Resistance Busters: How to Work Effectively with Teens who Resist Counseling


Young clients or students and their parents will sometimes be immediately resistant to your efforts to help them change. I don’t mean this in the old-fashioned psychoanalytic form of resistance that blames clients. I mean this as a natural resistance to change. I think we’ve all felt it. Someone has some helpful advice and we feel immediately disinclined to listen and even less inclined to follow the advice. I remember this happening with my father—even when he wanted to tell me something about sports. Of course, he knew a TON more about sports than I did, but logic was not the issue. When it comes to relationships and influencing people, logic is rarely relevant.

If we can buy into using the word resistance—despite the fact that Steve de Shazer buried it in his backyard and had a funeral for it, we would be likely to conclude that resistance behaviors are especially prominent among youth who view their presence in therapy as involuntary. Think of school, court, or parent referred children. Below, in an effort to capture what happens in these situations, Rita and I came up with what we call common resistance styles. Again, the point is not to blame clients or students; after all, they usually come into counseling or therapy with a history that makes their resistance totally natural. Besides, why should we expect them to pop into a therapist’s office and suddenly experience trust and share their deepest feelings.
In combination with these so-called resistance styles, we’ve also developed a range of possible therapeutic responses. To be with de Shazer’s (1985) solution-focused model and because they constitute a first best guess regarding how to respond to these particular resistance styles, we refer to these responses as “formula responses.” Keep in mind that if one formula response is ineffective, an alternative one may be used to reduce and manage this pesky resistance-like behavior.

Resistance Style: Externalizer/Blamer
This young person quickly blames everyone and everything for his or her problems. S/he may feel persecuted; there also may be evidence supporting his/her persecutory thoughts and feelings. Alternatively, the youth may simply have trouble accepting personal responsibility.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I would never have flunked science if it weren’t for my teacher. He sucks big-time.”

Formula Responses: One key to responding to this youth is to blatantly side with his or her affect. In the early stages, confrontation with this type of youth is generally ill-advised. For example, Bernstein (1996) states: “Despite a lack of evidence to back up their arguments, we listen carefully without passing judgment” (p. 45). The blamer is sometimes so hypersensitive to criticism that he sees it coming a mile away. Therefore, especially at the outset of therapy, therapists should be cautious about providing criticism or negative feedback. As the client blames others be sure to grunt and moan and say things like, “Oh yeah, I hate it when teachers aren’t fair.” or just use standard person-centered reflections, “You’re saying that being around your teacher really sucks . . .it feels real bad.”

Resistance Style: The Silent Youth
This youth may refuse to speak or may boldly claim that she doesn’t have to talk to you. This youth may have strong needs for power and control and/or may be afraid of what she might say during counseling.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I don’t have to talk to you. And you can’t make me.”

Formula Responses: For the completely silent youth who appears to be stonewalling, it may be useful to use a combination of youth-centered reflection of feeling/content and self-disclosure or forced teaming. For example, you might say: “Seems like you really don’t want to be here and you also really don’t want me to know anything about you.” And/or: “If I were you, I wouldn’t trust me either. After all, you were sent here by people you don’t trust and so you probably think I’m on their side. I’d like to prove I’m not on their side, but the only way we can really shock your parents (or probation officer) is by you talking with me and then you and I teaming up to help you have more control over your life.” In the case where the client boldly claims that she does not have to talk with you, it can be helpful to strongly agree with the youth’s assertion (and then simply inquire as to what has been happening in the youth’s life.: “You are absolutely right. You ARE totally in control over whether you talk with me and how much you talk with me.” Then, after a short pause say, “Now, what do you want to talk about?” Sometimes acknowledging the youth’s power and control can decrease his/her need for it.

Resistance Style: The Denier
This is the youth who Repeatedly says: “I’m fine” or “I don’t know” when neither statement is likely to be the truth. These youths can be especially frustrating to therapists because whatever life circumstances that led the youth to therapy are clearly difficult and progress might be made if the youth would admit to having problems. Unfortunately, these youths may have such fragile self-esteem that admitting that any problems are occurring in their lives is very threatening.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I’m fine, I don’t have any problems.”

Formula Responses: With youth who say, “I’m fine” we suggest one of two possible formula responses. First, you might say: “If you’re fine, then somebody in your life must not be fine, otherwise, you wouldn’t be here. So, tell me about who forced you to come and what his or her problems are?” The purpose of this statement is to get youths to at least become “blamers” so that you can side with the affect and start building rapport. Second, Bernstein (1996) suggests a statement similar to the following: “You may be right and you may be fine, but if you don’t talk with me about your life, I’ll never know whether you’re fine or not.” Suggested formula responses to “I don’t know” include: “Okay, then tell me something you do know about this problem” or “Tell me what you might say if you did know” or “Boy, it sounds like there are lots of things about your life that you don’t know anything about. We’d better get to work on figuring this stuff out” or John’s favorite, which is: “Take a guess.”

Resistance Style: The Nonverbal Provocateur
Some young clients are so good at irritating other people with their nonverbal behavior that they deserve an award. These youth are often keeping adults at a distance because they don’t trust that the adults will understand or appreciate their adolescent dilemmas. These youths also are notorious for being able to “piss off” their parents, teachers, probation officers, and therapists. They may do so through eye-rolls, sneers, lack of eye contact, or other irritating nonverbal behaviors. Analytic theorists believe this is because they have such profound self- hatred that they unconsciously believe they deserve to be treated poorly by others, especially adults (Willock, 1986, 1987).

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “Yeah, right. Duh” (while youth’s eyes roll back and she heaves a significant sigh).

Formula Responses: When faced with the nonverbal provocateur, we recommend using the strategy we have referred to elsewhere as “interpersonal interpretation” (See Tough Kids, Cool Counseling). This strategy includes several steps. First, the therapist allows the youth to make whatever disrespectful nonverbal behaviors she wants to, without acknowledgment. Second, after a substantial number of eye-rolls, etc., have occurred, the therapist makes a statement such as: “Are people treating you okay.” This statement is designed to provoke complaints from the youth about whomever has been treating her so poorly. Third, the therapist discloses his or her reactions to the nonverbal behaviors: “The reason I bring this up is because, for a moment, significant sigh).I felt like being mean to you.” Fourth, the therapist suggests that the youth may already realize why the therapist “felt like being mean” to the youth or discloses that these feeling arose in response to the youth’s nonverbal behaviors. Fifth, the therapist suggests that the reason other people are treating the youth poorly is related to eye-rolls, etc., outside of therapy. Sixth, the therapist inquires as to whether the youth has control over his/her irritating nonverbal behaviors. Seventh, the therapist encourages the youth to conduct an experiment to see how people treat him/her one day when using lots of eye-rolls and another day while not using eye-rolls.

Resistance Style: The Absent Youth
There are at least two types of absent youths. First, there are young people who arrive with their parent or parents, but who refuse to leave the waiting room. Second, there are young clients who, after an initial appointment, keep missing their subsequent appointments.
In either case, resistance is high. These youth may be even more afraid of therapy and losing power the control than other youth, who at least make it into the counseling office.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I’m not going back and you can’t make me.”

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Formula Responses: It’s essential that young clients or students not be “dragged” into the therapy office. Therefore, the youth is simply informed that the session(s) will proceed without the youth present but that the session will still be “about” the youth. Subsequently, the session focuses on parent education and family dynamics. During this session, therapist should offer and serve food and drink to the participating family members. Also, partway through the session (if the young client is in the waiting room) one family member may ask once more if the youth would like to join them in the meeting. However, this request should only occur once and it should not involve any pleading. For young clients who miss their appointments, an invitation letter as suggested by White and Epston may be useful or, if you’re more behaviorally inclined, a contingency program may be designed to provide the youth with appropriate reinforcers and consequences.

Resistance Style: The Attacker
Similar to Matt Damon in the film Good Will Hunting, some youth will try to provoke the therapist by attacking whatever therapist personal traits that he or she can identify. It may be office decor, personal items (e.g., family pictures), clothing, the office itself, the voice tone, body posture, attractiveness, etc. The attacker’s ploy is often clear from the outset: The best defense (aka: resistance) is a good offense.

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “I noticed that everyone else here has a bigger office than you. You have a shitty little office; you must be a shitty little therapist.”

Formula Responses: We believe that two rules are crucial with young clients who consistently verbally attack the therapist. First, unlike Robin William’s character in the popular movie, you should not attempt to “choke” the youth (even therapist’s though you may feel like choking the client). In other words, therapists should not respond defensively or offensively to attacks by the youth. Second, the therapist may interpret the youth’s behavior by clearly demonstrating that the comments, whether true or not, say much more about the youth than they say about the therapist. After a few interpretations of the youth’s underlying psychodynamics, the youth usually will cease and desist with the attacks because he or she sees that every attack comes back to him or her in the form of an interpretation.

Resistance Style: The Apathetic Youth
The apathetic youth is similar to the denier, except that the formidable strategy of simply not caring about anyone or anything is the primary defense. This defense often arises out of depressive or substance related emotional and behavioral problems

SAMPLE STATEMENT: “Trust me, I really don’t give a shit about anything you’re saying!”

Formula Responses: Hanna and Hunt (1999) recommended using a sub-personality or ego state approach to dealing with adolescent apathy. This approach involves three steps: (a) take great care to empathize with the youth’s apathy; this might involve saying things like, “Okay, okay, I get it, you really don’t give a shit.”; (b) after empathizing, use a question like, “I know you don’t care, but isn’t there a little part of you, maybe a voice in the back of your head or something, that worries, maybe only a tiny bit about what might happen to you?”; (c) focus on the part of the youth that acknowledges caring about what happens and eventually begin labeling the “caring” part of the adolescent as the “real” self, while reducing the apathetic part of the self to the “fake” self.

More information about how to work through resistance is in our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book, which happens to have five 5-star ratings on Amazon. Check it out:
http://www.amazon.com/Tough-Kids-Cool-Counseling-User-Friendly/dp/1556202741/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Resistance Busters: How to Work Effectively with Teens who Resist Counseling”

  1. We were having a discussion on working with resistant adolescent clients last week in the supervision class I teach. I plan on copying this and using it with my students if it is okay with you. I think they will find great value in it. This is not last time I will be using your stuff in my class. In a couple of weeks, I will be using your article on ethical considerations in crisis and humanitarian interventions. Keep up the good work!

    1. Thanks Steve. Feel free to use whatever you like from this blog. I’m just throwing it all out there as a resource, so I’m glad if it can be helpful. I hope all is well at Troy U. Have a great Sunday! John SF

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