Counseling Today, Knowledge Share

Engaging avoidant teens

By David Flack May 4, 2020

Ben** is a 16-year-old high school sophomore. He completed a mental health assessment about four months ago, following a referral from his school due to behavioral concerns, poor attendance and “possible issues with marijuana and other substances.” He previously attended school-based mental health counseling in seventh grade and has been meeting periodically with a school counselor for about a year.

(** Ben is a former client who gave permission to use his story. His name and some identifying details have been changed to protect confidentiality.)

At the time of assessment, Ben was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, moderate. He also completed screening questionnaires for trauma, anxiety and various other issues. All scores came back well below clinical levels. Despite the school’s concerns regarding substances, a formal drug assessment didn’t occur.

Todd and Julie, Ben’s parents, have been divorced since Ben was 3. Ben lived with his mother until about a year ago. Todd now has full custody but frequently travels for work. Both parents have been fairly disengaged in the counseling process. In fact, Doris, Ben’s fraternal grandmother, was the only family member to attend the assessment.

At the assessment, Doris appeared overly enmeshed with both Ben and Todd. She also reported that Julie “has bipolar but won’t take any meds” and “drinks too much, at least if you ask me.” Doris also stated that Ben “probably was abused” by Julie’s ex-boyfriend but refused to provide further details. “I don’t think I should have said anything.”

Following the assessment, Ben entered services reluctantly, meeting with his original counselor for almost two months. At that time, he was referred to me because the original counselor decided, “I can’t be effective with such a resistant kid.” The counselor said Ben’s attendance was poor and that he displayed an unwillingness to engage when present, did not complete treatment homework, and “showed up high at least a few times.”

During our first meeting, Ben reported, “All that other therapist did was keep saying how her office was a safe space to talk about feelings and crap like that. You know, the bullshit therapists always say. The bullshit I bet you’ll say too.”

Numerous studies show that an effective therapeutic alliance is essential for engagement, retention and positive treatment outcomes. However, many teenage clients simply aren’t interested in counseling, let alone creating connection or building rapport with some strange adult. This is especially true when it comes to avoidantly attached teens such as Ben.

Building effective therapeutic alliances with these youth can seem daunting to even the most seasoned counselor. In this article, we’ll explore practical, field-tested strategies for cultivating rapport with avoidantly attached teens. First, though, let’s briefly review some core attachment ideas.

We aren’t sea turtles

When a mother sea turtle is ready to lay eggs, she heads to a beach and digs a hole in the sand with her rear fins. She lays her eggs in this rudimentary nest, covers them, and quickly returns to the ocean. At this point, the mother sea turtle has completed all her parenting tasks and has nothing more to do with the eggs. Male sea turtles have nothing at all to do with their offspring.

When the eggs hatch, the newborn sea turtles awkwardly scamper to the ocean, using fins meant for swimming, not avoiding predators on land. If they survive this mad dash, they’re fully ready to live on their own. No caregiver ever provides nurturing, teaches them life skills or protects them in any other way.

Humans aren’t sea turtles. In our early years, we need caregivers just to survive. If these caregivers are attentive, protective and nurturing, human babies quickly learn that the world is a safe place, their needs will be met and people are glad they’re here. These children will be securely attached. However, if their primary caregiver isn’t dependable, then this healthy attachment process can be disrupted, resulting in an insecure attachment and possibly lifelong challenges with relationships, self-esteem and personality development.

There are three styles of insecure attachment: avoidant, anxious and disorganized. Avoidant attachment is the most common style of insecure attachment, with studies indicating that up to 1 in 4 Americans fall into this category. Undoubtedly, this percentage is higher in clinical settings.

Young children who develop an avoidant attachment style predictably have caregivers who are emotionally unavailable and ignore the child’s needs. These caregivers may reject the child when hurt or sick, typically encourage premature independence, and sometimes are overtly neglectful. As a result, the child learns, “I’m on my own.”

Attachment styles are continuums, so avoidantly attached teens don’t all act the same. That said, these youth often appear defiant, defensive or dismissive. They’re likely to present as highly independent, oppositional and unwilling to change. They’re also likely to be suspicious of any empathetic gesture.

A little more about empathy

Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person. As counselors, we’re taught that empathy is an essential component of all effective therapeutic relationships. I certainly don’t disagree with this. However, it seems to me that empathetic gestures are far from one-size-fits-all.

With reluctant clients of all ages, many counselors demonstrate empathy by saying things such as, “Seeking support is a courageous step” or “My office is a safe space to explore your feelings.” It’s like turning the volume up on some secret empathy knob. With anxiously attached clients, this could be quite effective. For avoidantly attached teens though, this is often overwhelming. Life has taught these youth to be cautious of such statements. So, when they hear such statements, they retreat.

I’m certainly not suggesting that we turn our empathy off as counselors. However, in the early stages of building therapeutic alliances with avoidantly attached teens, we need to turn the volume down. With this in mind, don’t congratulate avoidantly attached teens for starting counseling, especially if doing so is simply their least bad choice, and don’t declare your office a safe space. They know better.

I believe this more nuanced perspective of empathy is an essential foundation for engaging in the attachment-informed strategies that follow.

Starting out right

With avoidantly attached teens, first impressions are essential for starting out right. Here are four tips to help ensure that first meetings are therapeutically productive:

Emphasize rapport building. First meetings often involve stacks of paperwork, required screening tools and initial treatment planning. I encourage you to put that stuff aside and spend time getting to know the teen sitting across from you. You’ll have to finish all those forms eventually, but if this new client never returns, tidy paperwork and a well-crafted diagnosis won’t matter much. Besides, you’ll get better answers from teens such as Ben once you’ve developed some rapport.

Get parents out of the room. Unlike Todd and Julie, parents or caregivers almost always attend first meetings. When they do, I meet with everyone to cover the basics, such as presenting concerns, my background, and confidentiality issues. I then ask parents what they think I should know. After I get their perspective, I have them leave. That way, most of the first meeting can be focused on learning what the teen wants from services and cultivating rapport.

Focus on what they’re willing to do. Therapists love to focus on internal motivators and lofty treatment goals, but this isn’t useful with avoidantly attached teens, who want one thing — to leave and never come back. You’ll get further by helping them identify external motivators, such as fulfilling probation requirements or keeping parents happy. Helping avoidantly attached teens move toward these concrete goals proves that you’ve actually listened to what they’ve said, makes you an ally, and keeps them coming back.

Don’t hard sell therapy. When confronted with resistant clients, it’s easy to overstate the advantages of engagement. After all, if we didn’t believe in therapy, we wouldn’t be therapists, right? However, our enthusiasm may be exactly what an avoidantly attached teen needs to justify a quick retreat. Instead, objectively present your treatment recommendations, then explore the pros and cons of engaging. In my experience, most avoidantly attached teens agree to services when they don’t feel coerced.

With the first meeting successfully concluded, our next task is to cultivate an effective therapeutic alliance. Edward Bordin (1979) wrote that the therapeutic alliance is composed of
1) a positive bond between the therapist and client, 2) a collaborative approach to the tasks of counseling and 3) mutual agreement regarding treatment goals. When we strive to fully integrate these elements and genuinely embrace a teen’s motivators, we stop being an adversary and become an ally. For avoidantly attached teens, we also become a much-needed secure base — maybe their only one.

Building a strong therapeutic alliance with avoidantly attached teens requires us to focus on being trustworthy and creating connectedness.

Trustworthiness

Avoidantly attached teens have learned to continuously question the honesty of others. As a result, it is essential for us to be absolutely impeccable in our trustworthiness as counselors. It isn’t enough simply to be trustworthy though; we must demonstrate it — and not just once or twice but during every single interaction.

Brené Brown (2015) likened trust to a jar of marbles. Every time that we demonstrate our trustworthiness, we put a metaphorical marble in the jar. As the jar fills, trust grows. When it comes to building therapeutic alliance with avoidantly attached teens, there are five especially important marbles:

Authenticity. In the context of therapeutic alliance, authenticity means being our true, genuine selves during interactions with clients. In other words, we set aside therapeutic personas and canned responses. Instead, we show up as who we really are. This should be our goal with all clients but especially so with avoidantly attached teens, who are often quite sensitive to insincere behaviors or actions — a skill they learned to help them navigate difficult relationships with the adults in their lives.

Consistency. Being consistent means acting in ways that are predictable and reliable, something avoidantly attached teens probably haven’t experienced much. When we are consistent in our interactions with these teens, we are not only demonstrating trustworthiness but also modeling a new way of being in relationships. A few ways to demonstrate consistency include always starting and ending sessions on time, scheduling appointments at the same time every week, and following through on any promises we make.

Nonjudgment. Avoidantly attached teens have often learned to notice seemingly minor cues, such as a slight change in facial expression. This is a useful skill to have in situations in which care is unpredictable. With that in mind, it is important for us to avoid comments, gestures or facial expressions that could be interpreted as judgmental. This seems obvious but can be harder than it sounds, especially when a client is frustrating, evasive or baiting us — you know, like teens do sometimes.

Usefulness. Another way to demonstrate trustworthiness is to provide something useful at every session. This doesn’t mean achieving a major clinical breakthrough every week. That wouldn’t be realistic. However, there should be a tangible takeaway of some sort each time that we meet with an avoidantly attached teen. Possibilities include a helpful skill, a solved problem, an opportunity to vent or a meaningful insight — as long as it adds value to the youth’s life.

Transparency. This means being completely open about the therapy process, including our intentions as a helper and what clients should expect from services. Truly transparent therapists spend time exploring the pros and cons of counseling, reasons for discussing certain topics, and the theoretical underpinnings of proposed treatment approaches. In other words, transparent therapists strive to eliminate the mystery from the process. Like a good magic trick, knowing how it works should make it more engaging.

Connectedness

According to Edward Hallowell (1993), connectedness is “a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone.” I often describe this deep connectedness as feeling felt. In order for any of us to truly feel felt, we must believe that we are understood, respected and welcomed. We must feel as though we’re interacting with another person who has purposefully chosen to join us in this exact place and moment.

Avoidantly attached teens haven’t had this lived experience of connectedness. When working with these teens, we should always strive to model connectedness in ways that honor their implicit suspicion of empathy, while simultaneously helping them move toward more secure attachment styles.

Allan Schore (2019) refers to these as “right brain to right brain” connections. We can intentionally create such connections by using approaches that focus on emotion, creativity and attunement. It seems to me that teen therapy typically focuses on problem-solving, decision-making, psychoeducation and similar left-brain approaches, ignoring the importance of helping clients become more comfortable using their whole brain.

Here are five simple yet effective strategies for intentionally fostering right-brain connections:

Validate and normalize. Viewed in the context of his lived experiences, Ben’s distrust, oppositional behavior and even substance use were functional. In other words, Ben found value in these behaviors. In fact, he once said, “I guess what I really want is to push people away, and I’m good at it. Really good!” We can validate intentions without endorsing problematic behaviors. With avoidantly attached teens, this is often an essential step to building therapeutic alliances.

Use first-person plural language. The words we use matter. Here’s one example: Instead of using the pronouns “you” and “your,” shift to “we” and “our.” This shift results in a subtle, yet tangible, change in our interactions with avoidantly attached teens. It also helps reinforce that we’re together in the process and that the teen’s experiences are understandable. I’m not sure that clients overtly notice this word usage, but I definitely believe there is value in making the shift.

Use more reflections, ask fewer questions. Most therapists ask way too many questions. To an avoidantly attached teen, questions can seem intrusive, annoying and disingenuous. It may seem counterintuitive, but fewer questions from you will actually result in more talking by the client. Instead of all those questions, use reflections. While you’re at it, avoid cautiously worded reflections. Instead, commit to what you’re saying, with statements of fact such as, “That was tough for you.” Such statements demonstrate connection, not interrogation.

Talk less, do more. From a developmental perspective, full-on talk therapy isn’t the best fit for teens, especially for avoidantly attached ones who don’t want to engage in the first place. I suggest incorporating some no-talk approaches for building rapport and addressing therapeutic goals. The card games Exploding Kittens and Fluxx are excellent choices for building rapport. They are teen-friendly, easy to learn and filled with opportunities for making metaphors. Favorite therapeutically focused activities include collages, creative journaling and walk/talk sessions.

Be fully present. Being present means having your focus, attention, thoughts and feelings all fixed on the here and now — in this case, the current session with the current client. From my perspective, this requires more than a basic attentiveness. It requires being fully engaged, human to human, with no judgment or agenda. This level of presence can feel risky at times, for counselors and for avoidantly attached teens. However, the connectedness it brings makes the risk well worth taking.

Relationships are reciprocal

Imagine your response if a client reported being in a relationship in which the other person refuses to share personal information and frequently makes statements such as “I’m curious why you want to know that,” even when the question is fairly innocuous. Perhaps you’d amend this client’s treatment plan to include working on healthy relationships or building appropriate boundaries. I sure would. Yet, this is what we do all the time as counselors, based perhaps on an assumption that self-disclosure is inherently bad.

It seems to me that we shouldn’t expect teens, especially ones who are avoidantly attached, to be open with us if we aren’t open with them. I’m certainly not suggesting that we share every detail of our lives with teen clients, but I do believe we should be willing to disclose relevant information, answer questions asked out of true curiosity, and be as honest with clients as we expect them to be with us. By doing so, we model effective interpersonal skills, demonstrate healthy ways to connect with others, and solidify the therapeutic alliance.

When teen clients ask questions of a personal nature, some therapists view this as a form of resistance, as a way to avoid the topic at hand or as behavior that interferes with treatment. I disagree, at least sometimes. Perhaps the teen is making an initial attempt to cultivate a relationship with us. Perhaps these questions are a sign that we’re becoming a secure base for the teen. Perhaps we’re witnessing a little nugget of change. Why would we shut that down?

When we deflect all questions of a personal nature, maybe we aren’t reinforcing appropriate therapeutic boundaries or challenging client avoidance. Maybe we’re rejecting a tentative attempt at connection. Maybe we’re demonstrating that we aren’t a secure base. Maybe we’re reinforcing the client’s avoidant attachment style.

For the first several weeks, sessions with Ben were slow going. He often showed up late, sometimes refused to talk and frequently stated he didn’t need or want help. One day, I taught him Fluxx. He commented that the game was about unpredictability. “I hate that,” he said.

The next session, Ben brought his own game, Unstable Unicorns. “It’s a complicated game,” he said, “but I’m a complicated person, and you seem to understand me.”

I let that register, picked up my cards, and lost three games in a row. At the end of the session, for the first time ever, Ben said, “See you next week.”

John Bowlby (1969) described attachment as a “lasting connectedness between human beings” and stated that the earliest bonds formed by children with their primary caregivers have significant, lifelong impacts. When meeting with avoidantly attached teens, it’s essential that we remember the ghosts in the room with us. It’s essential that we intentionally earn marbles. It’s essential that we slowly, but steadily, create connectedness. When we do, we invite teens such as Ben to move toward a more securely attached way of being.

 

****

David Flack is a licensed mental health counselor and substance use disorders professional located in Seattle. For 20 years, he has met with teens and emerging adults to address depression, trauma, co-occurring disorders and more. In addition to his clinical work, he regularly provides continuing education programs regionally and nationally. Contact him at david@davidflack.com.

Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.

****

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

4 Comments

  1. Kim

    Great Read. I enjoyed hearing the points on avoidant attachment and teens. I work with teens and I’m not going to use the word resistant because I like to think I just hadn’t found a way to better engage the young person I’m having sessions with, I will use challenging instead. Yes, I’ve had many many challenging young people and always look to build rapport through speaking from my authentic self, game play, or whatever helps to build that relationship which is key to the therapeutic process. Thank you so much!

    Reply
  2. Anna Dillingham

    Thank you for your insights and concise pointers on working with avoidant teens. Simply making that distinction of attachment styles helped put some of my clients into clearer perspective. I can see which marbles I can improve, and which ones I seem to value and be comfortable with presently. I will definitely make a conscious attempt at some of these recommendations, such as using “we” language, and more committed reflections.
    Thank you!

    Reply
  3. Lis Pucc

    Good article. I appreciated the points about self disclosure and asking questions, which in my view hit on the often unaddressed issues of connection/trust building and power dynamics in therapy. I only wish I had read this article a year ago, prior to starting my lpc-i internship.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *