Why you and your teenager both need a therapist
Reviewed by Stephanie Steinman, PhD, CSAC
Written byAmye Archer, MFA
Last updated: 01/16/2024
When California-based author and Congressional candidate Julie Lythcott-Haims’ son left for college, she and her partner felt confident they were sending him off with the tools he needed for the next phase of life. But they were also aware that he would be managing his diagnosed attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) and anxiety on his own for the first time.
Their confidence turned out to be short-lived: It wasn’t long until their son was spiraling. Lythcott-Haims and her partner immediately enlisted the help of a therapist for him, and they also found a family therapist to work with all of them together.
“Often it takes a crisis for us to recognize something needs to change,” says Lythcott-Haims. “And, of course, we went that extra step and said maybe something within us as parents needs to change.”
Especially when kids are teenagers, it’s important to help them get the support they need. But don’t forget that your mental health matters, too—looking for a therapist for your teenager may be a great opportunity to find one for yourself.
Common challenges for teens and their parents
Children’s teen years can be among the most difficult for parents and guardians. Families may face hurdles around issues including:
Today’s teens are in an unprecedented mental health crisis partly due to external factors, including the pandemic. You may also need to help your teenager navigate life-changing experiences like gun violence, racism, anti-LGBTQIA+ prejudice, or police brutality.
One upside to these challenges is that as a society, we’re destigmatizing and diagnosing mental health conditions far more often—and this has opened up a whole new world of resources. From peer support groups to vetted well-being ambassadors on social media, young people have many places to turn for mental health support.3, 4
Even after your teen receives a diagnosis from a mental health professional, helping them through treatment can be time-consuming and emotionally draining. Working with a therapist of your own is an important way to take care of yourself while you’re caring for them.
Browse our directory to find a licensed provider who specializes in counseling parents.
How to recognize when you need support
Teens don’t face milestones alone, and parents bring their own emotional response to each situation. A therapist can help you explore and manage how you react to events in your child’s life.
“You go to a therapist to understand your own triggers,” says Lythcott-Haims. “There are things coming up for you that are about your fears, your dreams and wishes, and your needs that are spilling over into how your parent your kid.”
Lisa Savage, LCSW, is the founder of the Center for Child Development, the Delaware Center for Counseling and Wellness, and Clinicians of Color. She points to a number of signs that what you’re carrying from your own life may be affecting your parenting.
You overreact to minor issues
“When your reaction as a parent does not match the infraction, that may be a sign that something is not aligned,” says Savage. If your child misses curfew by a few minutes, for example, and you blow up at them, that may be a sign you need to work on self-regulation.
You have difficulty managing your child’s emotions
Savage has seen this many times in her practice. “I once worked with someone whose kid had severe anxiety. Every time the kid had a panic attack, the mother would become enraged because she had anxiety she hadn’t dealt with,” says Savage. “So Mom felt helpless when her child was having anxiety, and it triggered anxiety in her as well.”
You project your fears onto your child
One of the most common ways that this shows up is when a parent seems overbearing or overprotective. “The parent has their own anxiety and is fostering this in the child because they don’t know how to deal with the situation,” Savage says. For example, if someone experienced sexual assault in the past, they may refuse to allow their child to start dating, even at an appropriate age.
You swing between extremes
Savage says this often stems from deep-seated worry about making the wrong choice. “If a parent feels very unsure of themselves, sometimes they will go from one extreme to the other,” she explains. “They will either be extremely authoritative or extremely lenient because they can’t figure out what they need to do to appropriately parent their child.”
Identifying that you’re struggling as a parent can be difficult. You might feel like something is off or question why you’re having such strong emotions, but find yourself unable to connect the dots. Savage recommends being open with your loved ones and asking questions: “What are other people saying to you? Can you get feedback from your partner or your children and listen to what they have to say?” Their responses may help you pinpoint issues you’d like to address.
How therapy can help you parent better
Exploring how parenting has changed
Lythcott-Haims, who has studied parenting trends, helps illuminate how things have changed. In her book “How to Raise an Adult,” she writes that in the mid-1980s, the standard model of parenting shifted from a more hands-off approach to a “culture of bubble wrap.”
“Things like stranger danger, physical safety measures like seat belts, bike helmets, and knee pads, and a sense that American children were falling behind academically all combined to create a state of panic among parents,” she says.
This led to parents becoming overly involved in every aspect of their kids’ lives. “We just became this cloud of parental observation that began to obscure the sunlight of childhood,” says Lythcott-Haims.
Those perceived dangers have only continued to grow. My 17-year-old twin daughters were in kindergarten when the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School took place.5 I remember the disbelief I felt when active shooter drills became part of their school curriculum.
What my therapist has done is help me understand how my valid emotional reaction to the very real threat of gun violence can cloud my judgment when it comes to parenting. I can’t stop my children from going to school just because I’m afraid. Therapy has helped me find a place where I can exercise concern about protecting my kids while not letting fear rule every decision.
Keeping stress in check
It may feel like teens are dismissive much of the time, but they do look to us for cues as to how to feel about the world. Amid so much bad news, it can hard to stay optimistic—but we must try to keep our stress in check, Lythcott-Haims says.
Take climate change, for example. “When I hear an older person say something like, ‘The planet is a mess—I’m glad I won’t be around to see it,’ I ask them to please not say that within earshot of their grandchildren or other young people,” says Lythcott-Haims. “Because it is an actual existential threat that is impacting whether those kids want to partner up, have their own kids, or save for retirement.”
In the privacy of a therapy session, though, you can freak out as much as you’d like. Your therapist will hold space for your worry about the future, which means less will spill over into your interactions with the young people in your life.
Finding the happy medium
There’s no “right” way to parent a teen—it’s a hard job, and everyone does it differently. Working with a mental health professional can help you take on challenges in a balanced way.
Parents sometimes feel like it’s our job to get our kids across some imaginary finish line, but Lythcott-Haims says this can be undermining to your teen. “When we show up with that fix-it mentality, what we’re saying is ‘I don’t think you’re capable,’” she explains. “We are not helping them take agency in their own lives.”
With the help of their family therapist, Lythcott-Haims says she and her partner were able to land in a place where they could “empathize and empower.”
“Now, when my son or daughter comes to me with a problem, I ask them, ‘Do you want to just vent, or do you need my help with this?’ And much of the time they just need to feel heard,” she says. It took a while to get there, but Lythcott-Haims says this approach has made her a better parent and has been better for her own mental health.
Building lines of communication
Communicating with your kids is one of the most important things you can do to build trust and cultivate your bond. It’s also one of the hardest. Therapy can help bridge the gap.
Lythcott-Haims says when she and her partner tried communicating with their son after his college mental health crisis, “He would be pulling on his hair and getting really agitated, to the point where we would back off and be afraid to talk. It was like walking on eggshells.” What they learned through therapy, she says, is how to hear one another, how to listen, and how to talk about hard and uncomfortable topics.
This common issue is at the root of many others, says Savage. Parents and teens don’t always speak the same language. “Adolescents really want to be heard,” she says. “I talk to teens all the time, and the big thing that they say is ‘My parents don’t listen to me’ or ‘My parents don’t understand me.’”
If you’re up against any of these parenting challenges, visit our directory to find a therapist near you. After a while, you might ask your provider if your teen can join you for a session or two. The therapist can help both of you navigate an emotionally charged conversation in a productive way. Having an objective third party in the room helps keep the temperature cool so you and your teen can truly listen to each other—which, at the end of the day, is what we’re all looking for.
About the author
Amye Archer, MFA, is the author of “Fat Girl, Skinny” and the coeditor of “If I Don’t Make It, I Love You: Survivors in the Aftermath of School Shootings,” and her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction magazine, Longreads, Brevity, and more. Her podcast, “Gen X, This Is Why,” reexamines media from the ’70s and ’80s. She holds a Master of Fine Arts in creative nonfiction and lives with her husband, twin daughters, and various pets in Pennsylvania.
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