Tough Kids, Cool Counseling: Dealing with “Resistance” – Part 1

Working with challenging, tough, or naturally resistant youth is one of the most difficult situations a counselor or psychotherapist can face. In this excerpt from chapter 3 of “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” (published by ACA, 2007), we begin discussing strategies for dealing with this difficult situation. Here’s a link to the Amazon page for this book:

Chapter 3

Resistance Busters: Quick Solutions and Longer-Term Strategies

As noted in preceding chapters, adolescents are well-known for their general distrust of adults and their striving for autonomy (Erikson, 1963; Saginak, 2003). Despite this distrust and independence-striving, in most cases, by using the strategies and techniques discussed in Chapter 2, counselors can manage resistance and initiate therapy with clients and their parents. However, upon entering a counseling situation, some young people will display extreme, provocative, or puzzling resistance behaviors that require more specialized approaches (Amatea, 1988; Richardson, 2001).

Imagine the following scenario:

You’re an intern scheduled to meet with a 15-year-old girl referred to a community clinic from a local group home. You’ve been in graduate school for about 18 months and so you’re not completely naïve, but because you’re only 23 years old yourself (and you went through a fair bit of emotional turmoil during your teen years), you’re especially excited about the opportunity to help a teenager who is obviously in a challenging life situation.

When you meet your client, Maya, in the waiting room, your enthusiasm begins to wane. Her jet-black and pink fringed hair hangs over her eyes and she reeks of cigarette smoke. When you greet her, she sneers, causing her lip-ring to flip upward. Her eyes (or at least what you can see of them) roll back as if she is disgusted at the sight of you.

Her first spoken words to you are: “This is a fucking waste of my time.”

You’re not sure what to say and so the Carl Rogers voice inside of you says gently, “It sounds like you’re not very happy to be here.”

Maya’s response is to slip into a stony silence, a silence only occasionally broken with deep dramatic sighs. Eventually, when she finally speaks again, she says, “Oh my fucking God. And you’re supposed to help me?  That’s a joke.”

Some teenagers have a special talent for destroying their counselor’s confidence. Not surprisingly, our graduate students, when facing a client like Maya for the first time, are often stunned. They complain of having a blank-mind and not knowing what to say. Other common reactions to the Maya-prototype include overwhelming feelings of inadequacy (usually accompanied by anxiety) or strong impulses to retaliate with anger.

This chapter focuses on strategies and techniques for dealing with some of the most provocative behaviors you’re likely to see in counseling situations. Our belief is that counselors should prepare, plan, and look forward to aggressive resistance from teenage clients or students. Again, we emphasize that aggressive resistance is best viewed as a coping style brought into the counseling situation and directed towards anyone in authority—in Sullivan’s terms, a parataxic distortion (Sullivan, 1953). Therefore, when working with challenging youth, keep one key fact clearly in mind: Your client’s insults, disgust, and aggressive behavior, although aimed at you, have virtually nothing to do with you. There’s no point in taking your client’s comments personally, and in fact, if you can side-step the onslaught, it will provide you with all sorts of important diagnostic and clinical information about your client’s pain and defenses.

Getting Your Buttons Pushed

Despite our great advice about not taking your client’s degrading comments personally, in the real world, we all get our buttons pushed sometimes. A graphic example of counselor over-reaction to provocative client behavior was captured in the feature film, Good Will Hunting (Van Sant, 1997).

As a fan of counseling, you may recall the scene. The main character, Will, played by Matt Damon, is an extremely intelligent but emotionally disturbed young man with mathematical genius. His would-be mentor, in an effort to help Will fulfill his potential, sends him to several different counselors, none of whom are able to help Will. Finally, Will ends up in the office of Sean McGuire, played by Robin Williams.

During his initial session with McGuire, Will is his provocative and nasty self. He eventually, either accidentally, or via great intuition, begins insulting McGuire’s deceased wife and because he is still unresolved about his wife’s premature death, McGuire gets his emotional buttons pushed. The result: the counselor grabs Will around the neck and slams him up against the wall. Of course, McGuire also decides to take on Will as a client and successfully helps Will move forward in his life.

We would like to emphasize two key points related to this excellent example of resistance and countertransference from Good Will Hunting. First, be aware of your emotional buttons, seeking the support and counseling you need to be an effective and ethical counselor. Second, no matter how provocative your young clients may act, avoid using Robin Williams’s “Choking the client” technique.  It may play well in Hollywood, but physical contact with resistant, aggressive, and/or angry clients is highly ill-advised.

If you find you’re having your emotional buttons pushed occasionally by teenage clients or students, consider yourself normal. On the other hand, if the button pushing begins to cause you to contemplate acting on destructive impulses, it’s time to get therapy for yourself, and/or support from a collegial supervision group. Many psychoanalytically-oriented writers have warned about the powerful regressive countransference impulses that young clients can ignite in their counselors (Dass-Brailsford, 2003; Horne, 2001).

Pause for Reflection: How do you usually respond when you get your buttons pushed by someone? Do you instantly feel angry? Or, are you more likely to scrutinize yourself and decide that you really are just an inadequate and worthless piece of furniture? Of course, there’s no “right” response to these questions. The best guideline is to continually work at looking at yourself and your reactions to clients so that you are consistently cultivating your self-awareness.

[End of Pause for Reflection]

To work ethically and professionally with provocative clients requires general skill, personal insight, and a particular knowledge base that includes a range of potentially constructive automatic or formula responses.

3 thoughts on “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling: Dealing with “Resistance” – Part 1”

  1. I think teenagers (and adults) of the type you describe have a very strong view of the world as being comprised of two kinds of people: victims and abusers. Victims are kind, empathetic, emotionally vulnerable, and attempt to be fair. They are appropriately humble and have no delusions of grandiosity. Abusers assert their dominance, are cruel and contemptuous, and believe themselves to be superior to others (which is why they feel entitled to harm others.) They don’t want to be victims, so they are abusive to others around them, including their counselors.

    It is a completely accurate view of the world in which these teenagers live. Their world is run by abusive people. They often have one abusive parent. They have abusive principals or teachers in their school whose behavior is tolerated because it “gets results.” Gangs in the community are led by abusers who strike fear in everyone–including those with no ties to gangs. Mimicking the abusive behaviors of these “leaders” in their lives is like mimicking the behaviors of successful academics and corporate workers in more functional communities. It is what you need to do to succeed.

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