Three teens playing with a Frisbee in the parkChildren and teens may seem to grow up fast. This process can be joyful. We often celebrate milestones as children grow. But this process can also cause mental health issues. Kids and teens may develop issues with behavior, separation, substance abuse, or something else.

Parents can support children and teens as their brains develop. Therapy can help address mental health issues. It can allow them to process issues surrounding growing up, school, or friends. Many resources exist to help teens dealing with issues that can have a severe impact. These might include substance use or eating issues.

Therapy and Counseling for Children and Teens

A school counselor or doctor may help you find a child therapist. They can refer you to someone with training and experience working with youth. Treatment has helped many teens with mental health issues. Medication, therapy, or a combination of both can be effective. 

Many types of therapy focus on processing feelings and experiences. This can be challenging for young children. Counselors often use methods that let children express themselves nonverbally. Play therapy, sand tray therapy, and art therapy may help children do this. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) can also be helpful for work with youth. It tends to rely less on discussion.

Family therapy may also benefit children and teens. In this mode of therapy, family members attend sessions together. They may also go to some sessions alone. Family therapy can help teens and parents keep their relationship healthy. It may also help address changes in the family as children grow. 

You can address parenting skills in therapy. Parent-child interaction therapy (PCIT) is one effective approach. This treatment may help when a child’s behavior becomes difficult to manage.

Tips for Talking to Children About Therapy

Children may feel afraid to confide in an adult they do not know. These tips may help parents and caregivers talk to children about therapy:

  • Let them know they are not in trouble.
  • Take them seriously.
  • Stay open, authentic, and relaxed.
  • Normalize the issue they are experiencing.
  • Explain that the therapist is there for help and support.
  • Explain confidentiality. Let children—especially teens—know therapy gives them a safe and private space to share. Acknowledge you will be alerted if there are threats to their safety.

Medication for Children and Teens

Research often highlights the benefits of combined treatment. A physician or psychiatrist may prescribe medication for mental health. But combining medication and therapy can be very effective. Many experts recommend therapy when medication is prescribed. They argue medication is over-prescribed as a “quick fix.” 

Therapy can teach coping and self-management skills. But it may be the case that further treatment is recommended. Your child may be prescribed an antidepressant, antipsychotic, stimulant, or other psychotropic drug. If this happens, consider finding a therapist to pair with that treatment.

Addressing Teen Substance Use 

Teens are known to experiment with alcohol or drugs. This behavior can have a severe impact. It can harm a teen's development. Substance use can affect social life and behavior. Rates for substance use issues have been estimated in teens ages 12 to 17:

  • Problematic illegal drug use: 4.7%
  • Problematic alcohol use: 4.2%
  • Dependence on cigarettes: 2.8%

Many programs exist to help teens with alcohol or drug use issues. Supportive caregivers may play an important role in treatment. It is often effective for them participate in treating teen substance use. They can monitor the teen’s use of substances. Caregivers can help hold teens accountable to therapy goals. They may help teens find healthy coping mechanisms. This can equip teens to handle issues that might have led to substance use. 

Sometimes residential treatment programs (rehab) are a helpful option. Rehab provides a safe, supportive environment. It also has medical supervision. Rehab can create a support network and provide structure for residents. This structure can keep people away from triggers that might lead to relapse.

Resources for Teen Substance Use

Examples of treatments for teen substance abuse include:

  • Teen Intervene. This is for teens who show early signs of drugs or alcohol problems. The treatment helps teens set goals. It may help them grow values that could help them avoid drugs or alcohol. Teen Intervene also helps teens find healthy coping strategies. This can help them handle stress without using substances.
  • Adolescent Community Reinforcement. This treatment looks at factors that lead to substance use. It helps families support the teen working through substance abuse.
  • Multisystemic Family Therapy. This treatment addresses problems that may occur at school, home, or with friends. It uses a combination of approaches. These approaches include behavioral, cognitive behavioral, and family therapies. These therapies can be used to help families address substance use. This treatment may also help with co-occurring conditions.

Case Examples of Child and Teen Issues

  • Conflict between teen and her mother. Zara, 15, and her mom Cassy, 39, start family therapy. They hope to address communication issues. At home, they fight daily. Zara refuses to listen to Cassy. She often leaves the room or house mid-conversation. Cassy nags Zara about chores, school work, and friends. She complains that she misses spending time with Zara. In therapy, Zara reveals she wants her mom to stop nagging. Cassy explains she wants Zara to communicate clearly. The therapist educates them about Zara's stage of development. In their sessions, they learn to communicate in healthy ways. The therapist helps them outline rules for negotiation. Cassy and Zara learn new ways to listen and relate. They find their relationship has become less stressful.
  • Child who runs away. Camden, 9, runs away from home each afternoon. His parents have him talk with his pastor, teachers, and police officers. They explain the dangers of running away. His behavior does not change. Camden's parents arrange for him to meet with a child counselor. In the first session, the counselor takes a family history. The counselor learns that Camden's mother works all day. His father works overnight, and his older siblings are not often at home. The counselor learns that Camden feels no one pays attention to him. But when he runs away, his parents drop everything to search for him. He becomes the focus of attention. The counselor explains this to Camden's parents. Camden's parents learn that Camden runs away to get attention. Camden and his parents grow a stronger relationship as sessions progress. He receives the attention he seeks in safer ways. He no longer runs away.


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