Psychotherapy: What You and Your Teen Can Expect

Psychotherapy is a mental health service that not all parents, let alone teens, understand. It’s meant to be an opportunity to be heard and understood about a particular issue or concern. Psychotherapists are also trained in particular therapeutic interventions that can facilitate greater psychological health. If your teen was recently instructed to participate in individual therapy or if you’re encouraging your teen to do so, this article will explore how you and your teen can benefit from psychotherapy and what to expect along the way.

Types of Therapy

Whether your teen will be participating in therapy alone or together with you, the therapist may draw upon one or more therapeutic approaches. Within the mental health field, there are hundreds of psychological approaches that exist. Yet, typically, a mental health professional will tend to use one or more consistently. Essentially, there are two major types of therapy: those that promote insight or more self-awareness and those that are learning based and provide you with tools to overcome your current challenges.

Insight Therapies are those that focus on your thought pattern, history, behavior, or life choices. They attempt to facilitate insight and greater understanding.  They are typically concerned with the causes of your behavior and choices, and sometimes invite reflecting on the past in order to greater understand the present. For instance, psychodynamic therapy is an example of an insight therapy.

Learning-based or Cognitive Therapies focus teaching you new forms of behavior, decision making, or thought patterns. These therapies are not so concerned with what caused the illness but rather providing the tools needed to overcome the challenges. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is one example of a learning-based therapy.

As you can imagine the type of therapy you receive will depend upon what your needs are, the illness you’re facing, and sometimes based on past approaches that have proven to be successful. In some cases, your therapist might take all of that into account as well as have a particular orientation or preference. In other cases, your therapist might choose a particular therapy because he or she knows it works best for your situation. And lastly, current psychological research can influence whether a psychotherapist uses a particular therapy with you.

If you’re sure you’d like a therapist to use a specific therapy with your teen, be sure to ask about that when you’re scheduling your teen’s first appointment. You might need to search for a therapist who specializes in the therapy you prefer. Some therapists are known for their work in a particular field and might only provide therapy under that specific therapeutic approach.

Insight Therapy: Using Psychodynamic Therapy with Teens

Often, a certain type of psychotherapy gets developed because a particular therapist sees the benefits of certain techniques in their patients. This is precisely what happened with Sigmund Freud in the early 1900’s. He developed psychoanalysis, what became to be known as “the talking cure“, because he witnessed in his patients how simply talking about problems seemed to bring relief. Freud’s method of psychoanalysis became the basis for all insight therapies.

Similar to psychoanalysis is psychodynamic therapy. It is a therapeutic technique that explores a teen’s unconscious patterns, which frequently has an influence on that teen’s life. Unconscious patterns can be revealed in feelings, thoughts, beliefs, and/or desires and outwardly in experiences and behaviors. A psychodynamic therapist makes sure to develop a strong rapport with a teen and then helps that teen develop insight about their life. Insight, in turn, can help a teen have greater self-awareness. Through this self awareness an adolescent can make new choices, have healthier relationships, and feel better about themselves. It is through the self understanding that a teen can make the changes they want in their life.

A psychodynamic therapist might explore the following:

  • how much a teen might be in touch with feelings
  • feelings and thoughts that a teen may not be aware of but that might be having an influence on their life
  • any pain that might be buried and that might also be influencing a teen’s life
  • the tolerance and/or resilience that a teen has to repressed feelings

One of the biggest benefits to this type of therapy is that a teen can gain answers and clarity about the issues they may be facing. For instance, they may come to understand why they have been giving in to peer pressure, turning to self-harm, or using drugs and alcohol. Psychodynamic therapy can benefit a teen by giving them a better understanding of who they are and why they make the choices they do. At the adolescent stage of life, having a greater understanding of oneself can facilitate a teen’s development into adulthood.

Because this kind of therapy can take longer to see results, it is not used with certain issues teens may face, such as severe depression. However, psychodynamic therapy may be used in conjunction with other therapies that might be more learning-based. At the same time, because this type of therapy addresses more deeply rooted issues, it can create lasting change.

Learning Based Therapy: Beck’s Cognitive Psychotherapy

Just like Freud who saw the benefits of psychoanalysis in his patients, Dr. Aaron Beck saw improvement in the lives of his patients and eventually developed Cognitive Psychotherapy. Beck was a psychiatrist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Psychiatry. He also had a psychotherapy practice and had a strong interest in depression. At the time Beck was practicing psychotherapy, there was a general view about depression being the result of hostility turned inward toward oneself. However, Beck wanted to investigate that theory more thoroughly and eventually gained deeper insight into the nature of depression.

Beck developed a series of tests and used them on his patients. He found that those with depression seemed to have a global negative view of himself, the outside world, and the future. He also found that this negative view was accompanied by distortions in thinking and belief. Beck concluded that it would be possible to correct those distortions in thinking, which ultimately led to his development of Cognitive Therapy.

Part of Beck’s Cognitive Therapy was an understanding that depression stems from three major causes:

The Cognitive Triad – distorted view of self, world, and future – these are often revealed in thoughts, such “I am no good” or “Things will never improve”.

Silent Assumptions – these are unexpressed beliefs that negatively affect the individual’s emotional and cognitive responses – for instance, the thought, “If he’s angry, it’s probably my thought” or “If there is no love between us, I am unworthy.”

Logical Errors – these include overgeneralizations where one instance makes a statement for an entire relationship or family pattern.

Applying Beck’s insights to the treatment of teen depression means that a therapist would work on transforming your teen’s cognitive distortions, such as those described above.  When working with his clients, Beck used role-playing, assertion training, and homework in order to help a client shift their perspective, thoughts, or beliefs.

Beck’s particular form of therapy has become one of the primary way for therapists to treat teens (and adults) with depression. Furthermore, his early series of tests and questionnaires have developed into what is known as the Beck Depression Inventory. Today, clinicians throughout the mental health field use the Beck Depression Inventory to assess the presence and severity of depression.

Benefits for You and Your Teen

The two sections above explained how a particular therapy can help relieve symptoms of certain mental illnesses , such as Beck’s Cognitive Therapy for  teen depression. However, in addition to overcoming a particular illness, psychotherapy can be beneficial in other ways too. In fact, there are a number of ways that psychotherapy can be beneficial for both your teen and your family. For instance, your teen may experience the following benefits from participating in therapy:

Your teen can experience a healthy relationship with an adult. Because teens are caught in between childhood and adulthood, they need an adult with whom they can begin to have a mature relationship. Although it’s possible that the parent provide this role, sometimes there can be more benefits to be gained if your teen has this kind of relationship with a professional. Furthermore, if the history of your relationship has been rocky then it might be difficult to move it in the direction you wish. As your teen continues in therapy, the experience can help facilitate your teen’s maturity, independence, and autonomy.

Psychotherapy can provide your child with coping mechanisms. Being a teenager is stressful. Teens are undergoing a number of dramatic changes physically, emotionally, socially, psychologically, and even spiritually. On top of all this, a teen may not know appropriate and healthy ways to manage intense feelings such as anxiety, fear, sadness, shame, or anger. A therapist can provide specific ways to manage emotions and stressful circumstances.

Psychotherapy can help a teenager manage his or her moods. If your child has been diagnosed with Depression, Bipolar Disorder, General Anxiety Disorder, or other mood disorders, a therapist can work with your child on specific mood managing techniques where medication might fall short. Also, adolescents with Bipolar Disorder, for example, may be developmentally young socially, emotionally, intellectually, and even physically. A therapist can help a teen identify behaviors, thoughts, and emotions that keep them stuck in the past, and facilitate their journey into the future.

At the same time, therapy can benefit the parent-teen relationship and even the health of the entire family if one or more family members participate in therapy. For instance, your family can work on building and strengthening relationships. You can work on what’s working and what is not working in the relationships among you. Together, you can focus on the systems and relationships within your family network. By doing this you can explore how to build trust among one another, especially in order to better manage the specific problems your family may be facing. Psychotherapy can provide a wide range of benefits for your teen and for your entire family.

How to Help Your Teen Prepare for the First Appointment

Even though your teen has agreed to participate in therapy, they may not be thrilled about it. You might need to prepare your teen so that they know what to expect in the first session and afterward.

In the first session, some therapists might ask teens questions about their mental health history, medical history, family illnesses, and other details about a teen’s historical information. In fact, some therapists might first invite your teen to fill out questionnaires about what they are experiencing, their symptoms, and the severity of their problem. As a parent, you might have the option of filling out your teen’s paperwork for them prior to their first appointment.

It’s important to let your teen know that the first session might be introductory and there may not be much to be gained aside from developing the therapeutic relationship. During this time, however, a teen can get a sense of whether or not they will feel comfortable with the therapist. In fact, prior to making an appointment, you might want to ask your teen if they would feel more comfortable with a male or female therapist, a younger or older therapist, or a therapist that specializes in their particular issue.

How to Tell if Therapy is Effective

At first, therapy might not feel like it’s working. In some cases, talking about the problem can make it feel like things are getting worse. Therapy takes time to be effective, primarily because it requires some time to build a strong therapeutic alliance with the therapist. However, research shows that about 75% of people gain some benefit from psychotherapy.

Typically, those in therapy tend to experience benefits in about six to twelve sessions. If your teen (or your family) hasn’t seen any results by this time, discuss this with your therapist. Your therapist may be able to provide you with additional or alternative treatment methods, if necessary.

Psychotherapy is a unique experience that can bring your teen and the rest of your family great benefits. In addition to overcoming a particular issue, your teen may leave therapy with a range of coping tools, relaxation techniques, and stress management tools for sustained psychological well being – throughout the rest of their adolescence and into their adulthood.

Further Reading

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