The Therapist’s Opening Statement (or Question) with Adolescents


           Working with adolescents or teenagers is different from working with adults. In this excerpt from a recently published article with Ty Bequette, we briefly focus on how the opening interaction with an adolescent client might look different than an opening interaction with an adult client. This is from: Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Bequette, T. (2013). The initial interview with adolescents. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 43(1), 13-22.

            When working with adults, therapists often open with a variation of, “What brings you for counseling” or “How can I be of help” (J. Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2012). These openings are ill-fitted for psychotherapy with adolescents because they assume the presence of insight, motivation, and a desire for help—which may or may not be correct.

Based on clinical experience, we recommend opening statements or questions that are invitations to work together. Adolescent clients may or may not reject the invitation, but because adolescent clients typically did not select their psychotherapist, offering an invitation is a reasonable opening. We recommend invitations that emphasize disclosure, collaboration, and interest and that initiates a process of exploring client goals. For example,

I’d like to start by telling you how I like to work with teenagers. I’m interested in helping you be successful. That’s my goal, to help you be successful in here or out in the world. My goal is to help you accomplish your goals. But there’s a limit on that. My goals are your goals just as long as your goals are legal and healthy.

The messages imbedded in that sample opening include: (a) this is what I am about; (b) I want to work with you; (c) I am interested in you and your success; (d) there are limits regarding what I will help you with. It is very possible for adolescent clients to oppose this opening in one way or another, but no matter how they respond, a message that includes disclosure, collaboration, interest, and limits is a good beginning.

Some adolescent clients will respond to an opening like the preceding with a clear goal statement. We’ve had clients state: “I want to be happier.” Although “I want to be happier” is somewhat general, it is a good beginning for parsing out more specific goals with clients.    Other clients will be less clear or less cooperative in response to the invitation to collaborate. When asked to identify goals, some may say, “I don’t know” while others communicate “I don’t care.”

Concession and redirection are potentially helpful with clients who say they don’t care about therapy or about goal-setting. A concession and redirection response might look like this: “That’s okay. You don’t have to care. How about we just talk for a while about whatever you like to do. I’d be interested in hearing about the things you enjoy if you’re okay telling me.” Again, after conceding that the client does not have to care, the preceding response is an invitation to talk about something less threatening. If adolescent clients are willing to talk about something less threatening, psychotherapists then have a chance to listen well, express empathy, and build the positive emotional bond that A. Freud (1946, p. 31) considered a “prerequisite” to effective therapy with young clients.

Some adolescents may be unclear about limits to which psychotherapists influence and control others outside therapy. They may imbue therapists with greater power and authority than reality confers. Some adolescents may envision their therapist as a savior ready to provide rescue from antagonistic peers or oppressive administrators. Clarification is important:

Before starting, I want to make sure you understand my role. In therapy you and I work together to understand some of the things that might be bugging you and come up with solutions or ideas to try. But, even though I like to think I know everything and can solve any problem, there are limits to my power. For example, let’s say you’re having a conflict with peers. I would work with you to resolve these conflicts, but I’m not the police, and I can’t get them sent to jail or shipped to military school. I can’t get anyone fired, and I can’t help you break any laws. Does that make sense? Do you have any questions for me?

A clear explanation of the therapist’s role and an explanation about counseling process can allay uncertainties and fears about therapy. Inviting questions and allowing time for discussion helps empower adolescent clients, build rapport, and lower resistance.

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