In the early days, Caroline, a 14-year-old girl, started each session with a chin thrust indignantly at her counselor. She wanted to be seen as a warrior, and she offered answers that were blunt as a sledgehammer.
And why should she drop her defenses? She had seen too many adults — teachers, social workers, friends of the family — try to engage with her at first, and then seemingly lose interest. In the end, she felt that she was just an inconvenience to everyone around her. Why should Caroline believe that this counselor would offer a different type of relationship?
With any new client comes the challenge of forming a therapeutic relationship, but when that new client is an adolescent, there are additional factors to consider. Aside from the legal issues of capacity and consent, I discuss 10 of those therapeutic factors below.
1) A holistic assessment: It is important to adopt a strengths-based approach to assessment of adolescents. In addition, it is worth reviewing that assessment more regularly than with an adult client because more things are likely to change with a growing adolescent. As Urie Bronfenbrenner pointed out, a young person’s development is the result of a complex system of relationships that constitute the child’s environment. Therefore, assessments of young clients will include their developmental needs, the extent to which caregivers are meeting their needs, and their family and environmental contexts, including the influence that their school and peers have on them. The assessment should also gauge the influence of technology in the young person’s life.
2) Emotional “distance” from problems: As an adolescent, Caroline needs her counselor to appreciate that she does not have the same “distance” as adults experience from their problems. Adolescents have little control over their lives. They have to stay in the same home or school, even if these things might be the source of their depression, anxiety or other presenting issue.
3) Grasp of emotional language: As a 14-year-old, Caroline still has not developed her emotional language, so volcanic eruptions of anger or shoulder shrugs of apparent indifference are her only means of expressing how she feels. We have to see past the shoulder shrugging, which can easily be interpreted as nonchalance, and open ourselves to the possibility that young clients want to express themselves but just don’t know how to yet.
Images are a useful starting point, even if it is just looking at a series of facial expressions to try and help these clients identify the emotions they are experiencing.
4) The dominance of transition: Transition features heavily in adolescents’ lives. Each year, they are at a different stage of educational development and, each year, they experience bodily changes. On top of all of this, their ideas about who they are and how they fit in with their peers and wider society are in a constant state of flux.
At this level of fluidity, a counselor can offer Caroline some sort of stability. One source of this stability can be the therapist’s professional boundaries. The counselor can also offer Caroline the benefit of his or her life experiences, providing a deeper context than Caroline’s young perspective. But the counselor’s older years and life experience do not provide complete insight, no matter what the client’s presenting issues is, so a person-centered approach is crucial. We, as counselors, do not know Caroline’s worldview until we explore it with her, and we have to be careful not to make too many assumptions.
5) Disruption tenfold: It is hard for adolescents to experience so much transition, but it is even harder to manage at the same time as dealing with mental or physical health challenges, a chaotic home life or a sudden major change experienced by the adolescent’s parents (e.g., job loss, divorce, bereavement).
Because of the volcanic eruptions of adolescence, there is a danger that adolescents will become scapegoats in these situations. Just because adolescents may shout the loudest does not mean they are the source of the problems. Often, parents bring their adolescents for therapy, and these adults are completely unwilling to consider that the need for change might also rest on their own shoulders, rather than expecting just the adolescent to change and the whole family dynamic to become settled.
6) Discrimination experienced by minority adolescents: If an adolescent client is a member of the LGBTQ community or is an ethnic minority, it is likely that they have endured some sort of discrimination. If adolescents have to make sense of this — in addition to the transitions they are experiencing in their bodies, at school and at home — it can be challenging to deal with.
Is it any wonder that we sometimes see volcanic behavior in adolescents in the form of outbursts and defiance, screamed at us in a burning rage? If we are to help these youngsters, we have to see past the behavior that spews out like lava. We must dare to imagine what unmet needs might be fueling this volcano.
To help us, we can consider Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and we can assess to what extent our adolescent clients may be getting their basic physiological needs met. Perhaps they are hungry, or there is the constant threat of homelessness hanging over them. Or perhaps their basic safety needs aren’t being met because domestic violence is present in the home. We can continue working our way up Maslow’s hierarchy (love/belonging, esteem and, ultimately, self-actualization) to understand what unmet needs may be fueling what appears on the surface to be irrational and unacceptable behavior.
7) Trauma-informed care: If the adolescent has a history of trauma, it is especially important to see past his or her volcanic eruptions of anger. In a 2017 article in Counseling Today about young clients in foster care (“Fostering a brighter future”), Stephanie Eberts states that therapists need to “help these children heal” by acting as a “translator” of the child’s behavior: “This includes explaining what a child’s behavior means and what motivates it, and then equipping both the child and the parents … with tools to redirect the behavior and better cope with tough emotions.”
8) Testing (to discover and take reassurance from) the boundaries: Adolescents may test boundaries more than adult clients do. Modeling behavior is important, and this is where congruence comes into play. If young clients are constantly pushing the boundaries by turning up late to sessions or missing them entirely, you can communicate the resulting emotion you are experiencing as a result of their behavior.
I like to think of this like a sonar device: Young clients are checking to see if you are still emotionally there and whether they are also still present in the interaction. You can share this with young clients, showing that certain behavior has consequences. Then you can jointly look for a way to resolve the matter.
Psychotherapist Rozsika Parker wrote about parents’ relationships with their children, but the following statements could apply equally to counselors and their young clients. Young clients “need to learn that they have an impact, that it’s possible to hurt” an adult, but it is also possible to “make it up with them.” Parker encourages adults to “show joy, hate, love, satisfaction — the full range of emotions — that will help the child to know themselves.” Parker wrote that she “heard the same note of reproach in their wails when they teethed, as in the studied criticism of me they could launch as teenagers.”
9) The resistant adolescent: As with any resistant client, adolescents need to feel that they are choosing to be in the sessions. But what happens if they are given no choice? If a therapist is working with a young client and the client’s family, and the young client chooses to leave the session early, what should the approach be?
I have heard some therapists adopt the following approach: They tell young clients that they are free to return to the session at any time but that the session will continue with the other family members. I quite like this approach because it avoids sessions becoming hijacked and held hostage by young clients, which might be a parallel process to other times in which these young clients have held more power than they knew how to handle. For example, they might have been forced to adopt a parental role with a younger sibling, or even a neglectful parent, at an inappropriately young age.
10) Mindfulness and meditation: I have seen and heard some of the criticisms of mindfulness and meditation. I struggle with this because, when I was starting out in this profession, my mentors raved about mindfulness and meditation. I need to see where this debate goes, but in the meantime, I cannot help but believe that there might be some value in mindfulness and meditation in our work with young clients.
Everything we offer our clients involves a balancing act between thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. Society is built to engage the thinking side of our awareness, and this casts a shadow over our feelings and bodily sensations. Yet all three are important sources of information. If we focus solely on our thoughts, we are arguably functioning at only a third of our capacity. Short and simple mindfulness or meditation exercises can help young clients tap all sources of information, while also giving them a moment of relief from the constant demands of life.
Chris Warren-Dickins is a licensed professional counselor in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Contact him through his website at exploretransform.com.
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