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How to Talk to Your Parents About Starting Therapy When They Don’t Believe In It


Children/Adolescents, Mental Health, Parenting & Pregnancy

Community Psychiatry’s Leela Magavi, M.D. and Summer Thompson, DNP, PMHNP-BC were featured in national women’s lifestyle outlet, HelloGiggles, discussing ways to approach your parents about starting therapy when 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.

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.

1. Provide Clear Examples

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.

2. Acknowledge your parent’s emotions

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.

3. Remind parents that therapy can help everyone

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.

4. Address financial concerns

5. Confide in a mentor

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.”

Click here to read the entire article on HelloGiggles.


Children/Adolescents, Mental Health, Parenting & Pregnancy