Research says children with mentors in their lives are significantly more confident in their academic abilities and are considerably less likely to have behavioral problems (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2013). As counselors, its important to remember that we wear many hats with our adolescent clients. We are sometimes mentors, occasionally parent figures, and often influential agents in their change process. That being said, the adolescent population can be tricky to work with, so it’s important to keep three things in mind when working with these clients.
Become a master at being comfortable with silence.
Children and adolescents typically don’t self-refer. They are usually forced into counseling by a parent or guardian. They may believe problems don’t exist or are not ready to talk about them. In working to build a rapport, it’s important to be comfortable with silence. Sitting with the client’s silence lets them know you are willing to listen without judgement. It reassures them that you are not giving up on them. Most adolescents are all too familiar with adults giving them advice, lecturing them, telling them what they should do, and judging their behavior. With silence, you are conveying that you are patient and willing to support the client, even in silence. Silence is a powerful tool. When mastered, silence can set the stage for a flourishing client/counselor relationship.
Collaborate with the school as much as possible.
Counselors must focus on their adolescent clients’ school environment as well. By collaborating with teachers and school counselors, therapists are able to get a critical view into the environment where they spend the majority of their time. Understanding adolescent clients’ social and academic performance is valuable information for treatment planning. Adolescents are experts in telling adults what they want to hear and removing themselves from responsibility for their troubles. However, getting a release to talk to their school counselor and/or teacher on an ongoing basis can provide a wealth of information about the client.
Be clear with the confidentiality terms for the adolescent AND parent.
The ACA Code of Ethics B.5.b. states that counselors should inform parents and guardians the role of the counselor/client relationship. Counselors need to establish an appropriate collaborative relationship with parents and guardians to best serve their adolescent clients. Although it is important to explain the basics of confidentiality to adolescent clients and parents alike (danger to self, others, or knowledge of someone else being hurt), educating parent/guardians on the importance of building a trusting therapeutic relationship with the client is essential. The counselor should assure the parent/guardian that they will be invited into sessions periodically. If the adolescent is indulging in high-risk behaviors, this information will be shared by the client, with the counselor’s support and guidance. Additionally, during the first one-on-one session with the adolescent, the counselor should be clear on this expectation. Most parents/guardians are comfortable with this scenario. Often times when adolescents come to therapy, parents have tried almost everything to change the behavior and are willing to trust the counseling process. More importantly, it makes the adolescent client feel completely safe in the therapist’s care and relieved that they finally have a place they can unload—free of judgement and the impending doom of being “told on”.
Many counselors say they would never want to work with adolescent clients. Working with this population is not easy but can be very rewarding work. Adolescents are not children but they are not mature enough to make adult decisions on their own either. Adolescents are like sponges looking for direction and support. These clients are constantly changing and as counselors it is a gift to be a part of that process.
-Leslie Holley, MA, LCPC