How to Talk to Your Parents About Starting Therapy When They Don't Believe In It
Don’t let stigma or generational divides stop you from advocating for yourself.
Talking about mental health is, in some ways, more normalized than ever. Millennials have made seeking therapy more mainstream; Generation Z is significantly more likely than any other generation to report their mental health concerns; and various celebrities of all ages are speaking openly about their experiences with conditions like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder. Plus, the global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been forcing many people to confront the very real toll that daily stress and anxiety can take on our emotional and physical health. However, this doesn't mean that the long history of stigma and shame connected to mental health and illness have simply dissolved. This stigma can still be a barrier for people to get the help they need—especially when it's coming from their own parents or caregivers.
Dr. Leela Magavi, a board-certified adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist, says, "I see a lot of adolescents who confide in me and tell me that they wish they had come to see me months and years ago, but they were so reluctant and frightened to speak with their parents about it and bring it up." Part of this could be due to discomfort with opening up about heavy emotions in general, while another could be the fear that parents will simply dismiss or minimize these concerns.
Due to varying generational, cultural, and societal norms, some parents and caregivers may not view mental health issues as a legitimate problem or therapy as a necessary response, which can make it feel invalidating or unsafe for children or dependents to bring up the desire to seek treatment. As Dr. Magavi explains, a common stigma that some older generations carry with them is the concern that other members of the community will judge their family for partaking in therapy.
However, if you are interested in seeking therapy, it's important to know that there's nothing wrong with asking for help and that you still deserve to prioritize your mental health, no matter what anyone else thinks. While you may not be able to change your family members' minds about therapy completely, the expert advice below can help give you the tools to advocate for yourself and start the conversation about therapy in a more safe and mutually supportive way.
To help parents understand why you are interested in therapy, Dr. Magavi recommends referencing examples from your own relationship and certain interactions at home that can provide context. For example, if you have been irritable and fighting with your parents lately, "that's an example you can use by saying that irritability is often the manifestation of depression," Dr. Magavi says. From there, you can open up more about how you have been feeling and explain that therapy is an opportunity to both help you feel better and improve your relationship with your family.
Summer Thompson, a board-certified family psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, also recommends writing your emotions down on a piece of paper to clearly illustrate the issue to your parents. On one side, you can write down how you've been feeling, like, "I've been feeling sad/anxious/stressed." On the other side, you can write down ways these feelings have been getting in the way of your life, like, "I don't enjoy things like I used to," "I can't focus in school," or "I don't want to spend time with my friends." For parents who aren't as educated about mental health, this will provide a more digestible way for them to understand what you're experiencing.
Using concrete examples like this can help parents see that the ways you've been acting or expressing yourself have been signs of something deeper than just a "bad day" or a "phase." Dr. Magavi also says that presenting the conversation this way can help parents understand that "[therapy] is not something that's scary or something that's going to endanger the family, but, if anything, it will help heal the family and all the things that they're going through as a unit."
When you're in the midst of your own mental health struggles, it can be difficult to take on the emotions of others. However, understanding where your parents are coming from can help you better communicate your needs in a way that feels more supportive and validating for both sides. For starters, it helps to understand that if your parents get upset when you bring up the idea of therapy, it likely has more to do with their emotions than it has to do with you. As Dr. Magavi explains, "A lot of times family members respond with anger or sadness or irritability, not because they do not love you or care about you but because they're scared. They're scared that you are in pain; they're scared that maybe they had something to do with why you're feeling the way you are." If your parents grew up with less open support for mental health and expressing emotions, they may not be as familiar or comfortable with directly expressing their concerns or fears about therapy.
Dr. Magavi recommends opening the conversation about starting therapy by acknowledging these concerns and leading with phrases like, "I know this might be hard for you to hear..." or "I know this might sound scary..." This creates a space where both you and your parents can share how you're feeling in a less aggressive or emotionally charged way.
A common and harmful misconception about therapy is that it's only for people who are suicidal or are experiencing severe mental illness. This is why it's important to remind parents who have this perception that therapy can be beneficial to anyone, no matter their specific mental state or condition. "We all have insecurities; we all have things that we've been through that hurt us that we want to grow from," Dr. Magavi explains. "Talking to somebody who's a neutral party...allows you to understand yourself better, be a better human being, and live a happier life."
Thompson likes to use the example of car maintenance to help people understand why therapy can be helpful no matter your mental state. "Every 10,000 miles, you rotate your wheels. You check your engine, you change your oil. You do these things so that you keep your car running and functioning optimally," she says. This maintenance helps prevent larger issues from going unchecked, which can cause more serious breakdowns. In the same way, Thompson explains, people go to physical check-ups at the doctor to make sure everything is healthy and working in our bodies—and the same should be normalized for the mind.
Framing therapy this way can help parents understand that therapy can be an important and necessary part of maintaining overall health, not just a last resort for responding to severe mental health concerns. That said, if you are especially struggling or having thoughts of suicide, be honest and share those concerns with your parents or another trusted person in your life to get assistance in seeking the help you need.
Since mental health treatment has long been stigmatized, therapy can be seen as a frivolous or unnecessary expense rather than a legitimate part of health care. If your parents or caregivers regard therapy in this way, it's important to use the previous points to emphasize the benefits of therapy while also addressing their financial concerns. For starters, you can find out how much therapy really costs and how to access affordable mental healthcare options. From there, you can figure out if you're able to cover the costs on your own or find options that best fit within your family's budget.
If your family is struggling financially and you are dependent on their support to start therapy, helping figure out the costs will show that you are serious about getting the help you need and that you want to help them out, too. Therapy can also directly improve your ability to support yourself financially. A 2015 study found that cognitive behavioral therapy helped unemployed people overcome some of the negative thinking that was holding them back and allowed them to find more success in their job search.
If your parents are repeatedly dismissive about your desire to go to therapy, try confiding in someone else—like a teacher, coach, or another family member—and ask them to talk to your parents. Dr. Magavi says that hearing from another adult in support of therapy can help parents come around to the idea.
"When another adult gets involved and talks to the parent, sometimes the parent is able to gain more perspective about their engagement in their child's depression and perception of life," Dr. Magavi says, "and it also can encourage them to engage in family therapy or individual therapy themselves."
Sometimes, though, parents might get defensive or angry when other adults get involved. If you're worried about backlash from your parents, confide in another trusted friend and ask them to help you find mental health support that you can access safely without your parents' involvement.
What to do if it's unsafe to talk with your parents about therapy:
Even if you are in an unsafe home situation and you don't have another trusted adult to turn to, you still have some options available to advocate for your mental health.
- Talk with a school counselor. Most schools offer licensed counselors that can provide free mental health support to students. If you're not comfortable or interested in having sessions with your school counselor, they may still be able to help by directing you to other resources.
- Research the laws in your state regarding minor consent for health care. According to GoodTherapy, "some states allow minors as young as 12 to seek mental health care for either a limited number of sessions or for specific circumstances that may be endangering them."
- Engage in other practices that support your mental health. While personal care practices can't replace medical help when needed, you can still work to manage your mental health on your own by doing things like practicing meditation, good sleep habits, and journaling.
No matter what your parents or other family members say or believe about therapy, the important thing is not to give up on fighting for yourself. Check here for tips on choosing a therapist that's right for you.