you're feeling stressed during your teen's IOP, it's important to be mindful of how you're modeling healthy emotional expression for your teen. Teenagers can spot a hypocrite from a mile away, so don't ask your teen to make changes that you haven't made for yourself. For example, if you tend to bottle up your emotions, it's not fair to criticize your teen for doing the same.
Some healthy coping strategies for managing stress include:
Parenting teens can be challenging, and it can be incredibly difficult for parents to involve themselves in their teen's IOP in an appropriate way. At Charlie Health, we work with our clients and their family members to understand their specific mental health concerns and establish an individualized treatment plan. As our clients progress throughout treatment, we continue to modify their treatment plans to better personalize their care compared to other telehealth options.
Upon completion of the IOP program, our clients can continue working with their primary therapist for individual therapy sessions. Our team is here to support you every step of the way—from starting treatment to developing a personalized aftercare program—to support a successful and sustainable recovery for your teen.