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Adolescence is the phase of life between childhood and adulthood, from ages 10 to 19. Adolescence is a crucial development stage when young people experience rapid physical, cognitive and psychosocial growth and this can lead to phases of physical and mental confusion. According to the World Health Organisation, adolescence is an important time for laying the foundations of good health. This applies not only to physical health but also to mental health as well.
Research suggests that 10.0% of children have received counselling or therapy from a mental health professional, and 8.4% have taken prescription medication for a mental health concern. Counselling is very common amongst adolescents then, but it’s important to recognise that adolescents are distinctly different from both adults and children and should be treated as such.
So, what are the right counselling techniques for working with adolescents? How can you build a strong therapeutic alliance with adolescents? And how do we promote positive self-esteem and self-acceptance among adolescents? Here’s everything you need to know about counselling for this unique demographic:
Introduction to Counselling Adolescents and the Significance of This Developmental Stage
There are many issues that are commonly faced by teens who seek counselling. These include mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and ADD. Some teens are also referred to counselling as a result of chronic behavioural problems and challenges such as substance abuse, conduct disorders, and disruptive behaviour. These are all issues best discussed in the same environment of therapy.
Whilst these are all issues that adults can experience too, it is important to tailor counselling approaches effectively when counselling adolescents. They should not be treated in the same way as adults as adolescent development and understanding is different. The childhood and teenage years come with unique developmental challenges and these should not be treated in an adult.
Counselling can have a positive impact on the emotional, social and academic well-being of adolescents. However, many counsellors and therapists report that working with teens can be more difficult than working with clients in other age demographics. This is because you are often also working with their family members, at least indirectly. Because it can be difficult to differentiate between problematic behaviours and typical teen behaviours, and because many teens are reluctant to accept treatment. They are not ready for therapeutic support so they are difficult to engage with or to encourage to talk about their concerns.
Building a Strong Therapeutic Alliance With Adolescents
When working with adolescent clients it is important that you establish trust and build rapport with them in order to engage with them effectively. Therapists should create a safe and non-judgmental space for adolescents to share their thoughts and feelings. Finding a middle path for parents and adolescents can be difficult when trust has been broken in a family unit and working with difficult parents can make it even harder to build a therapeutic relationship with the adolescent that is your primary client.
Developmentally speaking teens are more temperamental and have more mood swings than both younger children and adults. They are experiencing hormonal surges and often they don’t have full autonomy over their decisions or their bodies. When engaging with teens therefore counsellors should adapt their approach to connect with clients with different personalities and cultural backgrounds. Some examples of approaches counsellors can adapt, include
- Deep listening. This is a core element to ensuring that adolescents feel really heard by the individual counselling them. Deep listening is a form of mindfulness. It is the practice of bringing one’s awareness to the present moment with an attitude of non-judgment and is a great way to encourage teens to feel heard, listened to, and understood. As a result, the adolescent and therapist relationship will deepen.
- Asking open-ended Closed questions often get nothing more than a yes or no answer. However, open-ended questions often result in a more thorough response on the youth’s part. Some examples of open-ended questions include “How are you feeling right now?” or “What impact do you think that will have?”
- Use closed questions. Of course, if the adolescent you’re working with won’t answer our open-ended questions, then it may be time to introduce a closed question instead. Some teens find it easier to answer short and brief questions than longer ones, and any communication is better than no communication. A very uncomfortable teen will at least engage in the conversation when asked a closed question.
Using Active Listening and Empathetic Communication
Active listening is a form of communication that is considered one of the foundational skills within the counselling profession. Active listening involves going beyond simply hearing the words that another person speaks but also seeking to understand the meaning and intent behind them. This means that as well as simply listening to the words your adolescent client is sharing with you, you should also notice any non-verbal cues that they share, practising good eye contact and being fully present in the conversation so that your client knows that you really care, and withholding any judgement or advice: simply listen to understand.
As a counsellor, you know that no two individuals’ experiences are the same. Empathetic communication is defined as ”both accepting and allowing different perspectives and emotions in other people and also sharing it with them to enable encouragement and support.” Often teenagers really need empathy. It validates their experiences and is an essential path to forming meaningful connections.
Counsellors can foster open and honest communication during counselling sessions by being welcoming and adding warmth to their sessions, encouraging the client to come out of their shell without being intimidating. You can use emotional bonding and collaboration on therapy-related tasks to ensure that two-way communication is consistent and valuable.
Encouraging Self-expression and Creativity In Therapy
Self-expression is important, particularly during the adolescent stage of development. Self-expression helps preteens and teenagers on the road to self-discovery figure out who they are becoming and also helps them form their adult personalities. For this reason, creative counselling techniques are often most effective when working with adolescents and they encourage self-expression. Some examples of these techniques include art therapy and journaling.
There are many benefits of using creative approaches to help adolescents process their emotions and experiences. The American Counselling Association recommends techniques such as using music throughout therapy sessions. Using music may be a useful technique in promoting emotional expression and peer support as it provides a medium for peer socialisation and bridges the gap between nonverbal and talking therapy. Using social media as a tool rather than as a weapon can also be useful. Teens share so much of their lives on social media and gain validation from the supportive likes that they receive. By adopting this familiar social media style support through your therapy sessions, you may find that this is a creative way of gaining the trust of your client.
Employing Cognitive Behavioural Techniques
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a psycho-social intervention that aims to reduce symptoms of various mental health conditions, primarily depression and anxiety disorders. As these are conditions commonly experienced by adolescents, CBT is often used in their treatment.
CBT can help adolescents identify negative thought patterns and develop healthier coping strategies. CBT skills can help teens better manage emotions and social situations, and reduce anxiety, phobias, and irrational fears. If teens are displaying black-and-white thinking, or demonstrating angry or aggressive behaviours then CBT may be a useful tool in their treatment plan.
Counsellors can integrate CBT techniques into counselling sessions effectively by using them alongside other clinical treatments. They can use CBT tools such as cognitive reconstruction, cognitive journaling, and relaxation techniques as part of the process of helping teens recognize and transform distorted thinking patterns.
Addressing Emotional Regulation and Coping Skills
Teens often struggle with emotional regulation challenges. There are many different reasons for this. One of the most obvious is that the hormonal surge that accompanies development during the adolescent phase can have an impact on emotional control. emotional dysregulation (the inability to manage one’s emotions appropriately in a range of situations) can be a hallmark of many common mental health disorders.
Expressing emotions, no matter how negative, is healthy and normal behaviour for teens. However, learning coping skills to manage their emotions can help adolescents reduce their risk of experiencing stress, anxiety, and other emotional struggles. Emotional regulation is not about suppressing emotions. And it isn’t about always feeling good. A degree of anxiety can be very helpful as one prepares for a presentation, for example. An appropriate level of distress can prevent us from needlessly exposing ourselves to danger.
Instead, counsellors can introduce relaxation techniques and mindfulness exercises that will enable adolescents to regulate and then harness their emotions, turning their power into something beneficial.
Promoting Positive Self-esteem and Self-acceptance
Self-esteem is a vitally important trait. It impacts your decision-making process, your relationships, your emotional health, and your overall well-being. Low self-esteem can have a hugely negative impact on the well-being of adolescents. Teenagers with low self-esteem have more negative thoughts about themselves and may not understand their own value.
Teens with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier or experiment with drugs and alcohol. Lifetime substance use was reported among 23.8% of the adolescents, while low self-esteem was reported among 19%. Factors associated with low self-esteem include low family income, marital disharmony in the family, child physical abuse, bullying in school, and poor school performance.
Signs of low self-esteem include
- Avoiding trying new things or refusing to take on new challenges or opportunities because of a fear of failure or of the unknown
- Expressing that they feel unloved or unwanted even if they have strong friendships and a supportive family
- Low levels of motivation and interest in life which can make it difficult to make or maintain friendships and other relationships
- Rejects compliments, not from being polite but from genuine disbelief he or she deserves a compliment
- Negative talk about themselves, particularly when comparing themselves to others
For these reasons, it is important that counsellors promote self-acceptance and a positive self-image to adolescents during counselling sessions. Some strategies for doing this include encouraging teens to talk about positive aspects of their lives: what do they do well, what makes them unique or different from their peers? Differences should be celebrated rather than seen as something negative.
Adolescents should be encouraged to recognise their strengths and work with their therapist to build their self-confidence. Tips for doing this include praising effort rather than outcome, encouraging teens to be assertive and to express their own opinions, particularly in the face of toxic friends or relationships, and encouraging them to demonstrate self-awareness and self-compassion during their sessions.
It is important that when counsellors choose to work with adolescents, they adopt therapeutic techniques that are tailored to adolescents’ developmental needs. It is important that counsellors use a wide array of therapeutic skills and techniques as part of their treatment plan. Primarily it is important that counsellors build a strong therapeutic alliance with the adolescents they are supporting.
When working with adolescents’ counsellors should utilise active listening and empathetic communication techniques. They should also consider incorporating creative and evidence-based approaches into their counselling sessions. Counsellors should promote positive self-esteem and self-acceptance among their young clients. Teens with low self-esteem are more likely to engage in sexual activity earlier or experiment with drug and alcohol use. Counsellors should work to get to the root cause of these problems using the wide range of specific techniques in their armoury.
Counselling is a unique career and one in which continuous professional development is encouraged. It is a field that is constantly evolving and so it’s important that counsellors remain open to exploring innovative techniques to effectively support the growth and resilience of adolescents. As society changes, the unique needs of adolescents will change, and counsellors are encouraged to react accordingly.