Teens need someone who makes therapy feel as though they’re talking with a friend – a friend who gets what they’re going through – a friend who won’t judge them as they feel everyone else does. After all, you share secrets with a trusted confidante, not your parent. As teens feel more comfortable, they let their guard is down. It’s when adolescents are most vulnerable that they are open to other viewpoints and ideas.
As a compassionate and open-minded listener, I let teens take the lead and approach sessions as more conversational than directive. I understand that your teen may not feel like there is a “problem” and rushing to pronounce one doesn’t do anything to build a good relationship.
The best results from therapy occur as situations come up gradually, and we explore them as questions more than conclusions. If a roadblock is discovered and we decide together to call it by name, then your teenager is determining what they want to change on their own. Then we can take a more definitive approach and explore possible solutions.
Peter*, a 16-year-old teen, reluctantly followed his mom into my office. He sat down and repeatedly shrugged when I introduced myself and asked him what brought him in to see me. When his mother explained the situation during his silence, he looked at her with disdain. It was evident that he was not a willing participant.
After getting more information about his school suspension, I asked his mom to give us some time to talk alone. I told him that a lot of teens feel annoyed coming to see me, and it was nothing personal. I asked him if he knew why he was there, not expecting him to have an answer. I talked about myself and shared some humorous anecdotes, trying to make him feel at ease.
I then said that he did not have to talk about himself, but if he didn’t mind sharing a bit, it would be preferable to silence. That got him to smile slightly. I took this as a cue that I could ask him a question.
Starting with school, I asked general questions about friends and his favorite classes. We also talked a bit about his home life, including his relationship with his parents. Slowly, as he let down his guard, I was able to approach the issue of being suspended. Peter mentioned he had a fight with another student. I asked him a little more about the situation, and I discovered he fought because he was offended by the other student’s comment and did not like being humiliated.
While I let him do a lot of the talking, I tried to ask general questions about his feelings toward other students. I discovered, through listening to him speak, that he felt very insecure about how others saw him. This was something that I filed away to explore in the future.
Throughout our next sessions together, we worked on analyzing situations about which he felt comfortable and confident, and then ones that made him feel vulnerable and small. We kept a list of some themes that came out of our conversations. As he became more aware and less defensive, he agreed that some of these were things he wanted to change.
By allowing him to take the lead and formulating an understanding of patterns, we moved closer to the next steps of how to handle conflicts.
Eventually, we figured out some ways he could better manage anger and even identified some practice situations.
We also shared this with his mother when he was ready. It seemed as if his confidence grew when he did not feel villainized; but, instead, he was able to say what he wanted to do differently.
Celebrating wins with teenagers can be challenging because they are not always obvious. Sometimes your teen may even doubt that they will have similar success in the future. But it’s important to congratulate them and have their parents share in their success, so they know they are not on a solitary journey.
*Name changed to preserve client confidentiality..