Tag Archives: resistant clients

Confronting client resistance

By Nancy A. Merrill December 27, 2022

In my years as a counselor in a college setting and in private practice, I found one of the most prevalent occurrences in the counseling process is resistance from the client. Counselors must first recognize that resistance has occurred before they can help the client confront it in order to progress in therapy. 

In this article, I explain three different types of resistance and how to help clients confront their resistance in a productive way. I also provide suggestions for when counselors need to press clients to confront their resistance and when they need to leave it alone. 

Types of resistance 

Conscious resistance. Conscious resistance is deliberate avoidance of situations that may be unpleasant, frightening or goes against one’s gut intuition. Examples of this type of resistance include the displeasure of getting vaccinated, the fear of getting on an airplane, or dating someone you feel intuitively uncomfortable being around. This resistance is someone simply saying, “Thanks, but no thanks” or being honest with their feelings and saying, “I don’t want to do that.” It’s a matter of personal choice. 

In any of these situations, a counselor might help the client overcome feelings of anxiety by asking probing questions such as:  

  • “What makes you nervous about being vaccinated? Have you had adverse reactions to vaccinations in the past?” 
  • “What frightens you with the idea of flying? Have you ever flown before? If so, what was that experience like?” 
  • “How well do you know this person? What makes you feel uncomfortable being around them?” 

Depending on the client’s answers, the counseling session may be brief or more deeply involved than this surface-level anxiety seems to indicate.  

Stubborn resistance. Stubborn resistance is refusing to get help despite being asked or encouraged by others to discuss the problem with someone in a position to help. The following are a few examples: 

  • A student with behavioral problems who causes major disruption in school is completely uncooperative, lies and may be belligerent when referred to a school counselor or principal. 
  • A partner in couples therapy may deny there is any problem in the relationship and refuses to seek further help after the initial session. 
  • A patient may reject a doctor’s advice to seek help from a psychologist or a sex therapist and deny any psychological basis for their sexual problems with their partner.  
  • A troubled teenager who shows signs of depression and hints about suicide refuses to seek help. 

The person who meets with the counselor in any of these situations is reluctant to cooperate, resents the process or refuses to answer any of the counselor’s questions truthfully. Progress cannot be made because the person doesn’t acknowledge there is a problem, blames someone else for causing the problem and won’t return for future sessions. 

Unconscious resistance. Unconscious resistance occurs when a client unconsciously resists confronting problems on a deeper level. Sigmund Freud referred to this type of resistance as a defense mechanism in which the person’s ego opposes the conscious recall of unpleasant experiences. Examples include the following: 

  • An incest survivor represses memories that are too painful to acknowledge. 
  • A client of sexual abuse resists any discussions of painful thoughts or frightening events. 

I once worked with a woman who had been the victim of incest by her father for many years from the time she was age 5. The woman, now in her 30s, came to me very troubled by her depression and her anxiety around men. She had never told anyone about the incest and had repressed the incidents. 

After months of counseling, discussions would progress satisfactorily until she reached a certain point when she would suddenly stop talking because what she was going to say next was too painful to acknowledge. It was only after several sessions of relaxation therapy to the point of being in a hypnotic state that the client slowly remembered the incest incidents. 

Confronting resistance in a productive way 

A counselor must listen intently and remember the last thing the client said before the resistance occurred. In the case of unconscious resistance, for example, by paraphrasing the client’s last few sentences, the counselor may help the client understand that they just had an unconscious, spontaneous experience that prevented them from recalling unpleasant events that happened in their life. This explanation can be helpful to the client’s self-awareness. The counselor at this point has several options. 

  • If rapport had been established at the beginning of the counseling sessions and if the client adamantly refuses to continue with the current session, allow the client to leave and return for the next appointment. This gives the client the freedom to feel safe and to be in control of the situation. Suggest that you can pick up the conversation at the next session if the client is willing. 
  • Ask the client, “Do you know what just happened that made you forget what you were going to say?” or “Do you remember what you were going to say a moment ago?” Maybe the client knows the reason but refuses to pursue the discussion any further. Or maybe the client is vaguely afraid of something but cannot pinpoint it. The client may need time to process what just happened. With guidance and probing, the counselor may be able to help the client continue the discussion by going in a different direction (e.g., “We were talking about …”). This might help the client refocus on the problem. 
  • The counselor might pursue the issue by probing, “You were about to tell me something but suddenly stopped. What were you going to say?” The counselor should be aware of the client’s body language and verbalize their observations, such as “You appear upset. What are you feeling right now?” and “Can you let those emotions out?” The counselor needs to determine if there is enough time left in the therapy session to continue or resume at the next session. 

Handling resistant confrontations 

Know when to press clients to confront their resistance. Clients are chiefly concerned with getting relief from their problems. When a client is open, honest and seeks solutions, then the counselor can press the client to confront any resistance encountered. If the counselor is successful in keeping the dialogue going, the client may be able to proceed with confronting emotions as well. 

Sometimes, the client uncovers deeper issues on a conscious level only to resist the emotional aspect. The client may look away while trying to recall details of the story. Prolonged silence could indicate the client is contemplating something and is about to speak again. The ultimate goal is to help the client accept emotionally what they have thus far refused to accept. 

Resistance may continue until the client can finally make a breakthrough and deal with the problem both psychologically and emotionally. The perceptive counselor will ask questions to help the client develop a better understanding of themselves and their ability to handle future problems. 

Know when the client is pushed too hard and gets upset. It is best not to push a client too hard to the point where they get upset. The client may be heavily burdened with deep issues or feelings not yet expressed to the counselor. Signs of distress would include fidgeting while talking, smiling less, shrugging shoulders or crossing arms. The client’s lips may be tightly closed, and there may be less eye contact. 

The counselor must not push a client too fast or too far. Remember to go at the client’s pace of self-acceptance so they don’t quit therapy altogether. 

If there seems to be a real barrier to progress because of resistance or if the client exhibits deeper signs of emotional distress and is unwilling to pursue the matter, the session should end. Discussions can be resumed at the next appointment. 

Know what to do when the client gets angry. A client may become irritated with the counselor’s directive approach and be reluctant to answer any more sensitive questions. They may speak very slowly or give one-word answers, or they may become argumentative.  

It is vital for the counselor to pull back and address the issue of anger with the client: “You appear angry. Can you tell me why? Is it something I said, or are you angry for some other reason?” Listen to what is being said and what is not being said. The angry or hostile client must work through the surface to get down to what is hurting them and what they are fearful of.  

Counselors as well as clients need to successfully confront verbal and emotional resistance head on. Only then can progress be made for clients to overcome their initial problems satisfactorily. 

Remind your clients that they cannot change other people that seem to be the cause of their problems. The challenge for the client is to accept themselves and learn how to live in their environment in a healthy manner. 


Nancy A. Merrill received her master’s degree in counseling from the University of Maine in 1974 and was licensed by the state of Maine. She worked in a college setting with private practice on the side until 2003, when she retired to care for her mother who suffered from dementia until she passed away in 2016. 

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.

‘Not a monster’: Destigmatizing borderline personality disorder

By Scott Gleeson October 3, 2022

Rose Skeeters, a licensed professional counselor in Eau Claire, Michigan, said she’s been in a room full of counselors who scoffed at the mention of treating an often-dreaded diagnosis: borderline personality disorder (BPD). 

The contemptuous response among clinicians is one Skeeters is used to. It’s also a common scenario that’s being replicated in private practices and agencies across the country. In a 2022 literature review of mental health workers’ attitude toward people diagnosed with BPD (published in the Journal of Personality Disorders), Karen McKenzie and colleagues found that mental health professionals have largely negative views of BPD — ultimately impeding proper treatment.

“BPD doesn’t just have a stigma in society; it’s in our profession too,” says Skeeters who was diagnosed with BPD in her early 20s before her mental health career fully launched. “Part of why I tell my story and experience with BPD is because it’s a diagnosis that is seriously misunderstood, and the mind of someone with borderline personality isn’t empathized with enough. There are clients out there struggling with this who need our help.”

Skeeters, who hosts the podcast From Borderline to Beautiful, is among a growing wave of clinicians who specialize in the treatment of BPD, which has become one of the most common personality disorders. BPD was first conceptualized as a mental illness by Otto Kernberg in 1975, and then it was officially introduced as a disorder in the third edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1980. This disorder is characterized by a long-term pattern of unstable interpersonal relationships, distorted sense of self and strong emotional reactions. 

The high suicide risk and explosive emotional behavior often associated with BPD are among the many concerns that can prompt eyebrow raises among clinicians and a high referral rate. BPD is also frequently underdiagnosed, largely because it has varying and dynamic symptoms that can initially present as other disorders. Societal stigma doesn’t help either, with BPD being a diagnosis closely tied to hostile behavior in popular culture. During the recent controversial trial between former couple Amber Heard and Johnny Depp, for example, Heard was assessed and diagnosed with BPD by a forensic psychologist and portrayed as angry and impulsive, which was used as a way to discredit her by Depp’s legal team. 

Skeeters has the unique perspective of viewing this disorder from an “in recovery” client purview as well as from a clinical lens now as a professional counselor. She notes that despite the distorted perception of the diagnosis, recent research on the effectiveness of psychological treatments for BPD (such as Sophie Rameckers and colleagues’ article published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine in 2021) illustrates BPD to be highly treatable and the most healable among personality disorders.

“The biggest misconception about borderline personality is that it isn’t treatable,” Skeeters says. “It may be difficult to treat because emotions can rev up from 0 to 60 very quickly for someone with BPD, and in those moments, the logic of reality just isn’t there for that person. But this is not a life sentence and it’s not hopeless to get better. With proper treatment, clients can become self-aware and recover.” 

A trauma-informed approach 

Alisha Teague, a licensed mental health counselor in Jacksonville, Florida, says she’s seen the stigma associated with BPD perpetuate or even exacerbate symptoms for clients because of the damageability to one’s self-esteem. That’s why when working with clients, she makes determined attempts to redefine the disorder’s meaning by zeroing in on its symptomatology.

“Clients with borderline personality are so much more used to being rejected of love than actually healing,” notes Teague, the founder of the private practice Out of the Box Counseling. “When you call it ‘abandonment disorder,’ that helps them grasp a key part of the disorder while empathizing with themselves. I’ve seen clients say, ‘Oh, that’s why I have low self-esteem.’ Then when you tie in attachment theory, a client with BPD can see their behavior is tied to [a] fear of losing the closest person [to them]. That helps us move right into paths to push for secure attachment.” 

Lauren Lucas, a licensed clinical social worker for Fox Valley Institute in Naperville, Illinois, says she also treats BPD by first exploring the deepest root of the behavior. And trauma is often an underlying concern. In a 2021 literature review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, Paola Bozzatello and colleagues found that up to 90% of clients diagnosed with borderline personality have experienced some type of childhood trauma or neglect. Similar studies have determined BPD is more prevalently linked to trauma than genetics. 

Lucas recommends counselors take a trauma-informed approach when working with these clients. “Nine times out of 10, a trauma is present for someone with borderline personality,” Lucas says. “Even if it’s ‘little t’ trauma, when clients can understand how their past pain shaped their world, it frees them up for self-acceptance. So often with BPD, there’s this reaction to fear of abandonment that’s driving their behavior.” She finds that being direct about what could be causing some of this plays a crucial role in the client’s movement and growth.

Lucas adds that a client experiencing BPD is often  plagued with self-hatred or self-loathing emotions, making a psychodynamic approach a direct pathway for clients to have empathy for themselves. “Sometimes the biggest hurdle can be a client’s self-shaming,” she says.

Shame is also a core feature of BPD, as noted by Tzipi Buchman-Wildbaum and colleagues’ 2021 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality Disorders. Christine Hammond, a licensed mental health counselor in Winter Park, Florida, says that for clients with BPD, feeling “seen and heard” with their root trauma (and in general) can help to offset those lurking shame emotions and accelerate their empathy for others. 

One way for clients to feel seen is by using a family systems approach — whether it be exploring upbringings or reconciling with family members directly and indirectly in session. “My approach for most personality disorders is to not necessarily treat the individual but the family as a unit itself,” Hammond says. Roles and dynamics within the households, she explains, often provide a blueprint for what’s happening in present day. 

“A lot of times, in a family dynamic, clients are used to matching volume for volume or verbal assault with verbal assault. It’s the only way to survive or be heard,” Hammond says. “Seeing that some of this isn’t their fault can lead to more empathy for themselves. The goal isn’t to hang out in the past or stay in trauma-land for too long, though. It’s to find paths forward.” 

An alliance based on patience and transparency  

As with any client, a therapeutic alliance is necessary for one’s emotional safety and well-being. Because people with BPD often struggle with mistrust, Hammond acknowledges that counselors may need to build trust gradually. 

“Part of the challenge as a therapist is accepting clients constantly pushing back and sometimes trying to sabotage because that can happen when they’re attempting to undo the deepest wounds of mistrust,” Hammond says. “No matter how safe therapy can be in their mind, trusting someone … takes building that stability over time because they’ve maybe never had it in their entire life.”

Because a lot of counselors are afraid to work with someone diagnosed with BPD, clients are used to constantly changing clinicians, Hammons notes, which only adds to the feeling that nobody understands or relates to them. But counselors can work against that pattern by simply being there, she adds. 

Sara Weand, a licensed professional counselor in Philadelphia, says that offering clients a safe haven through an alliance can be essential when they may be consumed with emotional turbulence. 

“The biggest thing you can do to build trust is honoring that their feelings are real,” Weand advises. “So many times, therapists can get lost in the facts, but that merely perpetuates invalidation. It takes a special skill to be able to meet the person where they’re at and accept them there before launching into work.”

Weand views the therapeutic alliance as a partnership where she and the client are working together toward a goal. This partnership, she says, relies on two things: the counselor understanding that they do not know everything and the client realizing that what they’ve been doing isn’t working. 

She often explains this concept to clients by comparing this alliance to being in a rowboat together with the goal of reaching the other side of the lake. “It’s not my job to row a certain way if it [the responsibility of rowing] is theirs. And it’s also not me rowing back if there’s a hole in the boat,” she says. “It’s important to have mutual responsibility. That may be fostering a healthy relationship of push-pull for the first time in their life because they can see I’m not going to ditch them or abandon them like maybe they have been in other parts of their life. But I’m also going to push them regularly.”

Lucas echoes Weand’s point about client accountability, noting that she’ll often be transparent from the start so clients know what they’re in for. 

“The need for a sense of safety and security is paramount, and as a clinician, you’re not going to make any progress without that,” Lucas explains. “I personally find that being direct can be really refreshing for clients with BPD when forming the alliance. We talk about how coming to therapy is not always going to be comfortable and pleasant. I can still provide unconditional positive regard while also not always agreeing or saying yes. Finding a way to articulate that with care and security can help work against the fear of abandonment or black-and-white thinking.” 

A proper barometer for diagnosis 

Transparency is also important when it comes to diagnosing BPD. Yet another casualty of the stigma tied to BPD is a reluctance among some clinicians to properly assess and diagnosis this disorder. In particular, practitioners who work with an eclectic mix of clients often have trouble determining if and when to diagnose a client with BPD, especially if another diagnosis such as posttraumatic stress or major depressive disorder exists, Skeeters says. 

Skeeters strongly believes a diagnosis, if accurate, is necessary to convey to a client for their well-being and stresses that clinicians shouldn’t sway away from delivering one.

“It’s always important to give clients [the] truth. If a clinician is afraid of how a client may act, then that is their own stuff coming up,” she says. “You wouldn’t tell someone who has diabetes they have something else or that ‘you maybe or could have diabetes.’ If you’re walking on eggshells because you don’t want to hurt the person, it will likely make it worse in the long run because one thing someone with BPD is craving more than anything is trust. Telling them the truth, even if it’s hard, will help toward that.”

In fact, Skeeters admits that one of her biggest complaints is that her BPD wasn’t diagnosed earlier. “In some ways I feel like I lost out on years of my life because therapists misdiagnosed me or were too scared of delivering the diagnosis. I was told that I had bipolar II and was treated for an eating disorder when the underlying issue was tied to borderline personality,” she says.

Hammond, however, cautions clinicians to consider the client’s age and development before giving them a diagnosis. She says timing is everything and resists assigning a BPD diagnosis to her teen clients because, as she points out, a client’s maladaptive behavior can more thoroughly be inspected in adulthood. “I hate adolescent diagnoses,” she stresses. “I go to Erik Erikson’s eight stages of personality development, and a client needs to be developed enough before diagnosing in my opinion.” 

Lucas also pays close attention to the delivery of the diagnosis, and she trusts her intuition on when the right time may be to discuss this with clients. 

“The approach I take is first having a discussion on what a diagnosis means to them,” Lucas explains. “Then I’m acknowledging their trauma and how it affects their behavior in the here and now. If they experienced neglect growing up and are struggling with their partners in relationships today, then I might say, ‘Here’s what we may call that.’ It’s never an easy conversation. But to my surprise, there’s a tremendous amount of relief that can come when a client is able to name why they’re acting the way they are. The language in the delivery matters just as much as the diagnosis.” 

Skeeters takes time to explain the diagnosis to her clients. She begins by saying, “This is what I’m theorizing with a diagnosis,” and then she describes why and how it applies to treatment. A diagnosis, when delivered from a collaborative sense, can bolster self-awareness and, as a result, improve a client’s work ethic in therapy, Skeeters notes.

DBT as the ‘gold standard’ treatment method 

The method of choice for BPD is undoubtedly dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques for emotion regulation and reality testing with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance and mindful awareness that largely spawns from meditation practices. Marsha Linehan, the psychologist who developed DBT in the late 1970s as a result of her own mental illness, defined the dialectical component of DBT as “a meditation-focus,” which is accepting things the way they are while simultaneously pushing for change to achieve happiness. Allowing clients to engage in both of these experiences at once paves the way for an increased emotional and cognitive regulation by helping them learn the triggers that lead to undesired explosive and reactive states. 

Weand, a DBT instructor in Philadelphia, describes DBT as a balance between meeting a client where they’re at while also pushing for change. DBT is all about building a client’s skill set to face their inner conflict in a way that projects outward in a healthy manner, she explains. 

“DBT is the gold standard of treatment for BPD for a reason, and that’s because it works,” Weand says. “It allows the therapist the opportunity to validate the client and really connect on a human level. The skills are all practical, but the meditation-focus creates room for slowing it down and honoring feelings as real. CBT [cognitive behavior therapy] can work as a standard therapy, but for people with BPD who feel so deeply, sometimes, painful shit is just painful shit and you can’t necessarily reframe that.”

“DBT can be effective with suicidal ideation,” Weand adds, “but it’s important to have proper boundaries as a therapist and refer to advanced care because DBT is not suicide prevention.” 

One treatment that is often complementary to DBT is eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which, as Lucas points out, can help with the dissociation a client with BPD may experience when they are unable to regulate intense emotion. 

“One of the biggest things EMDR can help with is the acceptance piece of regulation,” she says. “We cannot change what happens to us, but we can change how we react” to it. 

Hammond says that DBT’s focus on mindfulness can help to bolster a client’s self-awareness and therefore improve their ability to control or manage explosive and eruptive behavior. The overall gain from DBT isn’t necessarily removing a behavior; it’s slowing things down so that triggers can be managed and dysregulation can be altered, she explains. 

“We usually don’t see the behavior completely go away,” Hammond adds. But it provides clients “with a higher level of awareness and really knowing themselves.”

Untangling black-and-white emotional thinking

A common symptom of BPD is black-and-white emotional thinking (i.e., splitting), which involves seeing people or situations as all good or all bad. Skeeters says that type of intense relational trauma is a byproduct of an “emotional playground” that clients with BPD can find themselves trapped in and reactionary to when reenacting old wounds with partners. For that reason, if clinicians are working with a couple and one of them has BPD, then that individual’s treatment must come before couples therapy can begin. 


“Growing up, I viewed the world through a hyperbolic lens,” Skeeters recalls. “I was very sensitive and assumed that others viewed it that same way too. In my effort not to become abandoned, I ended up becoming this tyrant with dysfunctional beliefs. It can feel like other people are making you out to be a monster and that just makes it worse. I didn’t know that other people weren’t hyperbolic or lacked empathy the way I did. When it came to my relationships, to even start the path to recovery, I had to be brutally honest with myself and know how my behavior affects others around me when I’m on that emotional playground.”

Lucas says that the best way to address black-and-white emotional thinking and encourage accountability is through preventive measures and psychoeducation. 

“Because folks with BPD have more extreme experiences with emotions, it’s important to provide tools of regulating and grounding for moments of being triggered,” she notes. “When it’s showing up in a relational aspect, it’s [about] helping clients understand the way their brain may be operating in those moments [and] why they might fixate on how things should be or need to be. When someone is splitting or seeing in black and white, it can be difficult to see the gray area or the nuance of an argument or situation in a relationship. When we look at those patterns, not naming them as good or bad per se, but honor where they’re coming from and why they’ve served someone, then they can be adjusted better.” 

Weand says she’s noticed that most of her client’s black-and-white thinking comes after a big fight or a relationship failure. “I’ll have a client come in and their biggest pain is that ‘people think I’m crazy’ and [they] just want to feel like they’re not a monster,” she said. “They truly fear they’ll be doomed to be [perceived] this way their entire lives. The reality is they may be doing [and saying] things that look crazy [and that affect or hurt others]. … But once you show them where it comes from and that it can be regulated, there’s hope.”

Confronting countertransference 

Transference and countertransference can be ongoing issues when treating clients who have BPD, so counselors need to do their own work by becoming more self-aware and going to therapy themselves. 

Teague acknowledges that her own personal experiences with a family member who has BPD once challenged her ability to work with clients who are diagnosed with the same disorder. It took personal tragedy to push her to do her own self-work to develop the self-awareness and emotional availability that she now uses in helping clients with BPD.

“In 2020, I was smacked in the face by so many terrible things: a tragedy with a client happened, a friend from high school died [and] then everything with George Floyd came about,” Teague recalls. “I didn’t realize it right away but all of my own personal trauma was coming up. If I didn’t go back to therapy to do my own work and forgive myself to become self-aware, then I wouldn’t be able to work with this type of population. You need to have that awareness because countertransference is bound to come up for some types of cases. You need to have the tools within yourself first.”

Weand acknowledges that she needs to keep her caseload low and have only 10 clients so that she has full emotional availability for clients with BPD. “We have to be honest with our own limitations,” she said. “Mood-dependent behavior is tiring, so by setting those limits and having those boundaries, we’re giving our clients the best fit in a therapist.” 

Hammond said she’s seen therapists fret when working with clients experiencing BPD, and she can often trace it to their own inner struggles that may need to be worked out elsewhere. 

“Obviously, if you have countertransference that makes it unhealthy for the client, then a referral is necessary,” she says. “But I see too often therapists might have their own issues or misconceptions with BPD or don’t have the right education on it so they’re very quick to toss them [the client] to somebody else.” She acknowledges that this tendency is not helpful, and she hopes clinicians will develop healthier attitudes toward clients with BPD moving forward. 

“When you look closer, you can see that BPD clients are some of the most creative, imaginative and passionate people we have in the world,” Hammond says. “That’s why it’s so sad they’re misconstrued because I greatly enjoy working with them — seeing them fight to improve and then [eventually] get there is one of the most healing and powerful things you can do as a therapist.”



Scott Gleeson is a licensed clinical professional counselor in the Chicago suburbs, specializing in trauma and relational dynamics. He spent over a decade writing for USA Today, where he won national writing awards from the Associated Press and NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists. His debut contemporary novel, The Walls of Color, and its sequel, Spectrum, will hit bookshelves in 2024 and 2025, respectively.


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.

Building trust with reluctant clients

By Bethany Bray June 22, 2022

The Washington Post’s “Dear Carolyn” advice column recently fielded a question from a person who was unsure if they were ready to seek counseling to cope with a strained relationship with a parent. Although the person was aware that counseling could be helpful in this particular situation, they were still reluctant to seek services. “I can’t bear the thought of sharing any sort of emotions or history with a complete stranger, especially when I hear people have to reshare as they try two or several counselors to find the right one,” they wrote.

In her response to this letter, advice columnist Carolyn Hax advocated for the person to try counseling and addressed their hesitancy by saying, “The ‘total stranger’ is actually the point. … That extra, disinterested, trained, and informed set of eyes can help any of us see things we’re too close to see.”

The author of this letter is hardly alone in their hesitance. Data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness indicates that roughly one in five American adults experienced mental illness in 2020, yet less than half received treatment.

And part of this reluctance may stem from the fact that counseling does involves being vulnerable to a stranger — albeit a professional stranger — and working through emotions, trauma and issues that can be painful, sad or fear-provoking. When combined with feelings of shame, stigma or bad memories of a past therapy experience, it’s no wonder that clients are often nervous, fearful or hesitant to start counseling.

Counselors understand the importance of the therapeutic relationship. But when a client is hesitant or reluctant, practitioners need to make trust and relationship building the central focus of counseling work, along with a little extra patience and unconditional positive regard.

An extra dose of validation

Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol, a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) in New York and a licensed clinical mental health counselor and supervisor in North Carolina, has worked with clients who were so apprehensive about trying counseling that they were visibly shaking in their first few sessions.

Richter-Abitol owns a private practice in Wake Forest, North Carolina, that specializes in counseling for anxiety disorders. She and her staff offer individual and group counseling with a focus on creating a welcoming, nonintimidating environment.

When a client’s body language indicates that they’re nervous or hesitant as they begin counseling, Richter-Abitol uses it as an opportunity to acknowledge their concern and validate that what they’re doing is hard. Her focus becomes normalizing the therapy process, rather than jumping into any kind of assessment or intake regimen.

“This [hesitancy] is extremely common, even for clients who have been in counseling before. … If I notice that a client is really anxious, I use immediacy and point out that it is scary to be here, and I applaud them for coming in,” says Richter-Abitol, an American Counseling Association member.

Clients who are hesitant to try counseling need transparency, patience and an extra dose of validation from their counselor, agrees Megan Craig, an LMHC who counsels clients at a community mental health agency in the Boston area. She often emphasizes to clients that they’re not doing something “wrong” if they are having trouble opening up or aren’t immediately comfortable in therapy. Applauding a client’s bravery to walk through the door also creates an opportunity to ask them what motivated them to make that first appointment — and, in turn, helps the counselor learn more about the client, Craig adds.

Validation played a key part in fostering connection with a female client Craig once worked with who kept being referred to different clinicians within Craig’s agency because of staff turnover.

By the time she was put on Craig’s caseload, the client was “exhausted” and fearful of losing yet another practitioner. So, she had spotty attendance and would often cancel appointments.

“She felt like she hardly wanted to be there [in counseling sessions]. She had told her story so many times, only for her clinician to leave. She kept having to start over from scratch and be vulnerable with a new person,” Craig recalls.

Craig was honest with the client and broached the subject directly, validating that her exhaustion was understandable and warranted.

Craig also realized she needed to slow the pace of therapy with this client. Their early counseling sessions focused on lighter topics, such as work stress. It was one year into counseling before the client was comfortable enough to begin talking about heavier topics, including her trauma history.

The client’s attendance eventually improved but not until Craig spent months building a relationship with her.

“At first, I second-guessed myself and wondered if this [early work] was ‘therapeutic enough.’ But that’s what she needed. That was what was therapeutic for her,” Craig says. “She needed to establish the trust that I wasn’t going to leave and would stay with her. Just me showing up [to counseling sessions] is exactly what this client needed.” 

Fear of judgment

Counselors are no strangers to the importance of the therapeutic relationship, and decades of research show how central and essential it is to client engagement and growth, says Michael Tursi, an LMHC in New York. Counselors, however, must make relationship building an utmost priority for clients who are hesitant. They have an opportunity to display nonjudgment every time they respond and interact with a client, he notes.

“It’s one thing to say, ‘the therapeutic relationship is essential,’ but there are some clients who really might not be willing to engage at all until they see certain things, especially nonjudgment, in their counselor,” he says. “When counselors meet with clients, right from the beginning, they have an opportunity to display nonjudgment.” 

Tursi, an assistant professor in the mental health counseling program at Pace University’s Pleasantville, New York campus, has done research on client experiential avoidance (i.e., when a person is resistant to experiencing strong or adverse sensations, emotions or thoughts) and engagement in counseling. For his doctoral dissertation, Tursi interviewed a cohort of clients in counseling who self-identified as experiencing this phenomenon, and he, along with two other colleagues, published the findings in a 2021 Journal of Counseling & Development article.

Tursi measured his study participants’ level of avoidance by having them complete the Multidimensional Experiential Avoidance Questionnaire developed by psychologist Wakiza Gámez and colleagues.

According to Tursi, one data point in his research quickly became very clear: Each and every one of the participants talked about fear of judgment from their counselor. The study participants acknowledged that they became more engaged in counseling once they established that their counselor was trustworthy and nonjudgmental.

In fact, the participants viewed counseling as a potentially harmful or threatening relationship until their counselor had fostered a trusting relationship with them and eased their hesitancy, Tursi adds.

Some participants talked about “testing” their counselor by intentionally saying something to elicit a response to gauge how trustworthy the counselor was. Even if a client does not do something like this intentionally, Tursi notes, they are very aware of how a counselor is responding to them.

“Nonjudgment is central to working with any client. But these clients might need a counselor who is quite in tune with [the fact that the] client is concerned about judgment and be patient with that,” says Tursi, an ACA member.

A key aspect of creating an atmosphere of nonjudgment is for counselors to be aware of a client’s comfort level, he says. This includes keeping an eye out for indicators that a client is anxious, such as body language, and checking in regularly with the client to talk about how they feel things are going.

A client should never feel pestered or pushed into talking about issues; they should come to the decision to disclose on their own, Tursi emphasizes. Counselors need to temper the expectations of what they think or expect a client will need or be willing to do. 

“Attending to where your clients are is important. We shouldn’t go into therapy and assume clients are going to disclose right away rather than do the therapeutic work that we think they need to do,” he explains. “Counselors should make sure they’re focusing on providing conditions for these clients to engage. … The client is never going to get there [make progress], in any kind of meaningful way, unless they’re engaging in sessions.”

Tursi hopes his research spreads awareness among counselors that experiential avoidance is very common and that some clients may come into counseling believing — for a variety of reasons — that it could be a relationship that is potentially harmful. Tursi draws on the work of Barry Farber, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, when he emphasizes that it’s easy to have unconditional positive regard for clients who come in ready to trust and work with their counselor. But it’s equally important to provide that regard for clients who are hesitant, although it may be more difficult. Patience should be a counselor’s watchword, Tursi adds.

“As counselors, we have to be aware of situations in which we have difficulty providing positive regard and continue professional development to improve our abilities to provide nonjudgmental acceptance at times that it is difficult,” Tursi says.

Check yourself 

As a practitioner who specializes in counseling clients with anxiety, Richter-Abitol finds that rapport building with clients who are hesitant must involve self-awareness on the part of the clinician. This includes keeping her own wants, expectations and assumptions about work with clients in check, she says, and asking for client input on the pace and direction of their treatment.

Richter-Abitol is transparent with her clients: She lets them know that they are “in control” of what they want to talk about in sessions and emphasizes that she won’t “make” them talk about anything they’re not ready to.

“You have to meet the client where they’re at and let them set the agenda. I have had clients who have taken months to build rapport, and if you [the counselor] are not patient, you may never get to that point,” Richter-Abitol says. “You have to constantly check yourself outside of sessions and tell yourself that even small successes contribute toward long-term goals. Small things add up.”


Richter-Abitol, like Tursi, argues that the therapeutic relationship must take priority with these clients, rather than diving into a treatment plan based on their diagnosis or what the practitioner thinks they need. Counselors should get creative to find ways to bond with the client prior to moving into heavier work, she suggests. For young clients, this might be therapeutic games or activities; for adults, it might be a discussion of lighter topics that help paint a picture of who they are, including things that they like, dislike and what motivates them.

“Those conversations can lead to deeper ones,” she says. “It’s not helpful to be too rigid. You can have things that you’d like the client to work on, but ultimately it has to be up to them. Flexibility is important.”

Richter-Abitol has found that clients feel more empowered when she lets them take the reins in this way. And many begin to open up naturally when they don’t feel pressured to do so.

This approach requires counselors not only to be in touch with and sensitive to their client’s needs and level of readiness in counseling but also to check their own inclination to take charge when a client is slow to make progress. It’s all too easy to assume that a client who isn’t making progress — or not progressing in a way the counselor might want or expect — isn’t benefiting from counseling, Richter-Abitol notes.

Instead, she advises practitioners to take a step back and consider the client’s full context, including the barriers and challenges that are making it difficult for them to engage with a counselor.

“Their fear or discomfort can come off as resistance or presenting a vibe that ‘I don’t want to be here.’ … They just don’t know how to feel about this space yet, and you need to give them time to figure that out,” Richter-Abitol says. “Don’t make the assumption that someone who is uncomfortable isn’t gaining anything from the experience. It might not be that they don’t want to be there but they just don’t know how to be there yet.”

Have honest conversations 

If patience is the first thing that clients who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling need from a practitioner, transparency is the second. For Craig, this comes in the form of direct questions to the client to gauge their comfort level and an honest invitation to let her know when things aren’t working.

If a client appears uncomfortable or is hesitant to engage in counseling, Craig will address it directly, saying, “Here is what I’m picking up on. Tell me if I’m right or wrong.” She emphasizes to clients that she cares for their well-being and genuinely wants to hear how they’re feeling — and that they have a choice and a say in the counseling process.

Sometimes what counselors view as resistant behavior in clients can be caused by the use of methods or techniques that aren’t a good fit for that individual, Craig says, or it can be that the practitioner themselves is not the right fit. Because clients may not bring up problems to a counselor on their own, she makes a point to broach the topic with honesty, explaining that no therapist is going to be the best match for everyone who walks through their door.

“If someone is taking the huge step to start counseling, I want them to benefit from it as much as possible. I’m honest and tell them that they’ll never make progress if we are not a good fit,” says Craig. “People are not ready for different reasons, and that’s why I like to have such open conversations. … I might not be able to give them everything they need, but I certainly want to talk about it and I want to try.”

She not only checks in regularly with clients throughout therapy but also makes time for a deeper conversation about what is and isn’t going well once a year (on their anniversary as her client). 

During these check-ins, she prompts clients with questions such as:

  • How do you feel about our work together?
  • Do you respond well to me taking the lead in counseling, or do you prefer to take the lead?
  • What has been helpful during our work together?
  • What do you need more of? And less of?
  • What did you expect from therapy and how has this not met your expectations?
  • What’s working and what’s not?

Not only do these conversations provide Craig with valuable feedback, but they also help set an example for the client to advocate for their own needs outside of counseling, she notes. Learning to be able to communicate their needs and expectations is a big — and important — milestone for many clients.

Craig recommends clinicians ask clients directly about how things are going in counseling rather than fall into an easy pattern of making assumptions about individuals who are avoidant or hesitant to engage. Honest feedback from a client is a good thing, Craig stresses, and not something that a counselor should take personally.

Overcoming cultural barriers

Counselors also need to take a proactive approach when clients are hesitant because of challenges and barriers related to their cultural background, says Camila Pulgar, a licensed clinical mental health counselor associate who is a research faculty member at Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Building trust and forging connection with clients who are from marginalized cultures require a counselor not only to be comfortable broaching the subject of culture (and cultural differences) in client sessions in an ethical and compassionate way, Pulgar says, but also to be fully aware of and sensitive to the many barriers that keep them from accessing counseling or being fully comfortable in the setting. 

A native of Chile, Pulgar specializes in the mental health needs of Latinx clients, including suicide prevention. She does clinical work once a week in her faculty position at the medical center, and she is the only bilingual (Spanish/English) provider on her team. Being the only bilingual counselor is not unusual for Pulgar; in fact, this has been the case for most of her professional career, she says. The mental health care system in this country is simply not built to support the needs of clients whose first language is not English.

Language is only one of many barriers that can deter clients from minority cultures from seeking or becoming fully engaged in counseling, Pulgar points out. Individuals may face logistical challenges such as trouble accessing transportation to appointments, finding child care or affording the cost of sessions. They may also be fearful or have adverse feelings about counseling because of stigma, past harm or skepticism about therapy within their culture or family group.

“If people make it to my office, they’re usually hesitant to share their mental health journey with their family members because of stigma. I often hear ‘I don’t want anyone else to know I’m here’,” says Pulgar, who also sees a small caseload of clients at her private practice in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. “When we talk about their supports and who they can reach out to in times of crisis, they often don’t list anyone [in their family] because they don’t want their family to know they’re struggling.”

Shivonne Odom, a certified perinatal mental health provider whose private practice is the only practice in the Washington, D.C., area that specializes in perinatal mental health care and is owned by an African American therapist, says this is also common among her clients, the majority of whom are African American.

She’s had clients whose families reacted very negatively when they found out the client was attending therapy, and other clients have chosen not to disclose the fact that they were seeking counseling to their families and, in some cases, even their spouse.

Hesitancy is very common among Odom’s clients; she recently had a client tell her that she needed to take an hour-long walk to calm her nerves before logging in for her first counseling session.

There is an extra layer of stigma for minority clients who are seeking perinatal mental health care because pregnancy and childbirth are often assumed to be a joyful and happy time — not one of despair. All of these challenges add up and severely affect clients’ help-seeking behaviors, says Odom, a licensed professional counselor in Washington, D.C., and a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland.

Pulgar notes that conversations around challenges in minority mental health care often place the blame on the stigma that many cultures have regarding counseling. In reality, minority populations face many barriers when seeking treatment, and that should be an equally, if not more, important part of the discussion.

This issue is compounded by the fact that most of the evidence-based treatment methods that students are taught in graduate counseling programs were created by and tested within members of the majority population. So, it makes sense that many of counselor’s go-to methods may not be a good fit for some minority clients, says Pulgar, an ACA member.

Clients can also become discouraged if they are referred to counseling by a medical provider and none of the counselors on the referral list look like the client, Odom adds. Because of this, she goes out of her way to accept many different types of insurances and often consults and works with multidisciplinary professionals in related fields, such as lactation consultants, to advocate for her clients and ensure that other providers know of her services.

Counselors should also be aware that these clients are often unfamiliar with the process of counseling. A first step toward forging a therapeutic connection can be to explain what therapy is (and isn’t) and why it’s helpful, along with the concepts of privileged information and confidentiality, Odom says.

Pulgar and Odom emphasize that one way to reduce these clients’ stress and barriers to treatment is for counselors to become knowledgeable of culturally connected resources in their area, such as nonprofit organizations and support groups and services.

Free support groups can be very helpful to validate a client’s feelings and experience in a way that individual counseling can’t, Odom says. And if there isn’t a group that matches your clients’ culture and identity (e.g., single mothers by choice), she suggests that counselors consider seeking training to start and lead one.

It’s equally as important for counselors to forge a connection with the marginalized community in their area as it is to build a strong therapeutic relationship with individual clients, Pulgar says. She suggests that practitioners start by becoming involved with organizations that serve the local marginalized community and participate in events such as health fairs.

“Get out of the four walls of the office,” Pulgar stresses. “Marginalized communities are so collective, and community is an important part of life.”

Small changes, big impact 

Counselors have an opportunity to build trust with a client with every interaction. And sometimes, seemingly “small” things that are outside of the core work of counseling can make a big difference to a client. Here are just a few small steps clinicians can take that will make a big impact on clients. 

Explain the process of counseling and why it’s helpful. Don’t assume that clients know what therapy is or what it entails, Tursi advises. “If they’ve never been to counseling previously, the idea of connecting with feelings might be very foreign to them,” he says. “They might start counseling thinking that the counselor can just make these [difficult] feelings go away. When instead, counseling [works to] change their relationship with their feelings — and a practitioner may need to explain that.”

Remember that a breakthrough does not mean clients are completely comfortable in counseling. A counselor whose client makes a significant gain toward trusting their practitioner in one session may feel that they’ve built their relationship enough to move on and address other issues. However, the only way to truly build trust is to have patience and show a client, over time, that you are trustworthy, Craig says. This is especially true for clients whose trust has been broken by others in their life, including health care providers. “Remember that even if they open up about their fears, it doesn’t mean they’ll be less fearful at the next session,” she adds. “It’s about patience and giving them that chance to warm up.”

Welcome clients before they even sit down. Forging trust with hesitant clients takes “more than what you are doing in the [counseling] room, it’s the whole experience,” Richter-Abitol says. “And we want to make people feel as welcomed as possible. … I know what it takes to walk through that door, and how hard it can be.”

She has taken client comfort into consideration in every aspect of her practice, from choosing cozy décor for the waiting room to a casual staff dress code. She built her website to be particularly user-friendly and extend a welcoming vibe before clients even set foot in the door. For example, she provides a detailed biography of all members of the clinical team, including photos of the practitioners, adjectives that describe them (e.g., bubbly, enthusiastic, loyal, creative, motivated) and a description of what a client can expect when working with them. 

“We try and dial down the clinical and dial up the parts of our personality” on the website to make potential clients feel comfortable, Richter-Abitol explains. “With the anxiety population, fear of the unknown is a big issue, so seeing the office and the pictures [online] helps fills in that space [and] helps people form connections before even coming in.”

Pronounce their name correctly. And if counselors are not sure how to pronounce the client’s name, they should ask and remember it, Pulgar says. This is a seemingly small thing that can be overlooked by practitioners, she notes, but it lets the client know that a counselor values their identity.

Don’t assume they’re resistant. Clients who are opposed to treatment and those who are hesitant or slow to engage in counseling can exhibit some of the same behaviors, such as canceling appointments frequently, answering a counselor’s questions with one-word answers or avoiding talking about heavier topics. However, counselors have an opportunity to build trust and explore the reasons why a client appears reluctant, rather than labeling them as resistant.

“We have been taught [in counselor trainings and graduate programs] that it’s a normal way to view clients. It’s really discouraging to know that [the word ‘resistant’] is even part of the dialogue,” Craig says. “Just because your perception as a clinician is that a person is not trying doesn’t mean that they’re not trying. They might not be doing the homework you assign, but they’re showing up every week. And that may be all that they can do right now. That is trying for them. Be sensitive to what they need to make progress.”

Do no harm and seek training. An important aspect of building trust with hesitant clients is ensuring that a practitioner is providing ethical, appropriate and competent care to keep from exacerbating their hesitancy or repeating any bad experiences they might have had previously in therapy. This includes seeking training, consultation or supervision when a counselor has a client who comes from a culture or is dealing with a challenge that the counselor is not familiar with.

In the case of perinatal clients, clinicians who are not trained in the needs and nuances of work with this population risk providing inaccurate — or even harmful — care, Odom says. Some of the symptoms that can be common in perinatal clients, such as intrusive thoughts about harming their baby, can easily be misinterpreted, she explains.

[Hear more on this in an ACA podcast episode featuring Odom: “Counselor Advocacy with Maternal Mental Healthcare.”]

“We [counselors] have an ethical duty to only practice in areas in which we are trained, and if we’re not, we have an ethical obligation to reach out to providers who are and consult with them,” Odom says. “Don’t be afraid to take a training on perinatal [mental health]. I have seen way too many clinicians treating these clients [inappropriately] and it leads to clients having to unjustly interface with systems that will do harm.”

Leave the door open for them to return. Clients who are hesitant about counseling are more likely to drop off a practitioner’s caseload. Counselors should take measures to focus on retention with this client population, but they should also understand that when the client stops counseling, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t beneficial. Sometimes people simply have so much going on that life “gets in the way” and they can’t come to regular sessions, Pulgar points out.

Practitioners should emphasize to these clients that they’re always welcome to return to counseling whenever they’re ready. Instead of placing blame and asking the client not to return after missing multiple sessions, a counselor can instead say, “I understand this may not be the best time to start counseling in your life, but please do reach out when it is. I am here for you, please keep my number,” Pulgar says.

“The truth is, not everyone is ready for counseling when it comes time for the appointment, even if they made the phone call [to schedule]. They may not be ready to engage yet in the process of what counseling demands,” Pulgar says. “Stay calm and don’t overthink ‘What am I doing wrong?’ or ‘What more can I do?’ Take a couple of deep breaths and think about ways that the door stays open. … If clients get a good sense of counseling just with that interaction with you, maybe in a year or five years, they will come back. That interaction, although brief, can give them a positive feeling about counseling.”



Reasons why 

Many different factors and barriers deter people from seeking counseling or feeling comfortable in sessions. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but some common client fears and concerns include:

  • The client (or someone they know) has had a bad, hurtful or unhelpful experience previously with a mental health or medical practitioner.
  • They come from a culture where counseling is not widely accepted or a culture that has been historically maligned or harmed by mental health professions.
  • They are struggling with an issue that involves feelings of shame. 
  • They are afraid to confront the issue they are struggling with; this can include hesitancy to relive trauma as they process it or fear of showing vulnerability or imperfection.
  • They fear being given a diagnosis and/or being misdiagnosed.
  • They worry the counselors will judge them.
  • They fear meeting and opening up to a person they don’t know. 
  • They experience overwhelming negative or catastrophizing thoughts (e.g., “Counseling is not going to work”).
  • They face logistical challenges (lack of insurance or inability to pay, trouble finding child care or transportation, etc.).
  • They worry that others (family, peers, etc.) will find out they are attending counseling.
  • They do not have a choice in attending counseling (e.g., a person who is mandated to complete therapy, often as the outcome of a court case).
  • They are hesitant or unable to connect with a practitioner who doesn’t come from the same background or experience as them (e.g., a Latinx or LGBTQ counselor, one who has served in the military, one who understands miscarriage and infertility).

This information came from interviews with the following counselors: Megan Craig, Shivonne Odom, Camila Pulgar, Bri-Ann Richter-Abitol and Michael Tursi.



Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.


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.

Voice of Experience: Why would he lie?

By Gregory K. Moffatt June 30, 2021

It was more than 30 years ago, but I remember the following experience with great clarity. I was relating to my supervisor an interaction with one of my clients — a tiny 10-year-old boy who probably didn’t weigh 50 pounds — simply giving her a quick summary of the beginning of our session before we got into more important things regarding my work with him.

Nonchalantly, I said, “When I asked him what he did for the weekend, he said he ‘went to the moon.’ Obviously, he was making that up.” I was about to continue, but my supervisor interrupted me — as she should have. More on that in a minute.

I was in my first year of supervision, but I was feeling confident in my work with children. This was 1987, seemingly a very long time ago, a time when almost nobody specialized with children. While some theorists such as Anna Freud and Clark Moustakas invested in children close to a century ago, it had not become a common specialty when I was a graduate student. From the outset, I knew I wanted to work with children, but there wasn’t a single class available in my graduate program that focused specifically on that client population.

As I scoured academic catalogs, I found very few resources available that focused on therapeutic work with children. Therefore, much of what I learned back in those days, I learned the hard way — either by guessing the correct action or, equally often, incorrectly guessing the right thing to do. This interaction with my client, as small as it might seem, was one of those times I made a serious mistake. So, let’s get back to my supervisor.

Igor Kisselev/Shutterstock.com

I sat in silence for a moment in front of her wondering why she had stopped me at such a seemingly trivial point in my summary. “Why would he lie?” she asked me. It was such a sincere question that it took me aback. Surely she wasn’t suggesting that my young client had actually traveled to the moon over the weekend.

“You are assuming your client is lying,” she continued. “What do you think that says to him about you?”

Ah! That was a great question, and I was embarrassed that I had not considered it. I had automatically discounted his story when I should have at least acknowledged and respected it.

What if my client had needed to tell me about some scary secret he carried? My attitude showed him that I would decide whether to believe him based on my own feelings of the story’s worthiness. What a disrespectful way to approach my client.

It would be easy to think that this situation applies only to children, but it doesn’t. We are all trained to respect diversity, and a foundational tenet of nearly all diversity theories proposes that our inner biases will show if we haven’t dealt with them. For example, if I harbor negative feelings about my transgender clients, they will eventually see through my smokescreen regardless of how I try to convince them that I value all people.

In my interaction with this little boy, I had assumed he wasn’t trustworthy by disrespecting his story. But if he couldn’t trust me with something like this, I could never expect him to trust me with experiences that might seem equally unbelievable. I shouldn’t have needed to be reminded that the fear of not being believed is one of the scariest things our clients face.

I have written before that all of our clients deceive us at one time or another. They might diminish or alter their behaviors, omit information or just flat out lie. There are many reasons why our clients deceive us, but a common one is because they are testing our trustworthiness. How easy it is to test us with one story when there is a much more important story they really need to tell.

Since this experience with my supervisor, almost no matter what a client tells me, I accept it as truth. If nothing else, it is their truth at the time. I won’t risk my biases interfering with what they need to tell me. Of course, there are times when we might need to confront or challenge our clients, but I rarely do that in the rapport-building stage.

If I could revisit that moment with that little boy again, I’d do what I have done thousands of times since then and respond, “You did? Wow! Tell me about that.” I have learned to be much more worthy of my clients’ trust.



Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.


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.

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.


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.


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.