Counseling for Teens
One of my college professors consistently preached that “removing roadblocks to learning” was one of my primary tasks as a counselor. He was speaking specifically to those who would one day assume roles as counselors in the public school system. I believe this wisdom can apply in more than one setting, however. “Learning” does not just have to fall under the umbrella of education! Currently I work as a therapist for “at-risk” youth in a therapeutic boarding school. Here, I try to teach students to learn about themselves, to learn of their family dynamics, and to learn of the world at large. Over time, my idea of what the counselor’s role in the therapeutic process should be has evolved—and many of my interpretations are a direct result of the experiences that I have had in working with teenage guys in this particular setting.
Let me first begin with the “at-risk” label. One of my recurring frustrations with the counseling profession is that we throw around numerous labels to our younger generation, with little to no regard as to how the younger person will perceive his or her self after being so labeled. This “at-risk” label is especially frustrating, because on some level, ALL of our teenagers are at risk. And for that matter, we as adults aren’t just counseling and raising and teaching at-risk “teens.” What about preteens? Most of the clients that I counsel with began to divert from the quote unquote “right path” younger than the age of thirteen! Parents can attest to witnessing acts of defiance or to sensing a distance between them and their children at very young ages, even as early as 2 years old! Thereafter, many of those children begin to engage in risky behaviors such as smoking cigarettes, smoking marijuana, breaking curfew, skipping school, etc, much earlier than the age of thirteen. In my professional experience with teenagers, I would say the onset of middle school—the 6th to 7th grade—is a more accurate timeline for the noticeable beginnings of this divergence. There are also young men that I speak with that first began to “diverge” around the age of eight or nine, depending upon circumstances and supervision, as well as the availability to some of these risky situations or substances. So may we kindly drop the “at-risk teen” label? I could give what feels like countless examples. Practically speaking, our kids are always at risk of something, no matter what their ages are. And each story is different.
For me, as a counselor to teens, there is frequently an element of breaking down misconceptions that my students possess—about themselves, about their families, or about the world in which they live. Quite often these young men have deluded themselves into believing that they are incapable of overcoming their particular “ailment.” This could be an ADD or ADHD diagnosis, an ODD diagnosis, RAD, PTSD, an anxiety disorder, or a nervous tic that some “professional” somewhere failed to educate them on. Quite often these guys have given up hope that things can change, and that they have the power to effect change in their own lives. In many families, even parents are held captive to the idea that a pill can fix everything. Too often, the human element is removed from the equation!
No matter what the issue is (be it chemical or psychological or both) there has to be a willingness on the part of the client to take stock of what he can control, to determine what his personal goal for growth is, and to form a plan to get to said place. This willingness can and quite often must be encouraged by the teen’s counselor. Sometimes this human effort is so stifled and so forgotten, that it may take months and months of peeling back the proverbial onion in order to witness it! Many teens that I work with have very little sense of their own power. They have not been taught that they can control and redirect their thoughts. They do not know that they can challenge their irrational beliefs (or that they have irrational beliefs, for that matter). And sadly, they have been given the message that they have a diagnosis or a traumatic event that is a part of them, and now they take a pill for it, and the pill makes it all better without any sort of human effort to overcome whatever the issue is. In the meantime, while believing this untruth, they are miserable in the present.
As a result of this mess, in counseling I will ask my clients to claim “their stuff.” That is, I will ask them to become more self-aware—through private reflection and journaling, through appropriate and respectful feedback, through bibliotherapy, and through any other method I can employ! I will honestly try anything, if it means that a student can begin to gain more self-awareness. Some therapists from the psychodynamic tradition have and do equate insight to action; that is, they believe that once a person becomes aware of his or her shortcomings, then said person will begin to remove a roadblock or change a thought process or tweak a behavior, on their own. With teenagers, I do not believe this to be the case. They frequently need more help than that. Growing boys and girls need parents, teachers, mentors, ministers, etc to guide them in the right direction—otherwise our kids grow up rudderless and feeling lost, and this is toxic. Why? Because they ask each other for the answers that none of them have yet!
If I can get a client to successfully claim “his stuff,” then and only then can we begin to disentangle what is his stuff, from what is his Mom or Dad’s or grandparents’ stuff. Many times the issues that I deal with are relational—that is, something is occurring between the son and his family, and many of his negative or risky behaviors are the result of resentment or anger that is built up towards Mom or Dad or whoever the parental party is. That is, his behaviors are not the problem, they are a symptom of the problem. Then comes the next piece, which is working with Mom and Dad and encouraging their own self-reflection and honest efforts to claim their stuff…so that eventually they can all “move on” together.
Finally, for me, the relationship that I develop with each student and their family is paramount. I have talents and gifts that allow me to be able to do this in a natural, safe way with teens. One small example is sports. I love sports and can “hold my own” with most teenagers that enter in to our facility. I have sensed on numerous occasions the growing respect that I receive from teenagers when I play sports with them, and play well. This dynamic has power for two reasons. Part of the power in this is teenage respect for my athletic gifts, naturally. But a larger part of it is the fact that I am spending TIME with these guys, while doing something fun. I know a pastor who says that you spell ‘love’ like this: “T-I-M-E.” And he is so right! Teenagers are smart, and they are always watching the way adults move through life and relate to them. Almost everything you do or say (or don’t do or don’t say) around a teen sends some sort of a message. And when they can sense that an adult is willing to listen to them—to truly listen—quite often they do not fail you with their eagerness to respond and to let you in on what it is they are going through. For me, ultimately, this means that I must meet each student where he is. That’s a way of saying that the counseling process is ultimately about him, his life, his misconceptions, his strengths, etc.
The teen counselor then is simply an encouraging guide, a person who possesses another single human experience, a person who is willing to go to whatever length to make sure that he is himself trustworthy and dependable. Teens must begin to have faith in that person, to trust that person…otherwise it’s all just lip service and no one will be getting any better. Over and over in this job—even working with “at-risk” teens—I find that when I give respect and allow respect to be earned, I get respect. Something to ponder.
Heath Capps, M.Ed., N.C.C.