In recent years, we’ve made great strides as a culture reducing the stigma around mental health issues. Many people, including celebrities, now speak out about their struggles with anxiety, depression, addiction and relationships. There’s also more openness about going to therapy and getting help from mental health professionals.
Still, many people remain uncomfortable discussing their mental health or seeking professional help. This is particularly true for older adults ― often to the frustration of their grown children. While they believe their parents would benefit from seeing a therapist as they deal with life’s challenges, those from older generations often resist.
“Not long ago the prevailing view of seeking professional help for personal problems was associated with stigma and shame,” said Tracy Ross, a licensed clinical social worker in New York specializing in couples and family therapy. “Needing to be in therapy was something to keep secret at best, embarrassing and shameful at worst. It was associated with personal weakness or failure, considered a shortcoming on the part of the family, the individual, even the community, and was viewed as a desperate last resort for those in dire need.”
Older generations were socialized to keep troublesome inner thoughts and feelings private. Seeking treatment was associated in the past more with severe mental illness. These factors may make them hesitate to seek help for mental health struggles, even amid the stress of the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn.
“Older parents may have the idea that therapy is an indulgence, a crutch, an excuse or a luxury,” Ross noted. “They may feel like they are too old or too set in their ways to change, that it’s not worth the effort or the pain of opening up. Others may feel it’s embarrassing to even consider discussing your personal life with a stranger.”
But it’s not necessarily a hopeless situation. Ross and other mental health experts share their advice for adult children who want to persuade their parents to go to therapy.
Approach the situation with love.
“Always approach the situation with love and come from a place of caring,” cautioned Rachel Thomasian, licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Los Angeles’ Playa Vista Counseling. “Be gentle in your approach. Explain how you’ve noticed them having a hard time with a specific behavior and that you’ve found some people who specialize in helping people with that issue.”
If your parent is hesitant, offer to brainstorm ways to make the process easier. Suggest you could join them in their therapy work or go to family counseling together. Don’t single them out as the problem, but rather just as a person who could benefit from talking to someone and gaining new skills.
“Have an open, honest conversation ― one that involves concern and vulnerability, not blaming or shaming a parent for something they have or haven’t done,” Ross said.
Explain why you want them to seek help.
“Be clear about your goals for wanting to get your parents into treatment ― ‘I’ve seen you be less active and decline invitations to socialize with your friends since Dad passed away. I’m concerned about you and I think you would benefit from seeing a grief counselor,’” said Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta.
It may also help to let your parent know how their issues are affecting you and that you care about them but can’t be their therapist. Set a boundary and make it clear that you want them to get help from a professional, who is better suited to make a difference.
“If your parents are leaning on you for emotional support that you can’t provide, let them know that ― ‘I’m not the best person to help you deal with the fights you and Dad are having. Let’s find someone you can talk to about this,’” Delawalla said.
Validate their concerns.
Do not summarily dismiss your parent’s reservations about going to therapy. Ignoring their worries or trying to strong-arm a reluctant person into therapy aren’t necessarily winning strategies. Instead, hear them out before responding.
“You can try to validate and normalize their fears,” Delawalla suggested. “Say, ‘I can understand why you might be uncomfortable disclosing so much personal information to someone you don’t even know.’”
You can even encourage your parent to let their potential therapist know all of the reasons why they don’t want to be in therapy.
“Put it all out there,” advised Ross. “An experienced therapist can handle all the resistance and will even welcome it and validate it.”
Share your own experience with therapy.
After validating their concerns, offer a new perspective and information about the ways that therapy can improve quality of life. Explain that therapy isn’t about judgment and getting orders on what to do, but rather an opportunity to reflect on your life with someone who has no preconceived ideas about or personal involvement with it.
Delawalla recommended saying something like “When I was in therapy, I did not feel judged” or “Therapy allowed me to look at things from a different perspective” or “I learned how to manage my emotions.”
You don’t need personal experience with therapy to believe it’s important, however, and you can share statistical information and quotes from others about its benefits. It’s also worth explaining that therapists fully respect their clients’ privacy and that your parent is under no obligation to share what they discuss in sessions with anyone else (including you) if they don’t want to.
Help them find a good therapist.
Different therapists offer different approaches, not all of which will appeal to everyone. It can be hard to navigate the various offerings on Psychology Today’s website, for instance.
“Help [your parent] find the right fit,” Delawalla advised. “Perhaps they have a gender preference or prefer a therapist of a certain generation or someone with a similar background. Ask about and respect these preferences, even if they don’t align with yours, and help them find the right provider.”
Walk them through the process.
“Another really good way to persuade a parent to see a therapist is to walk through the process with them,” Thomasian noted. “It’s helpful to explain exactly what therapy is and is not, what to expect, and how it can help.”
Again, you can share your own experience with therapy if you have any. Thomasian advised taking advantage of the free consultations most therapists offer as well.
“Maybe even try a session or two yourself and explain the benefits to your parent. Nothing is more convincing than firsthand experience and referral,” she said.
Ease into it.
Going to therapy for the first time (or the first time in a while) can seem daunting, but you can lessen those feelings by assuring them they aren’t committing to anything big. Encourage your parents to simply give it a try and agree to just one to three sessions at first.
“While many older people may feel it’s too late to change or too hard to think about dredging up the past, when they do begin working with a therapist, they often find it to be a great relief,” Ross said. “Sometimes it’s just getting the person in the door and the floodgates open. I’ve heard from many older adults that they wish they had done it sooner and that they don’t know what they were so afraid of.”
Once people get to know their therapist, there tends to be a shift away from resistance as they build trust, establish a relationship and learn to feel safe.
Another way to get parents in the door is to ask them to participate in some family therapy sessions with you for the sake of your own well-being and relationship with them. Ross said she’s noticed many hesitant parents start to open up and make great use of their time in a family therapy context.
“For adult children, it’s a way to get their parents professional help and support while relieving some of their burden at being the ‘go-to’ or just worrying about a parent’s mental health,” Ross said. “An older parent’s emotional wellbeing is often a real source of distress that gets in the way of adult children paying attention to other areas in their own lives. Framing it as a family issue or parent/child relationship issue can lower resistance just enough that a parent may actually agree to try it. Parents are often willing to do things for their kids that they aren’t willing to do for themselves.”
“Expect your parents to resist the idea of seeking treatment,” Delawalla said. “This is not something you can bring up once and expect them to follow through with your suggestions.”
Instead, prepare to have multiple conversations as they consider therapy and find the right ways to verbalize their concerns. Let them know that you’re always there to support them in their mental journey ― whether it’s finding a therapist, driving them to appointments or discussing new insights they’ve learned in sessions.
“Patience, compassion and active listening will help,” said Mark Pollack, former president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and chief medical officer of Myriad Neuroscience. “For some individuals, talking to them about feeling ‘stressed,’ as opposed to ‘depressed,’ will be less likely to engender defensiveness or denial. Similarly, encouraging them to talk with their clinician about their problems with sleep, appetite or energy may be more acceptable.”
Temper your expectations.
“What feels to you like no big deal may in fact feel threatening, shaming and embarrassing to your parents,” Ross said. “They may have grown up in a family and a community where seeking outside help for mental health was extremely taboo. There may be past events, trauma or family secrets that they have never shared. They may fear opening Pandora’s box and making it worse.”
Even if you do everything right and approach the situation with love, patience and reason, your parent may still remain firm in their refusal. Should this happen, be sure to prioritize your own mental health and work with your own therapist to make peace with this reality.
“Keep in mind that at the end of the day, you can’t force a person to seek therapy,” Ross said. “You can express your concerns, address their resistance and offer your perspective, but if the person doesn’t embrace the process, it is unlikely to be helpful.”