How Long Should A Teenager Be In Therapy?

How Long Should A Teenager Be In Therapy?

A teenage boy and female therapist discuss therapy goals.

The length of time that a teenager should be in therapy depends on several factors including their diagnosis, response to treatment, at-home support, and their connection with the therapist. It’s normal for parents to wonder how long it will take to see a significant reduction in symptoms of a mental health condition and a positive shift in their child’s mood and behaviors.

“This is actually a question I get quite frequently,” said Laura Deneen, LPC-MHSP, CEDS-S, NCC, therapist and founder of Anchored Counseling. “It’s a tricky one to answer. I think it depends on several different factors, including the family’s buy-in to treatment. We have to first understand that there is a problem and then we need an appropriate treatment plan. I’m a firm believer that we want our clients to get better quickly. Not quickly in the sense of putting pressure on the client, but I want clients to have a takeaway from every session.”

The type of treatment your teen receives will play a role in the amount of time they spend in therapy. Ultimately what determines the length of treatment are your family’s goals. Are you looking for a reduction in symptoms of a specific mental health disorder or the development of coping and communication skills to help your child manage current, and possibly future, symptoms or triggers? Often parents and their children have goals tied to quality of life and daily function such as attending school without a panic attack, identifying and verbalizing sources of anxiety and fear, or increasing positive self-statements.


Understanding the Goals of Therapy

We talked with local therapists about how long adolescents should be in therapy. They all shared the idea that treatment length will vary from person to person, and goals play a big factor in determining when therapy should end.

Common goals of adolescent therapy include:

  • reduce and manage symptoms of a mental health disorder
  • increase self-esteem and reduce negative self-talk
  • develop coping skills
  • improve communication skills
  • identify triggers of anxiety or depression
  • attend a full week of school
  • improve sleep quality
  • develop new friendships

Therapy goals are the intentions shared between a therapist and their client. Setting goals helps create a framework to measure progress. Every family and every child going through therapy will have their own set of goals. Progress can be as straightforward as symptom improvement, which can be easier to measure in physical scenarios like fatigue, panic attacks, or sleep patterns, while emotional and mental progress can be harder to measure. That’s why you should create a framework with your child’s therapist. Remember that therapy is a resource. Many families consider it an investment.

“Some people may need a few sessions of weekly therapy to make improvements while others may spend months or years and don’t feel much better,” said Rachel Holloway, MS, LPC-MHSP, a program therapist at Embrace U. “Motivation plays a key factor in the results of therapy.  If someone is willing to try interventions, new coping skills, and be vulnerable even when it is uncomfortable, they are much more likely to see improvements sooner.”

RELATED ARTICLE: When Should A Child or Teen Start Therapy?

What Determines the Length of Therapy?

“I think it really depends on what the diagnosis is and then how long the child has been using those behaviors,” said Deneen. “Then you have to consider what at-home support looks like. There are many different factors to determine how long treatment will take.”

The amount of time that someone has experienced symptoms of a mental health disorder can play a major factor in determining the length of time they might spend in treatment. Deneen said it typically takes longer to work through issues with adults than it does with children.

“I really think that’s hopeful for parents because, for children and adolescents, their brains are still in those formative years and creating new neural pathways,” she said. “We always have the opportunity to change our brains.”

The willingness of a child or teenager to participate in therapy plays a big role in determining how long they’ll stay in treatment. Patients who refuse to share their feelings and emotions won’t see as much benefit. Children and their families who resist making changes risk delaying progress. In broad terms, you and your child will get out of therapy what you are willing to put into it.

“It depends on the patient and how much work they are willing to put into treatment as well as how their environment re-enforces the likelihood of continuing the progress being made,” said Rebecca Stewart, LCSW, a program therapist at Embrace U. “Some patients can see differences in a matter of six weeks, while for other patients it can take years.”

Expectations can also determine the amount of time someone spends in therapy before they see the progress they are after.

“If someone comes into therapy expecting the therapist to fix their life, it isn’t happening,” Holloway said. “The therapist is a resource and encourager for the client to change their own life.”

Many families start with weekly one-on-one therapy sessions but actually need a higher level of care, such as an intensive outpatient program or partial hospitalization. These programs are designed to quickly address symptoms of a mental health condition and lay the foundation for ongoing, less intensive treatment.

“We recommend starting with more treatment in the beginning because that’s typically more successful for the client,” Deneen said. “If a higher level of care is needed I certainly will recommend that. It’s better to treat at an appropriate level of care than to under-treat someone. I find that if a child does need a higher level of care, they’ll be more successful in treatment with me if they get that higher level of care and then come back to me for a longer term of care.”

About Embrace U

The child and adolescent therapy programs at Embrace U help families quickly recover from a mental health crisis. Participants experience the benefits of group and individual therapy to develop coping and communication skills that help them reduce symptoms of a mental health disorder. Embrace U also provides psychiatric support and family counseling to ensure progress made at the clinic can continue at home. Most participants experience a significant reduction in symptoms within four to six weeks. To learn more about our intake process or to schedule a free consultation call 615-656-8624 or submit your information on our contact form.


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