Working with teens

Working with teens

I read a post Janet Sasson Edgette Why Teenagers Hate Therapy  She talks about the different skills needed to work with young people, and how counselling training doesn’t meet this skill base. She inspired me to share my own experience.

I have worked with young people since I was a young person myself, from primary school to 21, ranging from special educational needs, to those at risk of exclusion from school. I’m comfortable in a school setting and enjoy the banter and entertainment young people provide and now focus on teens.

When I did my counselling training I realised very quickly that play therapy was great for younger children and counselling skills could be applied to adults but there is a gap. Teenagers will not respond well to ‘toys’ and certainly do want to lead a session, talk about their feelings and definitely don’t feel comfortable with silence.  I took my training and quickly adapted it to my years of experience with teens.

I take a relaxed style, I usually sit cross legged in the chair, have a chatty tone while I explain the contract. I joke about talking too much and try to encourage a laugh or smile. I usually start with some information gathering and my favourite methods are a family tree and time line. With younger students I use buttons to explore family and for some I jump this step coming back to it later. Whatever tactic I find a reason to sit on the floor at the coffee table. This puts the client in a position of power in the chair, it makes me seem less like a teacher or authority figure and more child like. I always offer to write to avoid any unease about literacy skills.

To relax clients and ease any awkwardness about talking to a stranger I often use jenga. I have 3 sets: a mini portable one, a standard size with questions written on, which starts the process of talking and learning about each other and giant jenga which helps both of us get up and moving and excited. For some and often those younger than 13 this play is something that continues throughout therapy. I have sand tray, craft, origami, mini bowling, air drying clay etc.

Something that I use for all ages are emotions cards; sometimes as an ice breaker each time we begin, sometimes to explore a particular issue, educationally with those who struggle to express or understand emotion.
Photo cards I prefer for older students, especially those who have  creative minds but who are reluctant to draw in session. It can pull out emotions and thoughts that were yet to be realised in the conscious as well have express what was hard to articulate. I do have some work sheets but I prefer to draw my own in conjunction with the client, it feels less like ‘class work’ this way. I do like creative work sheets like those by Bill Zimmerman, they are great tasks for clients as home work.


New term

Some clients just talk as in ‘standard therapy’ however that relaxed style still applies, some humour and a little self disclosure is important. It must be carefully done but maintaining the therapeutic blank slate is the quickest way to alienate a young person.

Remember that young people have huge issues they are dealing with, and never underestimate or minimise how they feel. A teenager can be a carer, worker, victim of abuse, perpetrator of abuse, suffering with mental health, grieving, dealing with ptsd etc.

It’s hard work at times and probably an area of counselling where you have to be the most flexible; jumping from model to model and picking from different skill sets, but also the most rewarding. I have shed tears of pride, received amazing thank yous and passed confident, smiling adult sixth formers who were once cowered children. I wouldn’t change it for the world!

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