Dear Dr. Wes and Katie: My daughter is starting her junior year at an out-of-state college. I have encouraged her to seek counseling for anxiety at her school, but she is somewhat resistant to that. How can I persuade her that this is a good idea when she’s not living with me?
Katie: A therapist can only give your daughter as much aid as she’s willing to receive. Moreover, counseling doesn’t do much good if the patient resents being “forced” to undergo treatment through a sense of obligation, especially if that patient is a college student flexing her independence.
To benefit from counseling, your daughter must recognize for herself why she is there and what she hopes to accomplish. You might have a clear idea from a parental perspective of what is best for her, but perhaps she thinks she can manage her anxiety on her own.
It is possible that she’s struggling to admit to herself or others that she needs help. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for young people to attach a social stigma to therapy. Remind her that there’s no shame in seeking counseling; the shame lies in refusing help when it’s needed.
As a fellow anxiety-sufferer, I can say firsthand that an anxious student’s first defense is often denial. We bury internal problems beneath external pursuits, like obsessive studying. Only by unearthing those anxieties will your daughter realize that she would be happier if she learned to address them directly — and if the solution is professional help, you can discuss that option when it’s a matter of suggestion instead of persuasion.
Though the distance between you and your daughter may be trying, there are strategies you can pursue over the phone to guide her toward self-awareness. My mother often asks me a seemingly simple question to put my thoughts in perspective: “Can you name three good things about today?” That’s a surprisingly difficult answer if you’ve spent the morning worrying about the afternoon. If your daughter can’t brainstorm her list without choking up, it might be a good opportunity to bring up counseling.
There is, of course, no replacement for the knowing ear of a loving parent. You’ll always be your daughter’s first anxiety hotline — but with the help of a professional, she may find herself reaching for that hotline less and less.
Dr. Wes: Hard to improve on Katie’s advice, except to say that young adults are rarely as independent as she suggests. They are instead simply free.
If your daughter is financially connected to you, she’s part of something larger than herself — a family system.
You don’t tell us how impaired she is by her anxiety, but if it’s threatening her matriculation through college or her ability to work after graduation, she has an obligation to you to seek help, without which she may not be able to move on to the next step in life. If she’s generally doing fine and you just wish she’d feel better and less stressed, then Katie is right, that’s beyond your scope of influence.
While I agree there may still be a little stigma attached to therapy, I more often find that young adults not only like seeing a therapist, but they speak highly of it and refer their friends. The problem is finding a good match between therapist and client.
Research websites of therapists in your daughter’s college community to see who specializes in her age group, then contact them to see if one might fit with her personality and needs. Keep in mind that the attributes you seek in a therapist may differ substantially from what your daughter would like, so think about her and the kinds of people she’s attracted to.
It’s especially important to look for someone who acts and communicates like a regular person, free of pomp and jargon. When young people go to therapy, they don’t really want to talk to a therapist. They want to talk to a PERSON who knows how to do therapy in a friendly, conversational tone. They also don’t like to sit quietly and be stared at. A good therapist for teens and young adults knows how to carry his or her end of the conversation. Find one of those, give her the name and tell her she only has to go once to see what she thinks. If the connection is good, she’ll be back.