When preparing for a symphony, a conductor will often tell the musicians that the last note is as important as the first; after all, the last note is what the listeners will take with them. For that reason, the final note of a symphony requires just as much artistry, thought and attention as the first note.
Much like the final note of a symphony, counseling termination requires a great deal of creativity and attention to detail. Although termination is an often neglected concept in the counseling literature, it is supremely important.
Termination is the term most commonly used to describe the process of finalizing or ending a counseling experience. Yet that word conjures up images of abrupt endings or even death, so we wish that a better phrase could be identified to describe counseling endings and transitions. Perhaps the words finale or commencement, or even the euphemism new beginnings, would better capture the termination process.
Many if not most of our clients have experienced traumatic or adverse life experiences. Thus, the termination process can be particularly triggering and take on an even more significant meaning for these populations. Because of its importance, we believe that the termination process merits a closer look.
Ethics and termination
Ethically, it is a counselor’s duty to prepare clients for the counseling termination process and to terminate services when clients are no longer benefiting from counseling. Therefore, counselors ought to be thinking about termination, even at a first session.
When the time comes to end the therapeutic relationship, it is natural for there to be feelings of grief and loss and even an adjustment period. Some clients may struggle to negotiate healthy boundaries and the termination of relationships. Furthermore, clients who have experienced abuse or trauma may be especially sensitive to relationship transitions.
Ending a therapeutic relationship requires a great deal of thought. If done ethically and competently, termination can help solidify counseling gains, empowering clients to integrate their experiences and bravely face their next chapter in life. Termination can also help model healthy boundaries and a natural and appropriate end to a relationship. Effective termination provides clients with an opportunity for continued personal growth, whereas ineffective termination can actually harm clients.
Preparing clients for termination
To best prepare clients for termination, it is essential that counselors proactively address termination. Ideally, termination should be introduced during the informed consent process. In fact, by openly discussing termination from the beginning of counseling, counselors may help galvanize client motivation because clients will see counseling as something temporary that can be used to help them reach a defined set of goals.
By weaving the idea of termination into informed consent, counselors can also encourage and elicit client feedback regarding the progress being made in counseling. Thus, clients will be liberated from the fear of “disappointing” their counselor by raising the idea of ending counseling once they feel they have received what they needed from the counseling experience. Remaining transparent about termination, from the initiation of counseling, can help clients invest in reaching their goals while concurrently empowering them to voice when they feel they are ready to end counseling.
Counselor adjustment to termination
Just as clients often experience a tangle of feelings around the end of a counseling relationship, counselors themselves can have emotional reactions to termination. As counselors, we invest much time, emotional and intellectual energy, and dedication to helping our clients. After all, the lifeblood of the counseling profession is based on building a warm connection with those we serve. As a byproduct of this relationship process, counselors do indeed develop emotions and thoughts regarding their clients. Consequently, when the counseling relationship ends, there is an adjustment period for counselors too.
Ideally, this adjustment period would include a space for self-supervision, with counselors objectively evaluating their performance and efficacy with the client. Counselors can identify potential growth areas and reflect on their professional strengths as part of this process.
Before engaging in such objective evaluation, however, counselors may need to sort through their residual feelings of loss. These feelings may be further complicated by countertransference. If, for instance, a counselor’s personal experience aligned with that of the client who recently terminated, the counselor’s emotional reaction may be intensified. If there is a positive prognosis for the client, the termination process may catalyze feelings in the counselor of fulfillment, competency and even confidence. If, however, the client terminates abruptly or has a less than favorable prognosis, the counselor may experience feelings of incompetence and disillusionment, especially if the counselor’s lived experiences mirror those of the client. In these instances, counselors must make processing their emotions around termination a priority.
Although it is imperative to cultivate self-awareness surrounding countertransference throughout the counseling relationship, monitoring countertransference at termination may be especially important. Counselors ought to be cognizant of their emotions and willing to process these emotions, whether positive or negative, at the end of a counseling relationship.
In summation, while clients often experience grief and a sense of loss at the conclusion of the counseling process, counselors may also have emotional reactions to the termination process. Counselors should monitor these reactions, discuss them in supervision, consult with peers, and seek personal counseling if necessary to ensure that even as they adjust to the loss of a therapeutic relationship with a client, the quality of the services they provide to their remaining clients remains top-notch. Being aware that termination is a two-way street that affects the counselor-client dyad allows counselors to more effectively understand, and thus cope with, the emotions and thoughts that ending a therapeutic relationship may stir up.
Client ambivalence around termination
Even when counselors introduce the discussion of termination in the initial stages of the counseling relationship, it is natural for many clients to experience some anxiety and disillusionment with the idea. After all, the counseling relationship may be one of the only times, if not the only time, in their lives when they have experienced safety, trust, compassion and care. Given that these virtues are basic human needs, it makes sense that clients may be reluctant to end the counseling relationship.
Some clients may manifest this reluctance by continually raising “new” issues or concerns anytime the possibility of termination is mentioned. Clients may even return to the behaviors that led them to counseling initially. For example, a client who self-injures and works toward abstinence over the course of counseling may engage in self-injury again as the idea of termination nears. Rather than viewing this as a counseling failure, counselors should remember that, like counseling itself, termination is not linear.
At its core, termination involves the ending of a relationship, likely resulting in feelings of grief and loss. Thus, space should be made for clients to experience, rather than avoid, those feelings that come with the natural ending of a relationship. Encouraging clients to utilize the coping and emotional regulation skills they have gained over the course of counseling can assist in managing the emotions surrounding termination. This action also helps to reinforce the learning that occurred throughout the counseling process. Walking alongside clients as they grieve the loss of the counseling relationship allows them to experience the conclusion of a relationship in a nurturing and empathetic environment and helps them develop so that they can better manage future losses and transitions.
Counselors should continually assess for termination readiness when working with clients. One way to do this is to ask clients questions such as, “Do you think you are benefiting from counseling?” and “How will you know when our time here together is coming to an end?” Questions such as these set an expectation that counseling will end and serve to empower clients to help determine when it will conclude. By trusting clients and actively listening to their experiences and sense of how they are (or are not) benefiting from counseling, counselors help clients prepare for the termination process.
The termination process
When it comes to the actual process of termination, counselors can take many different approaches with clients. The interests and developmental level of clients and the content of counseling should all be considered when planning termination activities. Termination is often an ideal time to incorporate active, engaging and creative interventions that encourage clients to engage in active learning and reflection upon the counseling process as a whole.
Often, as termination nears, client engagement and enthusiasm in counseling diminish. By using active and creative termination interventions, counselors can inject new enthusiasm into the last several counseling sessions. Clients tend to more readily remember counseling interventions in which they are interactively involved.
Regardless of the specific intervention used, termination is an ideal time to incorporate an optimistic, empowering and future-oriented approach. Counselors can compassionately empathize with clients who are reluctant to terminate while concurrently encouraging them to see the end of counseling as a new adventure in which they can apply the skills they have learned throughout counseling. Assuming such a tone as a counselor assists clients in developing a future-focused orientation. This may help propel them through the natural grieving process that often accompanies the ending of a counseling relationship.
Creative termination activities
A variety of creative termination techniques can be used with clients. Ideally, the counselor can dedicate several sessions to fully processing and exploring the termination process. A few examples of creative termination activities follow.
One-way trip for trauma: This activity can be used with clients who have worked on trauma issues or those who have worked to let go of something while in counseling. Clients can take the materials that they have accumulated throughout the counseling process that are associated with their trauma narratives — writings, journals, worksheets, illustrations, etc. — and either rip them up, color over them, or simply fold them neatly.
After the materials are collected, counselors should provide clients with a small box or container (these are easily obtained from everyday recycled products or by purchasing them in bulk on the internet). Next, clients can be given a variety of tape. Clients then
place their trauma narrative materials into the container, tape the container shut, and decorate the container as they see fit. At this point, counselors can process with clients how their traumatic past need not dictate their future. Clients can then discuss how leaving the counseling relationship symbolizes their having processed and worked through their trauma.
This intervention can also be paired with a “new beginning” celebration to signify the start of a new chapter in clients’ lives. Although shifting the language from “termination” to “new beginning” may seem like nothing more than a euphemism, the language is immensely important. Helping
clients who have a history of trauma understand that they do indeed have a future, despite the pain and hopelessness they have endured in the past, is a powerful intervention.
Sticker chart/memory book: Younger clients may struggle to fully grasp the concept of termination or to engage in metacognitive reflection on the counseling process as a whole. Thus, with these clients, more developmentally appropriate and artistic interventions are often indicated. For instance, a sticker or picture chart could be maintained throughout the counseling process, with clients placing a sticker on the chart each time they come to counseling. Clients can even draw pictures, along with using the stickers, to illustrate a “story” of their time in counseling. As termination approaches, clients can further illustrate their chart, review what they have learned so far, and place more stickers on the chart signifying their achievements in counseling.
Another effective approach is working together with younger clients to create a memory book with pictures, words, stickers and decorations that will help them remember their time in counseling in a more concrete manner. Both of these interventions allow child clients to take a tangible item with them as they end the counseling process.
Aloha lei (hello-goodbye) activity: Counselors can explain to clients that the word aloha means both hello and goodbye. Counselors can then discuss with clients that every end is the start of a new beginning, as is the case with the end of counseling.
For the activity, paper flowers can be cut out (clients can select the color of the materials to enhance autonomy). Clients can write effective coping skills, memorable counseling experiences, or other notable takeaways on the flowers. Next, punch a hole in each flower and thread them along the string. Family members or caregivers can also be involved in the process (with client consent), adding their own flowers to the lei. The lei can then be given to the client as a parting gift. This intervention involves creativity and metaphor in a way that summarizes the counseling experience while actively involving the client.
Building blocks: This activity can be tailored to clients of any age. During the final session, counselors can bring a number of building blocks, Legos, Jenga blocks, or other toy blocks to session. Clients can then construct a tower or creation of their choosing. Each block in the creation can represent a powerful moment in counseling, a coping skill clients now possess, or another skill clients have learned during counseling.
As the height of the tower increases, clients may become anxious, especially as the tower begins to lean. If the tower ultimately falls, the counselor can explain that, given the clients’ fundamental skills — the skills they assigned to each block — the tower can be rebuilt. This intervention helps clients understand that even if they experience the inevitable “falls” of life, they possess the fundamental “building block” skills to rebuild. This intervention is a tactile and empowering activity for the end of counseling.
Goodbye letter: There are many variations of a goodbye letter that can be used as the counseling process comes to a close. Counselors can provide a letter template with certain blanks to be filled in, or they can simply provide a blank piece of paper on which clients can write their own letter. Adding prompts or sentence stems for clients to complete can add a degree of structure to the letter.
There is flexibility in terms of the letter’s point of view. Goodbye letters can be written from client to counselor, from counselor to client, or even from the perspective of the process of counseling itself being personified. Possible writing prompts include “One thing I remember from counseling is …” or “The most memorable moment of counseling was …” Although counselor creativity can yield limitless possible prompts, it is important that the goodbye letter be narrowed to focus on the most relevant moments of the counseling process. It is also important to keep the activity strengths-based (as is the case with any termination activity).
Survivor tree: Survivor trees can serve as a creative intervention to foster and celebrate resilience in the final stage of the counseling relationship. They can be either simple or complex, depending on the clients’ developmental abilities. Survivor trees may be drawn out to explore clients’ areas of growth (the branches), clients’ future hopes and aspirations (leaves and buds), coping skills that clients have learned in order to stay grounded (the trunk and roots), and even what struggles clients have worked through in counseling (dead leaves beneath the tree).
As the tree grows and expands on the paper, the counselor can weave in the idea that trees survive multiple seasons every year. Some seasons leave barren branches, whereas other seasons are rife with leaves and buds. Nevertheless, the tree survives and continues to bloom, even after a cold or barren season. Clients can then reflect how their resilience has allowed them to overcome previous barren seasons. They might also reflect on how the skills they learned in counseling can help engender resilience during future difficult seasons of life. Taking the example of the tree eventually blooming despite the adversity of winter, clients can explore how they can go forth in life and bloom beautifully, no matter the adversities they face.
Making a case for counseling: With this activity, clients are invited to create a “case” and fill it with various objects to help them summarize and conceptualize their experience in counseling. Depending on the client’s interests, the case can take on a variety of forms (e.g., a purse, an athletic shoebox, a favorite cereal box). Client autonomy can be reinforced by allowing clients creative license in decorating and designing their cases.
Clients can be encouraged to include various objects in the box that they find important and valuable to the counseling process (e.g., a grounding stone, a worksheet with coping skills, a journal). Furthermore, clients can create decorative scraps of paper to add to the box. These papers can include notable moments in counseling, emotions surrounding the counseling process, skills learned, or other tools with which the client can face the future trials and travails of life outside of the counseling relationship. If family members or significant others are involved in the counseling process, they can also add items to the client’s case (if the client agrees to their participation). This intervention is relatively open to interpretation and can include myriad creative avenues to help clients gain closure.
Regardless of the specific intervention used, termination is a vital part of the counseling process. During termination, counselors should convey a great deal of warmth and compassion to clients, while simultaneously aiming to empower them and promote their self-worth.
To reiterate, it is important to understand that semantics matter. The word termination conjures up brutal images of loss. In truth, the end of counseling is really the start of a new beginning; it is as if one chapter is closing and counselors are handing the pen off to clients to write their own next chapters. In so doing, counselors play their role in helping to ensure that the next chapter will be a good one.
The end of counseling, just like the end of a symphony, is not simply the end. Rather, it is a resounding note that acts as a gateway to new beginnings.
Victoria Kress is a professor at Youngstown State University and a licensed professional clinical counselor supervisor, a national certified counselor, and a certified clinical mental health counselor. She has published a number of journal articles on counseling termination and further addresses the topic in her textbooks, Counseling Children and Adolescents and Treating Those With Mental Disorders. Contact her at victoriaEkress@gmail.com.
Marissa Marie is a licensed professional counselor working at Youth Intensive Services in Youngstown, Ohio. She uses trauma counseling with those who have been involved in the sex trafficking industry. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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