When Should a Teenager See a Therapist?

Medically reviewed by: Shane Trujillo, EdM
Tuesday, June 6 2023

Have you recently asked your teen a simple question and got a curt answer? Or noticed that their mood can go from happy to sad in a split second? Or that their grades are dropping dramatically for no apparent reason? As a parent, it can be hard to know when your teen is just being a teenager or if the changes that you see are indicative of something more serious. 

The most important thing is to remain observant of your teen’s behaviors and always be open to talking about any issues they may have. Here are some red flags that could mean your teen could use the professional help of a licensed counselor or therapist, and what you can do to get them started. 

What are signs therapy could benefit your teen?

Unusual mood swings

Usual teenage emotions can include changing moods. But if your teenager starts to experience severe emotional changes such as increased anxiety, depression, or anger, this could be a warning sign that they need professional help. It is necessary to ensure the cause of their emotional shifts is not simply a natural part of growing up or due to something else like bullying. 

Increased anxiety

Anxiety from time to time is a part of life. But when it impairs daily life and functioning, that’s a sign that it could be a bigger problem. Watch for these signs in your teen:

  • Excessive worry that leads to withdrawal or difficulty functioning
  • Fear and avoidance of places, such as school
  • Sudden bursts of fear or impending doom
  • Physical symptoms such as rapid heart rate, rapid breathing, dizziness, or nausea
  • Repetition of certain thoughts or behaviors to prevent something bad from happening

Signs of possible depression

Everyone can feel down at certain points, especially if things aren’t going quite right. But if you notice these signs in your teen, it’s time to look for professional help. 

  • Increased irritability or agitation
  • Sleeping too much or trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Decreased energy
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Extreme changes in appetite
  • Slowing down and having lack of energy
  • Expressing thoughts of harming themselves or suicide

Signs of substance use

If you see changes in behavior in your teen, it could be due to the use of substances such as alcohol, drugs, over-the-counter medications or medications that are prescribed to other people. If your teen is using substances, you might see their grades drop, see less engagement with family and friends, notice less interest in typical activities (like extracurriculars), have sleep problems, or slowed or agitated behavior. 

Decline in academic performance

When your teen’s performance in school suddenly drops without explanation, this could point toward underlying issues such as stress or depression that require counseling from a licensed therapist who specializes in adolescent mental health concerns. Make sure you talk with teachers or school counselors if you observe a sudden decline in performance and seek professional help. 

Changes in social connections

It's normal for teenagers to go through social changes as they grow older; however, if your teen has become increasingly isolated or withdrawn from friends or family members, it could indicate deeper emotional issues requiring therapy from a mental health professional. Social media can also increase loneliness in teens. Make sure you pay close attention to your teens’ social connections during these sensitive years and let your teen know that they can talk to you anytime, about anything.

What can you do if you think your teen needs counseling?

Keep the lines of communication open with your teen. Let them know that they can always talk to you and that you will not get angry or judge them. Here are a few things you can do:

Have frequent conversations about mental health

Even if your teen isn’t experiencing any difficulties, it’s always helpful to engage in frequent emotional “check ins” starting early in life. If your teen sees this as a routine part of family life, they will likely feel more comfortable coming to you when they experience challenges. Additionally, if you notice something seems off with your teen and ask them about it, they may be more receptive to sharing with you.

Listen and validate their feelings

While you may not understand what is upsetting your child, creating a safe space (a place where your child can share openly without fear of retaliation or judgment) can suggest that you are eager to hear about their life in a supportive way. This paves a path for your child to see you as an ally, not as a judge. Dr. Doug Newton, MD, MPH, and chief medical officer of SonderMind offers this advice in his Psychology Today column: “Don’t try to shut down their feelings, make guesses, or offer excuses. Just listen and acknowledge that whatever they are telling you or feeling is real …. There may be more going on in their lives than what you are aware of, and just acknowledging their feelings is an important step in the connection process.”

Get feedback from others

While your observations and perceptions may be accurate, consider talking with siblings, other family members, teachers, coaches, clergy — or anyone in your community who knows your child — to see if they have noticed changes in behavior. Hearing others’ perspectives may help you see the big picture and to decide what the next steps should be. But remember to respect your teen’s boundaries. The last thing you want is to make your teen feel that they are under a microscope. Part of being non-judgmental is being aware of boundaries. When your teen opens up to you, make sure that it is within a safe space without judgment, retaliation, or fear that you will share their story without their permission. 

Get a professional opinion

If you are concerned, there is no harm in talking to your pediatrician or other health care professional about whether they think your child could benefit from seeing a mental health professional. They can also be helpful in providing resources or referrals in your community.

How therapy can help your teen

While there are some common concerns parents have about sending their teen to therapy, such as stigma or lack of knowledge about therapy, there is no reason to shy away from the idea of counseling. Just as therapy is beneficial for adults to see things from a different perspective and help manage life’s ups and downs, it is perfectly okay for teenagers to go to therapy to help them gain mental well-being. Teens of any age can go to therapy. Talk therapy can help your teen learn coping skills to manage stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns.

How to find therapy for your teen

Start by researching local mental health professionals and asking your family doctor or pediatrician for referrals. You can also search online for therapists who specialize in adolescent issues and read reviews from former clients to help determine which therapist is the best fit for you and your teen. It’s important to find someone with experience working with teens, as adolescents often require different levels of attention and care than adults.

When looking for a therapist for your teenager, make sure you look for one who is licensed and certified in the state where you live, as well as one who understands their specific needs based on age and stage of development. Additionally, it’s important to ensure that any therapist you choose has adequate experience treating mental health issues such as depression and anxiety — these are common concerns among teenagers that require specialized treatment. 

Lastly, make sure the therapist is willing to meet with both you and your teen before they begin therapy so you can get a better sense of whether this individual is right for you both. Many mental health professionals meet with teens and parents together to ensure a smooth start to therapy. 

SonderMind can help you and your teen find the right therapist

SonderMind can help connect your teen to a licensed mental health professional who specializes in adolescent mental health. Finding the right therapist is key to helping your teen manage any mental health struggles they may be experiencing. With patience, research, and the right support, you can ensure that your child receives the proper mental health care they need during this time in their lives so they can enjoy and make the best of their teen years in preparation for adulthood. 

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