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Get Outta My Head!
Charlene Carter
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By Charlene Carter

"Just because you're mandated to go to therapy does not mean you have to sit there and let the therapist enter your life."

This is what Sarah Beth Frishman, a therapist at Barrier Free Living in New York, said about kids in foster care who are required to go to therapy. I was talking to her about therapy because often kids in foster care are forced to take psychiatric evaluations. Their experiences with the psychiatrists and therapists are often bad simply because they don't want to be there in the first place. They don't want to go to the many counseling sessions, they don't want to give details about their lives to a stranger, and they don't want to take the medication prescribed for them. Being told that they have to do those things can make them feel that they're being manipulated and abused by the foster care system, and that their rights are being taken away. Therapy is supposed to help people, but when you don't want to be there and you're forced to go, it can end up making you feel worse.

Sentenced to Therapy

When I got my psychiatric evaluation and was told to go to therapy, that made me feel manipulated. I felt that I didn't need to go to therapy at the time. I see this happening in my group home: The residents will go for an evaluation and then become very annoyed when they're told that they must attend therapy. They complain about it, but very little is done to accommodate them. Most of the time they have to go to therapy and, because they don't want to be there, it ends up being a waste of their time and the therapist's time. What is the point of that?

Frishman agreed that if someone in therapy doesn't want to be there, chances are they won't get a lot out of it. "It's difficult to force someone to do something they don't want to do," said Frishman. "Part of therapy is being ready and willing."

People in therapy who want to be helped have to be willing to work with the therapist and to reveal parts of themselves, like their feelings, which can be hard to do. Talking about difficult parts of your life can bring up uncomfortable emotions, like sadness or anger. "When giving out intimate details, hard core data about themselves, kids have different reactions," Frishman said. "Some are ashamed, surprised, proud, and yet others don't seem to mind it at all."

image by Victoria Sorrissio

Talking through whatever emotions come up, she said, can make someone feel better in the long run. So Frishman strongly felt that therapy could be useful to anyone, and especially kids in foster care who have been taken away from their family, which is painful in itself. It could give kids in foster care a safe space to talk about their feelings with an adult who listens, not judges. And it could help those kids better understand themselves and how various events in their lives have affected them.

But often kids in foster care are not ready to commit to going to so many sessions of therapy, regardless of how much it could help them. Maybe they feel that whatever they tell the therapist will be told to someone else, like their group home staff. And some of us feel that the time and energy spent in therapy is too much, and distracts us from our other goals, like finishing school or getting reunited with our parents.

Suffering Consequences

This can lead to lots of misunderstandings between group home residents and staff, because the staff expect the kids to abide by the agency rules at all times. In my group home, sometimes a resident faces consequences for refusing to go to therapy. The disappointed staff may take away that kid's privileges, like not letting her use the telephone for two days. This can make the resident angry, and that anger can lead to more problems in her life.

Yes, therapy may be able to help some of us. But the staff must realize that if we are not ready and willing to go to therapy, being forced to do it may affect us in many negative ways. And we may start thinking negatively about therapy and therapists in general.

Feeling Manipulated

Perhaps all of us in foster care need good therapists who care about us and who will give us the time and space and attention that we need from an adult. Maybe if there were more therapists who really listened to the child and respected her reluctance to share difficult details about her life, then kids in foster care would be more cooperative when it came to going to therapy. But for now, many teens become disappointed when they're forced to go to therapy. Therapy will not be effective for us if we don't want to be there, or if we feel manipulated.

"You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink," Frishman said. That is, if we don't want to be in therapy, chances are it just won't work.

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(FCYU-2001-03-10)

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