Tag Archives: teenager

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.

 

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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.

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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.

@TechCounselor: Navigating social media with teens

By Adria Dunbar February 5, 2020

I recently did a presentation for a group of high school parents on social media use. Instead of focusing on their children, I began by asking parents about their own use of social media sites like Instagram and Facebook. As a counselor, I believe my reflections on this experience might be helpful to other practitioners when working with adolescent clients or their parents. To begin our discussion, I asked the following questions:

  • How many of you use social media?
  • How many of you have thought about changing your habits around your social media use?
  • What keeps you from making these changes?
  • How often do you feel pressured to post, like, or comment on someone else’s posts?
  • How many of you have had similar conversations with your children?

This was one of the most eye-opening discussions of social media use I have ever had with parents. I had assumed parents periodically reflect on their own use of social media and were having conversations with their children about navigating the digital world. Every parent in attendance said they participate in social media sites. They all had considered leaving or changing the ways in which they use social media, but maintained their connections for a wide range of reasons, such as staying in touch with family and friends; using the marketplace; monitoring children’s use; getting news; or learning about events in the community. In addition, almost all of the parents had even felt pressured to participate in an online social media platform in order to maintain relationships, support someone in their social circle or avoid awkward interactions. However, none of them had considered having conversations with their children about their social media use. Why is that?

Many adults and parents assume that tweens and teens know more about social media than we do. And this may be true. But, at the same time, adults can help children process their experiences in these environments. Younger people may know how to post stories, use filters, and increase followers more than their parents, teachers, coaches, or counselors; however, this does not make them experts in social media. Young people need help navigating the uncharted territory these online environments create. Most counselors and parents are aware of safety concerns involving online activity, but there are other big-picture aspects they should also consider asking about, such as:

  • Tell me more about the social media platforms and apps you use. How do they work? What do you like about them?
  • What are your interactions like? Are they positive, or do you sometimes get caught up in negativity or conflict?
  • What kinds of pressure do you feel equipped to handle on your own? What types of pressure leave you feeling unsure how to handle?
  • How do you filter who you allow into your social media and who you deny entrance?
  • What is your ideal number of followers or likes? What would reaching that number mean to you?
  • What will you do if someone you know from school or work sends a follow or friend request, but you question their intentions? How would you feel about blocking or unfriending someone?
  • How would you react if you saw something inappropriate or unkind on one of the more publicly accessible platforms such as Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter or Facebook? Would your reaction change if you knew that your response could resurface in the future or in a different app?

Keeping up with the ways in which technology is changing our relationships and world can be a lot of work, but we cannot allow ourselves to take our hands off the wheel. Although not all counselors choose to participate in social media sites, such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, or Snapchat, it is crucial to stay up to date on the ways these social media platforms impact clients’ lives and relationships. For those who work with child and adolescent clients, it is equally important to find reputable resources to share with clients’ caregivers. Websites like commonsense.org can be helpful as a starting point. Local libraries and schools often hold workshops or sessions focused on navigating digital spaces as well.

Just as we cannot expect parents to navigate the digital world without guidance, nor can we expect that adolescents will understand all the social nuances of the online social world without our help. By partnering with adolescents, and allowing ourselves to find vulnerability in our lack of expertise, we may be able to help them think through some big questions about who they are, what they represent and how they want to show up in the world—not just online but IRL (in real life).

 

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Related reading, from the Counseling Today archives: “#disconnected: Why counselors can no longer ignore social media

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Adria S. Dunbar is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership, Policy and Human Development at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. She has more than 15 years of experience with both efficient and inefficient technology in school settings, private practice and counselor education. Contact her at adria.dunbar@ncsu.edu.

@TechCounselor’s Instagram is @techcounselor.

 

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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.

Pushing through the vape cloud

By Lindsey Phillips November 26, 2019

Four years ago, Hannah Rose, a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Baltimore, started vaping as a way to quit traditional cigarettes, but she ultimately found that it was even more difficult to stop vaping. “I was vaping at work, round-the-clock, in between clients,” Rose recalls.

One day after leaving a yoga class, she instantly reached for her vape. In that moment, she felt conflicted because her nicotine addiction did not line up with her values of being mentally and physically healthy. This values conflict made her want to quit, but the thought of doing so gave her anxiety.

Part of Rose’s anxiety stemmed from the fact that nicotine, which is in most vape juices, can be highly addictive. One pod (about 200 puffs) of the electronic-cigarette brand Juul contains 20 cigarettes’ worth of nicotine. Gail Lalk, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor in private practice at Young Adult Therapy in Morristown, New Jersey, says she has seen teenagers who have gotten addicted after vaping one or two pods.

E-cigarettes often introduce nicotine to teenagers who were not previously smoking traditional cigarettes. This has been the case for the majority of Lalk’s younger clients. Lalk asserts that she hasn’t had a single client younger than 18 who started vaping because they were trying to quit cigarettes.

Recent statistics confirm the popularity of vaping among teenagers. According to the Food and Drug Administration, from 2017 to 2018, e-cigarette use grew by 78% among high school students (from 11.7% of students to 20.8% of students) and increased 48% among middle school students (from 3.3% to 4.9% of students). In December 2018, Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory about the dangers of e-cigarette use among teenagers and declared it an epidemic in the United States.

But why have e-cigarettes gained popularity so quickly? The big draw is the flavor, says Rose, who has experience working with clients battling addiction. Traditional cigarettes aren’t known for their good taste. The first time someone smokes a traditional cigarette, they usually start coughing and are left with a tobacco or menthol aftertaste.

Compare that experience with vaping: It doesn’t feel harsh when the user inhales, yet the user still gets a buzz of nicotine. And this experience comes in almost any taste imaginable — mango, mint, apple pie, cake, bourbon, coffee and so on. The options are so plentiful that some online vape shops organize the flavors by categories such as cream and custard, candy, sour and beverage. 

However, after a recent outbreak of lung injuries associated with vaping, e-cigarettes have been coming under increased scrutiny. The Trump administration has proposed a policy to ban flavored vaping liquids, and several states such as Michigan, New York and Massachusetts have already enacted similar bans. In October, Juul announced it was immediately suspending sales of its e-cigarette flavors.

Watch your language

Jennifer See, an LPC and a licensed chemical dependency counselor in private practice in San Antonio, advises counselors to be honest with their clients about the attraction of vaping. “These substances make these kids feel good, even if it’s just temporary. So, saying that they don’t is just not a good approach,” notes See, a member of the American Counseling Association.

Instead, counselors should acknowledge that vaping can be pleasurable and ask clients what they like about it, she says. At the same time, clients can be reassured that they have the ability to quit, even though it will be difficult, and that the counselor will be there with them every step of the way, she adds.

When referring to the issue of vaping during intake or in session, counselors need to be specific about the language they use, See says. Smoking is not “an umbrella [term for vaping] because people don’t really associate [vaping] with tobacco or nicotine,” she explains. “It’s almost its own category.”

On her intake form, See used to ask clients if they were using nonprescribed substances such as alcohol, tobacco or nicotine, or whether they smoked. However, she was finding that clients who vaped often responded no to these questions because they didn’t consider it to be the same as smoking. Now, See clearly asks if clients vape or Juul (the most popular brand of e-cigarettes).

This advice extends to the language counselors use on their websites and in how they advertise their clinical services. Rather than listing only general terms such as substance use or smoking, counselors should specifically list vaping if they are trained and feel comfortable working with the issue, See suggests.

Rose doesn’t believe that vaping should be the focus of counseling sessions, at least not initially. “Vaping is not the problem,” she explains. “It’s just a symptom of the problem. So, counselors [first] need to tap into that core-issue work.”

As Rose points out, even 12-step programs view substances as symptoms of a larger issue. “The 12 steps are not about not drinking [or smoking],” she says. “The only step that even mentions alcohol or nicotine is the first step. The other 11 steps are all about introspective work, practicing integrity, and looking at what patterns of behavior are no longer useful.” The success of this approach lies in looking for the underlying issue, not treating the substance as the problem, she says.

Parents often call See in a panic because they have caught their child vaping and want the child to stop. Parents — typically out of concern and fear — may try to punish or shame their children into quitting. See avoids any hint of shaming her young clients for their choices or even making assumptions about their readiness to quit whatever substances they are using “because I think that is a great way to alienate [the client],” she says.

Rather than launching into a discussion about vaping, See instead starts her sessions by getting to know the client. She will ask about school, home life and friends. She may ask, “What do you do in your free time? What activities are you involved in? Did you recently move? Do you have any pets?”

Often, these conversations reveal the role that vaping plays in clients’ lives, See says. For instance, a client may have started vaping because they just moved and wanted to fit in with a new group of friends, or because they are stressed out about applying to college.

See specializes in substance use and abuse and has expertise working with clients and their family members on issues around vaping. She has found that younger kids want to talk about vaping not only in social settings but also in counseling because they don’t consider it illicit and because they feel it is novel or cool to bring up the latest vape tricks and challenges. One popular challenge is for users to “hit a Juul” as many times as they can for 30 seconds. Another involves the “ghost inhale,” in which users inhale the vapor into their mouths, blow it out in the shape of a ball, and then quickly sip it back into their mouths.

Finding the underlying issue

Using motivational interviewing, See eventually asks clients if they want to quit vaping, if they are worried about their health if they continue vaping, and what their goals are for therapy. Part of the purpose of this questioning is to figure out the underlying reason that clients are vaping in the first place, See says. Is it because they are anxious or depressed? Is it simply because they want to appear cool?

To help clients pinpoint their underlying issue, See asks them to keep a journal to track their thoughts and behaviors connected to vaping. Often, as clients track when and where they vape — for example, when they’re alone in their room, when they’re with friends in their car, or when they’re bored — they also discover the real reasons they do it.

Clients keep track of their vaping habits for a few weeks or in between sessions, and then with See’s help, they look for patterns and clues that point to the underlying reason. This exercise also helps clients gain greater awareness of how much time and energy they devote to vaping, See notes. Often, people spend much more time vaping than they would smoking a cigarette, she adds. “Vaping is almost like chain smoking,” she explains. “That’s just another element that people don’t take into account.” See says some of her clients were vaping for two to three hours per day and didn’t realize it until they started tracking it in their journals.

As Rose notes, “Counseling can be helpful to look under the surface of the behavioral piece and bring a level of mindfulness to what is the thought or feeling that precedes [a client] picking up that vape.” She contends that this is not the time for counselors to use a solution-focused approach to try to quickly get clients to stop vaping.

“Smoking or vaping is a symptom, and the core problem is something internal,” Rose asserts. That’s why she believes counseling has so much to offer to people who want to quit vaping — because counseling goes beyond merely reducing the symptoms and helps to address the underlying issue. “A good competent counselor can really bring a deeper level of awareness to that core issue, [and] if that wound begins to heal, it prevents the problem from continuing,” Rose says.

A few years ago, Lalk, an ACA member who specializes in working with adolescents and young adults, had a teenager come to her because she had attempted suicide, was depressed, had past trauma, and was using lots of substances, including vaping. For the next two and a half years, Lalk worked with the client on her anxiety, depression, and maladaptive behaviors such as lying. After successfully addressing these underlying issues, the client announced on her own that she wanted to quit vaping and be substance free when she started college. In addition to continuing with counseling, the client used a nicotine patch and was able to slowly wean herself off of nicotine. Lalk says this was possible because the client started from a state of good mental health.

A mindfulness ‘patch’

See has had clients who, without thinking, pulled out their vaping devices in session. That showed how much of a habit it had become for them, she says.

Rose admits that she used to be on autopilot with vaping, and the first few days after she quit, she found herself instinctively reaching for her device. Because vaping can help release a person’s anxiety, making them feel better, it can quickly become a habit, Rose says. The challenge is unlearning this habit, which is a deliberate process, she emphasizes.

Similar to See’s tracking activity, Rose has clients journal to help them become more mindful about how and why they vape. She asks clients to write down (or at least notice) what was going on before they vaped, including their thoughts and feelings and their environmental and internal cues. She tells clients not to judge or change the situation. She simply wants them to notice it and make note of it.

“That awareness makes it more difficult to continue engaging in the same self-destructive pattern, and that pain and discomfort lead us to eventually stop the pattern,” Rose says.

Meditation is another effective way for clients to practice nonjudgmental awareness. “Yoga essentially saved me from smoking because it forced me to be still in my own body, and my cravings started to decrease the more I did yoga and the more I got comfortable with myself,” Rose says. “Any kind of mindfulness practice in any capacity can really help calm that craving because it forces you to … pause and be aware instead of act on impulse.”

“When you’re trying to quit vaping, it’s likely to unmask other anxieties,” Lalk says. The trick is to find healthy ways to process this underlying anxiety. Lalk finds patterning techniques helpful for her clients in this regard.

Lalk uses the common technique of deep breathing to illustrate patterning. Counselors often tell clients to breathe in a numerical pattern: Breathe in for four seconds, hold for six seconds, and breathe out for eight seconds, for example. This technique works because of the counting pattern, Lalk says. “Once you start trying to do [this patterning], your brain shifts and it calms you down,” she explains.

Lalk encourages clients to find a patterning technique that works for them. It could be doing beats with their hands, taking deep breathes and counting, writing poetry, or going for a walk and looking for patterns (counting every orange object that they see, for example). The key is to be mindful while doing the activity, Lalk explains. “Running is a beautiful way to pattern because you can count your steps. Just running for the sake of running if you aren’t being mindful about it isn’t nearly as helpful,” she adds.

With the help of a relaxation patterning activity, clients can calm themselves as they discuss their underlying anxiety or other issue with a counselor. Lalk points out that people often hide from whatever makes them anxious. Counselors can work with clients to instead address and acknowledge their anxiety and move toward it, not away from it, she says. Lalk says one of her clients can do four different beats with each of his hands and feet. Once he starts doing his beats, he relaxes and starts talking about his underlying issues.

See also helps clients find mindful replacements for vaping. One of her clients tracked her vaping behavior and discovered that she mostly vaped in her car — a place she spent a significant amount of time driving to school, work and other activities. Together, See and the client reviewed various alternatives that she could engage in while in her car: Would playing music help? Did she need something to do with her hands, such as squeezing a stress ball or play dough or twirling a pen in her fingers? Was her vaping habit the result of an oral fixation?

They finally decided the client would keep a water bottle in her car, and every time she wanted to vape, she would take a sip of water instead. In many cases, it’s about figuring out what clients can do so that vaping is not at the forefront of their minds, See says.

Changing the narrative

Lalk points out that people who vape are not strangers to negative, shame-based and judgmental comments from others. But this sends the wrong message, she says. The person may have tried vaping at a party and, in a short time, become addicted. This doesn’t make them a bad person; it just means they are struggling, she says.

Counseling can help clients manage negative internal and external comments. Rose has her clients practice nonjudgmental awareness. For example, a client might set a goal of not vaping all week, but at the next session, he confesses that he did vape, which in his eyes, makes him a “horrible person.” Rose helps the client separate shame (“I am a bad person because I vaped this week”) from guilt (“I feel bad for relapsing and using nicotine”). Whereas feelings of guilt can be healthy, shame and negative thinking aren’t productive, Rose says. Clients can’t shame themselves into quitting, even though they often try to do just that, she adds.

Rose frequently uses narrative therapy to help clients identify and change these harmful thoughts. She asks clients to write down all of the thoughts they have about themselves at the end of each day. Maybe they vaped that day and feel like a failure, or maybe they went the entire day without vaping and feel good about themselves.

Rose encourages clients to be mindful of the story they are creating with their words and thoughts. She asks clients, “What is the narrative you have created about yourself and your vaping?” Sometimes clients have internalized a narrative of “I’m a smoker,” and the more they say this, the more it becomes true, Rose says. So, if a client states, “I’m a smoker who quit two months ago,” Rose works with the person to change the story to an empowering one, such as, “I don’t vape. I’m not a smoker.”

“Those narratives are going to illuminate some more core issues like self-esteem or a lack of self-worth,” she adds.

Focus on the wins

See suggests that counselors can also help clients focus on their small victories. “Every time you don’t [vape] is a win,” See says. “And if a day didn’t go as great as you wanted it to, then just press that reset button and start over. You can start over at any point in the day. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow.”

See collaborates with clients to identify rewards and motivations that would work best for them. That could be buying new shoes with the money saved from not vaping that week or not allowing themselves to watch a Netflix show until they make it one day without vaping. The goal is to have clients build up their toolboxes, so she has them come up with a list of about 25 things that aren’t substances that make them feel good, such as running or going out to eat at a favorite restaurant.

Having a sufficient stockpile of motivators in their toolboxes ensures that clients will have an alternative to turn to when the craving to vape hits, See notes. Having only a few options — even if they are strong motivators — can backfire because not every tool will work in every situation. For instance, if a client is stuck in class and can’t go running when the urge to vape arises, he or she will need another tool to use in that moment. Clients should also make their goal visible to help motivate them, See adds. For example, they can put the goal on their mirror so that they see it every day.

Rose recommends the app Smoke Free because it focuses on positive reinforcement, not consequences. “It’s very strength based,” she notes. The app doesn’t show a picture of an unhealthy lung or treat the user as naive. Instead, it focuses on the benefits of not smoking and the progress people are making toward their goals.

Upon opening the Smoke Free app, users see a dashboard displaying how long (down to the hour) they have been smoke free. It calculates the degree to which the person’s health is being restored with icons that display improvements (by percentage) for pulse rate, oxygen levels, and risk of heart attack and lung cancer. It also shows users how much money they have saved by not vaping. The app includes a journal component where users can note their cravings and identify their triggers. To further encourage users, it includes progress made such as life regained in days and time not spent smoking.

“A knowledge of consequences does not dissipate the problem,” Rose says. “We absolutely know that smoking is highly correlated with lung cancer, and yet millions of people still smoke.” Younger generations often feel invincible, so focusing only on the consequences of vaping isn’t a sufficient motivator, she adds.

Forming alliances

Counselors must take steps to reach children and parents even earlier because vaping is increasingly making its way into elementary and middle schools, says See, who wrote the article “The dangers of vaping” for the website CollegiateParent. With parents, it is also helpful to educate them on what to look for because vaping devices, which can resemble a flash drive or pen, are often hidden in plain sight and are easily overlooked, See adds. 

Lalk recommends that counselors also take the time to learn from their clients. Through her alliance with some of her seventh- and eighth-grade clients, she found out which local stores were selling e-cigarettes to underage patrons. These clients also confided that one store owner said he knew the kids were underage but that the possibility of getting caught and having to pay a $250 fine was worth it because each vape sold for $60.

This knowledge helped Lalk take action in her community, including writing an article on how the shops, rather than the children, should be prosecuted, and participating in a movement to create ordinances setting new rules for establishments that sell vapes to minors. The businesses in her town now have to secure permits to sell vaping products, part of which requires acknowledging that they will not sell to minors. If store owners are found in violation of their permits, they risk losing their businesses. 

Rose used to facilitate two hours of group counseling at a rehabilitation center five days a week, and she regularly witnessed the shame reduction and healing that can happen in groups. “I believe the opposite of addiction is not just abstinence,” she says. “The opposite of addiction is connection.”

Accountability is another big piece in quitting, Rose says. She often tells clients who are struggling to call a friend with whom they can be honest or to find another way to keep themselves accountable to their goal of quitting or reducing the amount of time they vape.

Rose personally found that documenting her journey of quitting in a blog post kept her accountable. Others reached out and told her that her post made them feel less alone and motivated them to quit too. In turn, she thought twice before using her vape again because she wanted to respond to incoming emails by confirming that she was still vape free.   

See agrees that accountability and healthy rewards are smart strategies for helping clients who want to quit vaping. Peer pressure can become a big issue, especially for teenagers who don’t want to feel like the odd person out when seemingly everyone else in their crowd is vaping, she says. She advises clients to let people know they are quitting and to surround themselves with people who will empower and support them in their decision.

Accountability becomes even more important with adults, See points out, because they have more freedom and don’t automatically have someone watching over or checking in with them. That’s why having a support system is so important, she says. When clients feel like vaping, they can reach out to someone they trust and ask them for five reasons not to, See says.

See says clients might also consider posting on social media that they are quitting and openly ask for support, or they could participate in a 30-day challenge. One of Lalk’s clients participated in a challenge the person referred to as “No-Nic November.” These positive challenges can provide a good counterbalance to the vaping challenges that are so popular on social media currently.

When See dropped one of her children off at college, she noticed the dorm had placed a whiteboard with the words “Healthy Ways to Deal With Stress” written at the top. The students were adding their own suggestions, such as going to a pet store and petting a cat or going for a run. See loved this self-empowering technique and plans to incorporate it into her own practice by adding a Post-it wall where clients can add their own healthy ways of coping or their own words of encouragement.

Taking the first step

Quitting can be overwhelming, and sometimes clients don’t know where to start. See advises these clients to begin by taking small steps. Harm reduction can be a particularly effective early strategy because it empowers clients, See says. “Once they see they can harm reduce, then maybe [they] can harm reduce all the way to zero use,” she explains. “But putting them at the bottom of Mount Kilimanjaro and saying ‘get up to the top right now’ is daunting.” Instead, she asks clients what their “climb” to being vape free looks like for them. Do they want to climb fast, or do they want to climb slow?

Recently, See worked with a teenager who had been vaping for three years. She had been scared by the recent health reports related to vaping and wanted to quit. See asked this client about her motivators, and the client said she wanted to quit to protect her health, for her parents who were pressuring her to quit, and because of the monetary costs associated with vaping.

See asked the client, “What does 30 days without vaping look like?” The client’s eyes bulged. The thought of it was too much for her. So, instead, See and the teen client talked and decided she would remove e-cigarettes from just one place in her life.

By tracking her habits, the client learned she vaped mostly in her car. So, See suggested she remove the vape only from her car and also not allow her friends to vape there. See also instructed the client to notice and write down how it felt not having the vape in her car. Did she miss it? Did she reach for it without thinking? Together, they also made a list of possible replacements she could keep in her car, including a pen, candy flavored like her favorite vape juice, and a stress ball.

“That was one part of the mountain that she could climb,” See says. Feeling empowered by her success, the teenager eventually decided that she was ready to tackle the prospect of no longer vaping in her room at home.

Others, such as Rose, decide to take a faster approach and quit cold turkey. She notes that counseling can bring a level of mindful awareness to quitting and help clients figure out the underlying reasons they turn to vaping to fill an internal void. “The nicotine [and] physical addiction is a part of it, but that’s not the core issue,” she asserts.

Since she stopped vaping, Rose’s mindfulness practice has increased. She has trained herself to pause before acting on impulse. “The mental aspect is infinitely more difficult to unlearn than the physical addiction — ‘I’m sad, I’m going to vape. I’m happy, I’m going to vape. I’m bored’ — that’s the most common — ‘I’m going to vape.’ It’s something to do, something to reach for, essentially something to [help] avoid just sitting with [one’s] self in one’s own skin,” she says.

As Rose opens her Smoke Free app, her dashboard proudly displays that she hasn’t vaped for six months, 16 days and 13 hours.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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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.

Five social, emotional and mental health supports that teens need to succeed

By Dakota King-White, Sade Vega and Nicholas Petty September 9, 2019

Many teenagers have been exposed to traumatic events, and most experience regular life stressors. Exposure to violence and other traumatic experiences can have a lifelong effect on learning and may negatively impact academic achievement. Among examples of traumatic events that some teenagers experience are community violence, school shootings, the loss of a loved one due to death, parental incarceration, divorcing parents, a parent or caregiver with mental illness, and substance abuse in the home. Within the school setting, the negative influence of trauma on teens may lead to poor concentration, declining academic performance, school absenteeism, and the decision to drop out. These challenges create barriers for the success of teens in the academic setting.

Schools across the United States have recognized the importance of providing school-based mental health support because these services benefit students academically, socially and emotionally. However, questions regarding the issues facing teens and the types of mental health supports needed to deal with these issues require further examination. Implementing a needs assessment can assist schools in uncovering the answer to these questions. The findings can then help determine what programming should be implemented to improve students’ overall development, such as teaching them social skills to help them become productive members of their communities and school settings.

We wanted to learn more about the social, emotional and mental health needs of teenagers, so we conducted a needs assessment in which we surveyed 198 high school students in a Midwestern city. The teens in our study identified the types of emotionally stressful experiences they have faced since attending high school. They also described what schools could do to make them feel supported and better able to deal with the related challenges.

The following sections present the five top issues identified by the students we surveyed, along with recommendations on ways that schools can support teenagers socially, emotionally and mentally.

 

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1) Social media makes peer pressure a 24/7 problem. Teens today are confronting certain pressures that teens in the past didn’t face. A prime example: Social media has become an indispensable part of teenagers’ lives. According to a 2018 report written for the Pew Research Center by Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among those ages 13-17, and most teens have access to these apps on their smartphones. Anderson and Jiang note in the report that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, with 45% of teens acknowledging that they are online “almost constantly.”

This constant mobile connection creates the conditions for teenagers to consistently be exposed to peer pressure even outside of the school environment. Mina Park and colleagues in 2017, in a journal article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, noted that hyperconnectivity to social media can also lead to depression, negative body image and eating disorders.

What schools can do to help: Teens must be given an outlet to discuss their frustrations when it comes to dealing with peer pressure. Students should be directed to their school counselors or other trusted adults in the school with whom they can share their feelings and pressures and get supportive, confidential advice in return. It is also helpful to allow for genuine conversations in the classroom about the importance of students being confident in who they are and embracing their differences. Safe spaces in schools allow teens opportunities to feel supported in a neutral environment, to accept who they are, and to embrace differences among their peers.

 

2) Bullying is a significant issue. Peer pressure is not the only problem arising from constant social media access. The other, and even more troubling, issue is bullying. Teens may experience, witness or engage in bullying situations, including cyberbullying, which is more prevalent among teens.

The Bullying Statistics website (bullyingstatistics.org) notes that cyberbullying may consist of teens sending cruel messages, spreading gossip or posting threatening messages on social media platforms, pretending to be someone else on a social media account, or sexting. According to recent statistics from the website, more than 25% of teenagers have been exposed to cyberbullying situations that have had a negative impact on them. Bullying can have a significant effect on teens socially, emotionally and academically. Some of the negative impacts include depression, anxiety, attendance problems, and decrease in academic achievement. However, many teens who experience cyberbullying do not tell their parents or guardians about these painful experiences.

What schools can do to help: October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and many schools across the United States take time to develop effective strategies to raise awareness about bullying and to prevent bullying incidents on their campuses. It is important for schools to create an environment in which victims of bullying/cyberbullying, or teens who witness the bullying of a peer, can talk to trusted adults about bullying situations. Help your students by providing safe places in schools where teens can disclose when they or their peers are being bullied, or even create a hotline for students to report bullying situations.

Additionally, offer professional development to teachers and other staff members on identifying the warning signs of bullying, and provide them with effective strategies to help students who are being bullied. Likewise, many parents are unaware of how to support their teens when they are being bullied, so invite parents to on-campus workshops where they can learn ways to address these issues with their teens. During the parent and family sessions, discuss the various types of bullying that take place, the warning signs of bullying, and school and community resources for victims of bullying and cyberbullying. Workshops for parents and families can add another layer of support for young people who are affected by bullying.

 

3) Students are concerned about their personal safety. In our study, the third top concern that students reported was anxiety about their personal safety. According to the National Institute of Justice, school safety is currently a common concern among educators and administrators across the United States. Teens may not feel safe in their schools because of gun violence on school campuses across the country or even violence in their own communities or neighborhoods. The National Institute of Justice has stated that more schools have increased their security measures to protect students. Many of these schools have instituted locked doors, security cameras, hallway supervision, controlled building access, metal detectors and locker checks.

More than half of the ninth- and 10th-graders and more than 70% of the 11th- and 12th-graders we surveyed reported that they had experienced a traumatic event while attending high school. These various traumatic events can cause students to feel concern about their overall safety in their schools and communities. This type of stressor can in turn affect how teens engage in their educational environments.

What schools can do to help: Trauma-informed methods must be put in place to support students and their overall safety. Trauma-informed approaches focus on ways to ensure that students feel supported, listened to, and safe. Among the trauma-informed approaches that counselors can create in their schools are to build trust and rapport with students and to collaborate with outside community resources to support students who have been exposed to traumatic events. By getting to know your students, you will notice when their behaviors change, and because you have built trust with them, you can approach them in a friendly way to address these changes.

In addition, provide training on trauma-informed methods for teachers, support staff and administrators at your school. This training will help them create resources aimed at the needs of teens. Additionally, educators can seek professional help for their own personal traumas so that they may better interact with students who are dealing with stressors. By ensuring that teachers and staff members have access to community resources and training about personal safety and trauma, schools are developing leaders who can help students socially, emotionally and academically.

 

4) Students need help coping with their emotions. Teens’ emotions run rampant during their high school years. Most experience a range of emotions, including anger, fear, frustration, disappointment and hurt. These emotions may mask some of the broader issues that students face and that ultimately affect their academic performance.

Some of the students in our study participated in a small group that focused on developing social skills. The single-gender support group addressed the students’ academic, social and emotional needs. The sessions offered teens a safe place to identify stressors in their lives and to discuss the emotions attached to those stressors. By talking about their emotions, students were able to identify yet other emotions that were hiding underneath their anger and aggression. Throughout this process, the teens learned how to effectively articulate their emotions and to identify the underlying factors that were fueling them.

What schools can do to help: Encourage a supportive environment and training for students, such as small support groups facilitated by school counselors, clinical counselors, school psychologists or social workers, as well as peer-to-peer support groups. Teach teens the proper social skills related to identifying their emotions, and explain that all emotions are OK to have.

Quite often, teenagers express only the basic emotions when talking to others, especially adults. However, challenging them to look deeper and to identify the true emotion can be effective. Teens need safe places at school where they can learn how to cope with their anger and the other uncomfortable emotions that they often face.

 

5) Dealing with grief is important. A final concern students reported centered on dealing with grief from the loss of a loved one. Those students in our study who had experienced the loss of a loved one or who had witnessed a friend going through such a loss reported needing a supportive outlet to deal with those losses. Students may experience various losses during their teen years, such as the death of a friend or family member, and they are often left to process their emotions about the loss on their own. If schools are unaware that students have experienced a loss, those students may go without the support that is needed to help them process their grief. A lack of support during this time can have a significant impact on teens succeeding within the academic setting.

What schools can do to help: Build rapport early in the year with students so that they will be comfortable sharing should they experience a loss. During times of loss, allow students to grieve. Provide additional assistance by forming support groups for students who have experienced loss. This type of support can be offered through collaboration with local counseling agencies, hospices or other entities that support families experiencing loss. It is also helpful to maintain a list of community resources that address grief and loss. This community resource guide can be shared with teens, parents or caregivers, and other stakeholders.

Transforming school into an emotionally responsive environment

Students who are well-equipped socially, emotionally and mentally at the beginning of their academic careers can better cope when hardships occur. As counselors, we can help our students succeed in school and in life by first learning to identify their social, emotional and mental health needs, and then providing resources such as social skills workshops and support groups for them. Additionally, we can lead by example by improving our own social, emotional and mental health through professional development workshops that emphasize social and emotional learning practices.

Remember, school is not just a place where students gain academic knowledge; it is where they prepare for life. By doing our part to create a safe and emotionally supportive environment, we can increase the odds that students will succeed beyond the walls of the classroom.

 

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Dakota King-White is an assistant professor in counselor education at Cleveland State University. Prior to that, she worked in K-12 education as a school counselor, mental health therapist and administrator. Contact her at d.l.king19@csuohio.edu.

Sade Vega is a student in health science at Cleveland State University. In 2018, she received the university’s undergraduate student research award for her research on assessing the social, emotional and mental health needs of high school students. Contact her at s.m.vega@vikes.csuohio.edu.

Nicholas Petty is the director of undergraduate inclusive excellence at Cleveland State University. Prior to working at the university, he was an administrator in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where he earned national attention for his innovative approaches to behavioral intervention and student motivation. Contact him at n.petty@csuohio.edu.

 

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

Counseling Today reviews unsolicited articles written by American Counseling Association members. To access writing guidelines and tips for having an article accepted for publication, go to ct.counseling.org/feedback.

 

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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.

Inviting young people to talk about mental health

By Jonathan Rollins March 29, 2019

Lady Gaga is known for her candor and openness when it comes to speaking about her struggles with mental health. But as her mother, Cynthia Germanotta acknowledges that she didn’t initially understand why her famous daughter felt compelled to share so candidly — and without prompting — from the stage.

Over time, however, Germanotta’s perspective changed, especially as she began noticing that when Lady Gaga recounted her struggles, there was almost a visible sense of relief on the faces of many of her fans. “What I came to realize is that [in sharing these details], she was healing and her fans were healing. … I think the fans eventually came to hear her message of resilience and courage as much as the music.”

Speaking in front of approximately 4,000 attendees during her keynote talk Friday morning at the American Counseling Association 2019 Conference & Expo in New Orleans, Germanotta said that experience was the genesis of the Born This Way Foundation, a nonprofit that she and Lady Gaga co-founded in 2012 to empower youth and to eliminate the stigma around mental health.

Today, Germanotta said, she and the other Born This Way Foundation staff members “spend our days inviting conversations around mental health.” One of those staff members, Executive Director Maya Enista Smith, joined Germanotta on stage to facilitate the keynote presentation.

Germanotta shared some of her famous daughter’s backstory, telling the audience that when Lady Gaga (real name, Stefani) was in middle school, she faced a significant degree of taunting and humiliation. This caused her to question her self-worth and resulted in struggles with depression and trauma. These experiences “followed her to high school and college,” Germanotta said, and continued to plague her into her adult life.

As she found her voice, however, Lady Gaga decided to channel that hurt into helping others. She told her mother that she wished she had been better equipped to deal with life’s struggles as a young person and had a desire to give today’s youth the necessary tools to do what she couldn’t at the time.

According to Germanotta, in research conducted through the Born This Way Foundation, access to care (particularly access to affordable care) and simply not knowing where to turn for help are among the top issues impacting youth mental health. In one of the foundation’s studies, it was found that more than 90 percent of youth said they valued their mental health (even more than said they valued their physical health). However, less than 50 percent reported feeling that they had the tools to practice good mental health or knew where to turn for help.

“It’s important to treat mental health; it’s even more important to foster it,” Germanotta said.

Part of overcoming this barrier is simply inviting young people to have conversations around mental health and then giving or pointing them to the tools they need to help themselves and their peers. One of the Born This Way Foundation’s initiatives has been developing a Teen Mental Health First Aid program, developed in partnership with young people, that will be piloted in eight schools later this year.

One of the best things that parents can do — including parents who just so happen to be counselors — is to talk to their children about mental health, Germanotta said. She acknowledged that these discussions can sometimes be awkward, but “normalizing that conversation around mental health” can be a huge source of support for young people and provide them many of the tools they are missing. She also recommended that parents model this talk around the dinner table, “being very honest and open about your own issues and stressors.” One of the main reasons that teenagers don’t turn to their parents for help with mental health struggles is because they don’t hear their parents share about their own challenges openly, Germanotta said.

As for steps that counselors can take, Germanotta again stressed that “young people are struggling with not knowing where to go for that help. … Help them find you, what you do, and what resources are available to them.”

She also said that “one size does not fit all concerning what the answer or resource might be. You really can’t be prescriptive. … It comes back to meeting young people where they are and understanding their needs.”

Finally, Germanotta gave counselors a reminder: “Check your judgment at the door when talking to young people.” Feeling judged is one of the biggest reasons that young people choose not to open up and talk to adults about their struggles, she said.

Germanotta also invited counselors to partner and collaborate with the Born This Way Foundation in reaching young people. “It’s going to take us all,” she said. “We can’t do this alone. … The hope that I have is that this issue is being more recognized every day on a larger scale.”

When Lady Gaga was in college, some of her fellow students started a Facebook page called “Stefani Germanotta Will Never Be Famous.” Perhaps they didn’t realize how hurtful their words and actions might be to a young woman’s emotional and mental health. Regardless, they certainly missed the mark when it came to prognosticating the future Lady Gaga’s worldwide level of recognition and influence.

Fortunately, Lady Gaga is passionate about using her stage not just to boost her own fame, but to preach a message of resilience, kindness and courage — and to validate that it’s perfectly OK to live with, and seek help for, mental health issues.

Germanotta recounted to ACA Conference attendees what her daughter has told her: “Of course I want to be remembered for my music, but what I most want to be remembered for is helping young people change the world.”

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Find out more about the Born This Way Foundation at bornthisway.foundation

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In her own words

Read more about Germanotta’s perspective and experience through two articles she has written:

 

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Jonathan Rollins is the editor-in-chief of Counseling Today. Contact him at jrollins@counseling.org.

Follow Counseling Today on Twitter @ACA_CTonline and on Facebook at facebook.com/CounselingToday.

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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.