In the past few weeks, I have had two students say to me that they feel “awkward” when talking to their therapists.
“Coach, I feel like she is sitting there and staring at me, and I don’t know what to say.”
As someone who has been in therapy for many years, and I always feel like I have something to talk about, I didn’t understand what my students were telling me, until I looked at it from their teenage point of view. For teens, talking to adults can be hard. Talking about their emotions to an adult can be even harder. The more I thought about it, I realized that my students probably only knew about what happens in therapy from watching a glamorized version on TV. It makes sense that it would feel awkward because TV is not reality.
My students needed some coaching. As a trusted adult in their lives, and not their therapist, I help my students prepare for their therapy sessions by creating a plan with them. I make sure they know that what they talk about in counseling is private and up to them, but give them guidance on what to do in therapy when they get there. Here are three strategies I have been coaching students to use to help them benefit from their professional support sessions.
Keep a notebook– I highly recommend for students to keep a therapy notebook. Throughout the week or weeks between sessions, students can write down things that come up in their lives that they may want to talk about with their therapist. These can be situations at home, school, a job, or in a relationship. I encourage students to write down what happened so they remember the specifics, and also write down the emotions that come up for them during the situation. Before their next session the student can go back over what they wrote down and decide what are the most important topics to share. Having notes to reference when sitting with a therapist is much easier than having to remember things off the top of their head at any age, but especially for teens who may feel nervous. During the therapy session, they can also use the notebook to write down the things they learn or the things they discuss and want to remember to work on.
Communicate an agenda– With the help of a notebook, students can plan out how much time they think they need to spend talking about a certain aspect of their life with their therapist. I personally have found it helpful to let my therapist know how I need to “budget” my therapy session time and I have been encouraging my students to do the same. For example, one week they may need to spend the entire time talking about their family, but another week they want to spend 30 minutes talking about school, and 30 minutes talking about their friendships. Of course, there will be times when the agenda goes by the wayside because things come up organically in therapy, and that is totally ok too. By communicating an agenda, I am trying to help students avoid saying “oh I should have talked about this!” on the car ride home so they are able to get the timely support they need.
Be honest and trust– Therapy is a journey. Some sessions are easier than others when you are discovering things about yourself. I encourage my students to be honest with their therapists and themselves in the process. I have been reminding them to trust the process their therapist is guiding them through and that change takes time. Self compassion is key.
While it is disheartening that many high school students are in need of professional support because of the current pressures they are living in, I am grateful that so many of my students are seeking support and we are able to have open conversations about it. It is important to model prioritizing mental health for students to make it feel less awkward. When teens feel empowered to direct their own healing and talk about what they need to, they are able to begin to feel the benefits of professional therapy. This leads to a balanced life and they are worth it.