Counseling for Teenagers using SFBT

Talking to teenagers can be a challenge because of what we think of as teenage resistance. One of my first jobs was as a case manager for families and children. At the time, I worried about doing counseling with teenagers because I thought they were rude, disrespectful, and walked around with giant chips on their shoulders. My original approach to trying to help them didn’t exactly improve my view of them. I would try to lecture them and tell them what negative things might be in store for them if they didn’t change their ways. And for their part, they would stare blankly back at me, roll their eyes, sigh, etc. I was encountering teenage resistance.

Later, I became a school social worker. While my attempts to be helpful became better as I learned more, I soon learned I was making another mistake. The schools I worked for had their own ideas about what students should be working on and improving. But we never really bothered to ask the teenagers what they wanted. We would devise treatment plans to get the teenager to do things they weren’t interested in doing. So, naturally, the plans never got very far. Resistance is basically the other person’s way of letting you know what you’re doing isn’t working. You need to try something else.

A Better Way to Talk to Teenagers

Eventually, I learned a model of therapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy. Instead of the therapist making a determination about what is wrong with clients and then providing counseling as a way of “fixing” them, Solution Focused Therapy asks the client what they’d like to get out of counseling. This lets the client set the tone for what is important to them and what things they’d like to change. It builds on the clients personal goals and their existing strengths.

This approach works amazingly well when providing counseling for teenagers. Teenagers spend a lot of their time worrying that they are screwing up and not measuring up to their peers. They get lectured by adults about how they are not living up to their potential. They already know most things the adults are going to tell them (they can do a great job imitating their parents’ lectures too). So it comes as a surprise to them to be asked what they want, what they are good at, what things they’d like to see change in their lives, and for the counselor ask their parents what they are doing right instead of what they’re doing wrong.

Avoiding Teenage Resistance In Counseling

Talking to a teenagers this way does away with what therapists call “resistance”. How can they be resistant when they’re talking about things they want for themselves and things they’re good at? When I ask my teenage clients what they want from counseling, their ideas are often very close to what their parents want for them.

Sometimes, my teenage clients have just one goal for counseling–to not have to go to counseling. Then we talk about what changes they can make so their parents won’t make them go to counseling anymore. Once they start making these changes, they’re often much more relaxed due to the renewed peace around the house. Consequently, they are interested in continuing counseling so they can make more changes and get more of what they want for themselves. And this attitude is what makes it so easy to work with teenagers now.

Gary Watson is a counselor in Grand Rapids, MI who provides counseling for teenagers, adults, families, and couples. For more information go to his website at or contact him by phone at 616-914-9874.