One of my first jobs was as a case manager for families and children. At the time, you couldn’t have paid me do 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.
Later, I became a school social worker, and 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 and the teenagers’ parents had their own ideas about what the teenager should be working on, changing, and improving. But none of us really bothered to ask the teenagers what they wanted so we would devise treatment plans and strategies to get the teenager to do things they weren’t particularly interested in doing. So, naturally, the plans never got very far.
Eventually, I learned a model of therapy called Solution Focused Brief Therapy. Instead of the therapist interviewing a client in order to make a determination about what is wrong with them and then providing counseling as a way of “fixing” them, Solution Focused Brief Therapy starts by asking the client what they’d like to get out of counseling, thereby letting the client set the tone for what is important to them, what things they’d like to change, and so on. 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, not measuring up to their peers, and being 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 to have their parents be asked what they are doing right instead of what they’re doing wrong. When you start a conversation this way, it does away with what therapists tend to call “resistance”. How can they be resistant when they’re talking about things they want for themselves and things they’re good at? Somewhat surprisingly, when I ask my teenage counseling clients what they want from counseling, their ideas are often very close to what their parents want for them. But they were so busy being defensive about their parents’ attempts to get them to do a better job that they lost sight of this fact.
Sometimes, my teenage counseling clients have just one goal for counseling–to not have to go to counseling. Then we can talk about what changes they can make so their parents won’t make them go to counseling anymore, but once they start making these changes, they’re often so much more relaxed due to the renewed peace around the house that they are interested in continuing the counseling so they can make more positive changes and get more of the things 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 www.turnaboutcounseling.com or contact him by phone at 616-914-9874.