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At first glance, Ben, Andy, Rachel, and Emily don't seem to have much in common. Ben is totally into basketball and playing guitar, whereas Andy is a quiet guy who passes his time in front of his computer. Rachel is a straight-A student and student council rep, and Emily is an average student who loves drama and painting. They dress differently and hang with different friends, they live in different neighborhoods, and they aren't even in the same year in high school.

But these teens do share an important similarity - they've all gone to therapy for help with dealing with their problems. Although their reasons for going to therapy are very different, all of them are relieved that they've found someone who can help them sort things out.

What Is Therapy - and What Do Therapists Do?
The dictionary defines therapy as the treatment of a disorder or illness. There are many different kinds of therapy; you've probably heard people discussing physical therapy, art therapy, or even gene therapy. In this article, however, therapy refers to psychotherapy - the treatment of behavioral and emotional concerns (these concerns are sometimes called mental or emotional disorders).

A psychotherapist (therapist for short) is a person who has been professionally trained to help people with emotional and behavioral problems and disorders. These problems can include things like significant problems with friends and family or problems with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

There are several different types of therapists. The letters following a therapist's name sometimes tell you the kind of training he or she has received:

  • Psychiatrists (MD or DO) are licensed medical doctors who have advanced training in psychotherapy and pharmacology (the science of using drugs as medicine). They are the only mental health care providers who can prescribe medications.
  • Clinical psychologists (PhD, PsyD, or EdD) are therapists who have received doctorate degrees. They have advanced training in the practice of psychology, and many specialize in treating teens and their families.
  • Clinical social workers (LCSW, ACSW, LICSW, or CSW) have master's degrees and training in counseling individuals and groups.

What Are Some Reasons That People Go to Therapists?
There are times when life can get very difficult or complicated. Sometimes when people are trying as hard as they can to get through a rough time, they find that they just can't cope by themselves. They need help to sort out their feelings and find solutions to their problems. That's an example of a time when therapy can help.

The teen years can be particularly tough. Some teens have to deal with family problems, like divorce or the death or illness of a family member. Some may not get along with a parent, stepparent, or sibling. Some face a lot of pressure to get good grades at school; others have problems with their self-esteem. Some teens have to deal with a chronic illness like diabetes or mental health problems such as depression or bipolar disorder; others may be trying to overcome abusive situations or eating disorders. These are some of the many reasons that a teen might go to therapy.

There's nothing wrong with getting help when you're faced with problems you can't solve alone. In fact, it's just the opposite. The right move is to ask an adult you trust - like a parent, school counselor, or doctor - to assist you in finding a therapist who can help you.

What Happens During Therapy?
During your first visit to a therapist, he or she will probably ask you to talk in general terms about what's going on with you. The therapist will probably explain a little bit about what you'll cover in your sessions and suggest how frequently you should meet. This may be once a week, every other week, or once a month. It's important that you stick to whatever schedule you agree on and go to your appointments, so that you have enough time with your therapist to work out your concerns.

Some teens worry that a therapist will tell their parents about what they discuss during therapy. That makes it hard for them to talk openly about their situations. Therapists respect the privacy of their patients, and keep everything that they're told confidential. They won't talk about what you've told them with anyone else unless you give your permission. The only exception would be if the therapist felt that you might harm yourself or someone else. If the issue of privacy and confidentiality worries you, be sure to ask your therapist about it during your first meeting. It's difficult for therapy to be effective if you don't feel that you can trust your therapist.

Because every person is different, therapists use various ways to treat people. They may use just one kind of therapy, or they may combine different types (using medication and "talk" therapy together, for example). Therapeutic strategies can include:

  • Relaxation training
    In this approach, the therapist helps people learn to relax their minds and their bodies so that they can cope with stress and maintain daily activities. This strategy helps people take control of their own situations.
  • Stress management
    In this type of therapy, people learn to recognize the signs of stress and to find ways of dealing with stress.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy
    This kind of therapy helps people identify negative ways of thinking and change them to more positive approaches. For example, a teen who is convinced that he will always fail when taking a test could identify his self-defeating thought patterns and learn a more positive, effective way of thinking.
  • Individual therapy
    In individual therapy, the therapist meets one-on-one with the teen to work on a problem such as depression.
  • Family therapy
    In this type of therapy, a teen goes to therapy with some or all of his family members, which helps to improve communication among them. The treatment focuses on problem-solving techniques.

No matter what approach your therapist takes, he or she will monitor your progress to determine if the strategy is working. If you're uncomfortable with the therapy - or, as sometimes happens, with the particular therapist you're going to - be sure to tell your parents. If you feel that therapy isn't helping, it may be better to try a different therapist or a different kind of therapy.

Does This Mean I'm Crazy (or a Freak)?
If you're considering therapy or going to a therapist now, you may wonder if there's something wrong with you. But there's nothing wrong with asking for help when you need it. It takes a lot of courage - and maturity - to look for solutions to your problems instead of allowing them to become worse.

You don't have to hide the fact that you're going to a therapist - but you don't have to tell anyone, either, if you'd prefer not to. Getting help with an emotional problem is the same as getting help with a medical problem like diabetes. You might want to tell a few friends about it, but you may not want to tell anyone, especially if you feel that they won't understand. Either way, it's your decision, and you should do whatever you're most comfortable with.

Therapy can be a positive experience with many benefits. You'll probably find that you learn a lot about yourself, and that therapy can help you grow as a person. You'll also discover ways of coping with difficult situations - not only those that you're facing today, but also those that you may face in the future.

Reviewed by: David Sheslow, PhD
Date reviewed: May 2001

Source: KidsHealth is a project of The Nemours Foundation which is dedicated to improving the health and spirit of children. Today, as part of its continuing mission, the Foundation supports the operation of a number of renowned children's health facilities throughout the nation, including the Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children in Wilmington, Delaware, and the Nemours Children's Clinics throughout Florida.  Visit The Nemours Foundation to find out more about them and its health facilities for children