My ADHD Child Hates Therapy. How Do I Get Him to Go?

My kid is 10 years old. His pediatrician referred us to a therapist for him to help with his ADHD. Also, my husband and I are going through a divorce. My child has been twice to the therapist and he hates it. He says he doesn't want to go back anymore. The second time I took him, it was really hard to get him to cooperate. I think he needs therapy, like the doctor said, but how do I get him to go? Should we get him a new therapist? His dad is on the fence about the therapy, but I'm the one who takes him. —Perplexed Parent
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Dear Perplexed Parent,

Great question! I see this dynamic a lot in my own practice—parents or teachers feel a child could benefit from therapy, but the child is reluctant. Therapy is going to be helpful only if your son is a willing participant. Forcing the issue will not only produce minimal results, if any, but may turn him off from seeking out counseling support in the future.

It is not a lost cause, however. There are many things you can do to increase the likelihood of your son being willing to participate in counseling. First, give him a voice. What was it about therapy that he hated? Really listen to his answers. They might seem silly or arbitrary, but if you hear what didn’t work, you are much more likely to find someone who won’t recreate that negative experience. Second, give him some control. Let him know that he gets to choose the person he is going to work with. Get together and look through online profiles (such as the ones on GoodTherapy.org) that you’ve already pre-selected as viable options, and let him read through and indicate which ones he might be willing to meet with and interview. Many therapists offer a brief consultation to give client and therapist a chance to assess for fit. Let him select a few (I recommend no more than three or four) to have a brief chat with, and let him choose which one he is willing to talk with. You can let the therapist know that your son is reluctant about therapy so that he/she can address those concerns head-on.

When I meet with reluctant potential clients, particularly children, I often find that the barriers include a lack of understanding of what counseling is really all about. When they realize that they can tell me basically anything and I’m not going to judge and they aren’t going to get in trouble, that this time and space is all about them—their feelings, their needs, their experiences—I see even skeptical faces light up. When I tell them that we can do therapy while playing with my dog, going for a walk, or even playing basketball, they can even get pretty enthusiastic.

Finally, give him an out. Ask him to commit to four to six sessions with one therapist. If at the end of that time he isn’t getting anything from it or finds it unpleasant or objectionable, then he can decide to stop. Even if he goes six times and says virtually nothing, stick to your bargain. If he trusts he has some control, he may be more willing to try the next time.

One thing to keep in mind is that the single greatest predictor of positive therapeutic outcomes is the relationship and rapport the client has with the therapist. If your son really connects with someone, he can get a lot out of therapy. If he doesn’t, he probably won’t get much from it. As long as therapy is something that is being done TO him, he’s likely to be more closed to the experience. If he gets invested in the process of choosing someone, there’s a much greater chance of counseling being a positive experience.

Best of luck!
Erika

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.
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  • moira

    moira

    November 16th, 2013 at 2:33 PM

    How do you get him to go? The last time I checked I would tell him that you are the parent, he is the kid, you are drinving the car and taking him to his sessions.

    I know that that sounds a little hard line, but since when is a child that age old enough to make the decisions that he is not going to go to something that in the end is good for him?

  • Paul

    Paul

    November 18th, 2013 at 4:52 AM

    Have you thought about changing counselors for him? maybe the person he is working with isn’t the best fit for him and so that’s where a lot of the anger and hesitation come from. I think that I would have a serious talk with whomever he is working with and see if there is someone else that he or she could recommend for a while. There won’t be any hurt feelings, and if there is then so be it because you have to look out for the best interests of your child and that’s the way it is. If he really needs to be working with someone and there is that much animosity about it then there is definitely something going on that has to be fixed before he is going to get any sort of help from this at all.

  • Erika Myers

    Erika Myers

    November 18th, 2013 at 10:36 AM

    @moira – you are absolutely right. You can exert parental authority and simply make him go. It’s like the proverbial horse, though – you can lead him to water, show him the water, shove his face down into the water – but if he doesn’t want to drink, it’s just not happening.

    In therapy, sometimes the therapist can break through strong resistance, but if you really want your child to get any real benefit, willing participation is a must. That sometimes requires a little finesse.

  • moira

    moira

    November 19th, 2013 at 4:51 AM

    I know, I see that, but sometimes do you think that could at least sit doen with the child and talk to him about why this actually is in his bets interest? I see so many kids today who run the show, and well, I just don’t think that they are equipped or capable of making those kinds of decisions for themselves yet. I would hope that as a parent I would be able to make him see why this is something that he needs to do, but you are right, if he’s not having it, then he just isn’t. I went back and reread and I think that one of the best points is like was said, to give him an out, to ask for a small commitment and then readdress things after that. I think that for a 10 year old this will still give him a little sense of control and feel like you value his input over just making him do something that he doesn’t want to do.

  • Shirlene

    Shirlene

    November 22nd, 2013 at 12:48 PM

    He is young and doesn’t see the benefits yet that therapy is going to have for him. Right now this probably feels like one more thing that he is being forced to do that he doesn’t wnat to but in time I think that he will come to see that you are only doing this with his best interests at heart. I definitely don’t think that you should let him stop going. What good is that going to do for anyone? But I do think that giving him a time to voice what his own concerns and hesitations are about therapy and knowing that this will not in any way get him in trouble would be good for him.

  • Yasmin

    Yasmin

    December 6th, 2013 at 10:02 AM

    Great advice. I agreed with every bit of it.

  • Kate

    Kate

    December 1st, 2014 at 3:16 PM

    Following … 10 yr old son (ADHD/anxiety) struggling at school – a mess. Met four times with a really nice guy. They play chess, go for a walk … Now OPENING THE CAR DOOR as I’m driving. Refusing to go. Doesn’t want to go anywhere at night. Doesn’t want to see another doctor. … A mess at school. Crying over everything. Annoying his friends. All neg attn behavior … I think he’ll end up in a therapeutic school without this counselor.

  • Mike

    Mike

    December 2nd, 2014 at 4:12 AM

    moira–you mention sitting down and “talking to” the child, but what Erica Myers mentioned was sitting down and Listening To the child, listen to him describe what he didn’t like. That way he feels heard and you aren’t flying blind when you try to find a therapist he can work with. In general, regarding the question of how children who aren’t wise in the ways of the world can have useful influence over their fate, see the Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T. Method) books. There’s a lot about listening and win-win scenarios in there.

  • Mike

    Mike

    December 2nd, 2014 at 4:17 AM

    Shirlene– Erica said in her piece what’s positive about “letting him stop going”—he is then more willing to try the next time. If you force him to do something repellant to him he might be turned off for life. I’m also thinking about how a therapist without sufficient insight and empathy for him would probably do little good and possibly even harm, and would be an unpleasant experience for him, and *he would know it*! We have to give his own gut feelings a chance to speak. Maybe he knows better than anyone else in this situation whether a particular therapist is working for him and his input should be respected.

  • Michelle

    Michelle

    February 19th, 2016 at 4:35 AM

    When it comes to therapy it is not about making them go at all cost..this is for any/all ages. If the person isn’t a willing participant than they will not say anything or they will say things that have nothing to do with the underlying issue. And for my 12 yr old, his answer is that therapy doesn’t help at all…and we have been to several over the years due to several tragic events that me and my kids have been through. He doesn’t want to pick one, he just doesn’t want to go and I worry that it will make him resent me. Ugh!

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