In my early 20s, at the tail end of a horrible breakup that left me confused and vulnerable, I decided to go to therapy. Since my mom had briefly been under a psychiatrist’s care following a miscarriage, I decided to talk to her. I figured she’d be supportive and insightful.
I was wrong.
“He’s obviously going to blame me for everything,” she said, her voice reverberating with aggression. “It’s always the mother’s fault. Ask your dad—he’ll tell you.”
My father had recently become a psychologist, so I did. Amazingly, his response was even worse.
“I don’t know why you’d want to go to therapy,” he said, as if he’d forgotten everything he just learned over the previous four years. “You’re just going to be told everything we did was wrong.”
As you might guess, this deepened my already considerable internal turmoil. But the story has a happy ending: I ended up seeing a fantastic therapist for a couple of years, who helped me untie knots I didn’t even know I had.
But I often wondered if there might have been a way for the story to have a happier beginning, too. Turns out, yes.
“Although it may seem like this is a tougher conversation if you’re still living at home, the fact is that it can be challenging at any age,” says Mayra Mendez, Ph.D., a psychotherapist at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica. “But preparation can go a long way toward making it more productive and helpful.”
Take these steps before sitting down for the big convo.
Prep Step #1: Determine Exactly What You Want From Them
Maybe you’re a teenager living at home and need your parents to help you find a therapist, because you’re still on their insurance. Maybe you’re in your 20s and want some financial support as you work through issues.
GOTTA READ: Why Getting Fired By Zoom Is The Worst Ever
Maybe you have young kids of your own and need some childcare during therapy appointments. Maybe you simply want your parents to know what’s going because you want their support.
Think about the reason you’re approaching them, Dr. Mendez says, and be clear about your ask: “I need you to listen to what I have to say, because it’s important to me. I don’t need advice or for you to try to solve this. I just need you to hear me.”
In many difficult conversations, articulating what you want from the other person can be a relief to them, says Julie Futrell, Ph.D., a Napa Valley psychotherapist who specializes in adolescent and family work.
Doing this sets an expectation and makes them more receptive to what you’re saying. They’re not immediately trying to figure out how they can fix your problem, she says. They’re simply listening. This is the critical difference.
Okay, even so, they might not be smiling or nodding along—they might look confused or weirded out or who knows what. We’d all prefer a little external validation in any conversation, but practicing direct communication can, “in and of itself, have profound healing effects,” says Dr. Futrell. In other words: Simply getting this out will make you feel better.
Prep Step #2: Prepare for Pushback
When I talked to my parents about therapy, their reactions gave me whiplash because it hadn’t occurred to me that they might aggressively shoot down the idea. The result? So. Many. Feelings. But my experience is actually pretty common, according to Dr. Mendez.
“Many parents will react with feeling accused or blamed,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘We’ve given you everything; how can you feel this way?’ It seems like you’re passing judgement on their parenting skills. Like, if they were better parents, you wouldn’t be struggling.”
Even parents who are loving, supportive, and empowering can feel a sense of failure or panic. Your reaction to that might be: This is about me, not you. But if you can prepare for and allow that potential reaction to play out, says Dr. Mendez, you’ll prevent it from shutting down the conversation.
Which you don’t want, because that would only delay the help you need. When college sophomore Emma, who asked that her name be changed, started having bouts of depression in ninth grade, she hid it from her parents.
“I felt like it’d make me seem ungrateful for my life,” she says. “But in my mind I was thinking, ‘I’m depressed and I’m still practically a straight-A student and play sports.’ I didn’t think they’d get it.”
Her mom’s original reaction? Dismissed as a teenage phase: If only she were more popular. If only she had a boyfriend. If only she were a starter on her Lacrosse team. If only, if only, if only…
While this may seem condescending and even, um, evil, it’s not an uncommon parental reaction—nor is it typically malicious. But it can have a really negative effect on the kid: For Emma, it invalidated her feelings to the point where she simply stopped talking about her depression for a couple years—until it spiraled into cutting (hidden places around her ankles) her senior year of high school.
At that point, her parents booked her an appointment with a psychiatrist, who prescribed Prozac and later Zoloft along with cognitive behavior therapy. Recently, Emma was able to stop the medication; the day of our interview marked 125 days since she’d last cut herself.
Her advice to kids in the same situation: “Don’t ignore the voice in your head telling you to ask for help,” she says. “It was a hard conversation but it helped me.”
Prep Step #3: Be Ready to Cite Examples
You don’t need a résumé of your worst mental health moments, but being direct and coming with specifics can help prevent a frustrating reaction, says Dr. Mendez.
Being vague about symptoms and timeline—“I’ve felt down for a while,” for example—can send the conversation off track.
Instead, try a statement like: “For the past two months, I’ve hated getting out of bed because I feel like there’s no reason for things and I dread going through the day.”
“Provide as many examples as you can,” says Dr. Mendez. “That provides the ‘why’ for wanting therapy. Along with helping your parents understand, you may see patterns and explore feelings that you might not have noticed otherwise.”
Dr. Mendez also suggests being clear about what you hope to get from therapy. Here are two great examples:
- “I want to feel like I have a sense of purpose.”
- “I want to feel excited again about doing what I love, because I’m not feeling that right now.”
Prep Step #4: Do Some Reconnaissance
If you worry your parents might push back and you’re over 18—and you need or want to tell them for whatever reason—go to a few sessions yourself first.
During those initial talks with your therapist, you can unravel why you might be hesitant to tell your parents, and doing some role-playing can help you find the right words. Experiencing a few appointments will also help you better describe how therapy might help you with your specific mental health concerns, Dr. Mendez says.
Some states do allow teens to get mental health treatment without parental consent—call a local clinic or therapist and ask about the rules in your state.
At any age, if you’re having feelings of hopelessness or thoughts of suicide, 24/7 crisis lines can help. Here are a few:
- Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: Text or call 988
- Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741
- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-8255
- Covenant House: 800-999-9999
You can also go to teencouseling.com, and its accompanying app, where you’ll be connected to a licensed therapist for a same-day appointment via text, phone, or video.
Ideally, of course, you’ll get your parents on board. As I know well, therapy can be incredibly effective, even if the road to get there is bumpy. You have to be vulnerable, honest, and ready to face a ton of gunk. Building support around you makes that process easier to navigate.
“So many parents today feel scared, confused, and overwhelmed,” says Dr. Futrell. “This can add to their fear and anxiety because you, their child, is struggling. That means direct communication helps everyone, because we all want to feel safe in a completely unpredictable world.”