Category Archives: Therapy with Adolescents

Teenagers and Depression

Every year, every month, and every day, many teenagers complain of feeling down, depressed, or sad and some of them just act with immense irritability. You probably knew that. But, how many teens are experiencing symptoms of depression?

Estimates are wide ranging. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that approximately 12.5% of U.S. youth from 12-17 years-old experienced at least one episode of major depressive disorder. That’s a huge number of American teenagers (about 3 million).

Add to that the many more teenagers who complain of feeling depressed or down, but who don’t officially meet the diagnostic criteria for clinical depression. By some estimates, that brings the number to close to 50% of teens who are consistently bothered by sad, bad, and irritable feelings.

If you’re a parent of a teen, it’s easy to feel concerned about your teenager’s emotional health.

You may have questions like the following

  • Is my teenager clinically depressed or just going through the normal emotional ups and downs of adolescence?
  • Should I take my son or daughter to a mental health professional?
  • What about medications? Are any of the antidepressants safe and effective for teenagers?

The answers to these questions are complex. It’s hard to tell whether a teenager is in a normal emotional angst or experiencing something more insidious and chronic. And, the answer to the question about whether antidepressant medications are safe and effective with teens is a solid: “Maybe, but maybe not.”

In the latest Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast, Dr. Sara and I take on the serious topic of teenage depression. There are no laughs or giggles, but you’ll get to hear Sara ask me many questions about teen depression, and you’ll get to hear me try to answer them, which is sort of funny. You’ll hear the answer to my favorite trivia question: “What percent of children “recovered” from their depressive symptoms in the first-ever double-blind, placebo-controlled study of antidepressant medications?” And yes, once again, you’ll hear Sara find a way to mention sex during our podcast.

If you have teenagers yourself, or you know someone who has teenagers, or you’re a helping professional who works with teenagers, this podcast may be of interest or helpful to you. Check it out here on iTunes:

If you listen and like it, please share it, and then do us one little favor—rate the podcast on iTunes. That way Sara and I can keep climbing up the charts in reality—rather than just in our imaginations.

JSF Dance Party

Handouts from South Carolina

This past Thursday I had the honor of offering a full-day workshop on “Tough Kids, Cool Counseling” to the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. For anyone who has misplaced their handout or who wants additional content, I’m including two handouts in this post.

The first handout includes all the powerpoint slides (except the cartoons and empowered storytelling).

SCASP 2017 for Handout  

The second handout includes additional content corresponding (mostly) to the content in the powerpoint slides.

SCASP Extra Handout

For more information, you can check out our Tough Kids, Cool Counseling book, published by the American Counseling Association,

Tough Kids Image

Or you can check out our book on working effectively with parents:


Goodnight, South Carolina

Some days . . . the news is discouraging. Some days . . . evidence piles up suggesting that nearly everyone on the planet is far too greedy and selfish. On those days, I can’t help but wonder how our local, national, and worldwide communities survive. It feels like we’re a hopeless species heading for a cataclysmic end.

Sunset on StillwaterBut then I have a day like yesterday. A day where I had the honor and privilege to spend time hanging out with people who are professional, smart, compassionate, and dedicated to helping children learn, thrive, and get closer to reaching their potentials. I’m sure you know what I mean. If you turn off the media and peek under the surface, you’ll find tons of people “out there” who wake up every day and work tremendously hard to make the world just a little bit better, for everyone.

For me, yesterday’s group was the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists. They were amazing. They were kind. About 110 of them listened to me drone on about doing counseling with students who, due, in part, to the quirky nature of universe, just happen to be living lives in challenging life and school situations. The school psychologists barely blinked. They rarely checked their social media. They asked great questions and made illuminating comments. They were committed to learning, to counseling, to helping the next generation become a better generation.

All day yesterday and into the night I had an interesting question periodically popping up in the back of my mind. Maybe it was because while on my flight to South Carolina, I sat next to a Dean of Students from a small public and rural high school in Wisconsin. Maybe it was because of the SCASP’s members unwavering focus and commitment to education. The question kept nipping at my psyche. It emerged at my lunch with the Chair of the Psychology Department at Winthrop University.  It came up again after my dinner with four exceptionally cool women.

The question: “How did we end up with so many people in government who are anti-education?”

Yesterday, I couldn’t focus in on the answer. I told someone that–even though I’m a psychologist–I don’t understand why people do the things they do. But that was silly. This morning the answer came flowing into my brain like fresh spring Mountain run-off. Of course, of course, of course . . . the answer is the same as it always has been.

The question is about motivation. Lots of people before me figured this out. I even had it figured out before, but, silly me, I forgot. Why do people oppose education when, as John Adams (our second President) said, “Laws for the liberal education of youth, especially for the lower classes of people, are so extremely wise and useful that to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.”

The answer is all about money and power and control and greed and revenge and ignorance. Without these motivations, nearly everyone has a “humane and generous mind” and believes deeply in funding public education.

Thanks to all the members of the South Carolina Association of School Psychologists, for giving me hope that more people can be like you, moving past greed and ignorance and toward a more educated and better world.

Good night, South Carolina. It’s been a good day.


When Teens Talk Back

Sara P Boy Photos

A big thanks to Rick McLeod for inventing this title for a class he taught many years ago at Families First in Missoula.

For tips on how parents can handle it when teens talk back, listen to the latest episode of the Practically Perfect Parenting Podcast. You can catch it on iTunes:

Or Libsyn:

Here’s the blurb for When Teens Talk Back:

In this episode, Dr. Sara decides to consult with Dr. John about her hypothetical “friend’s” teenage and pre-teen boys, who coincidently, happen to be the same ages as Sara’s own children. Other than being a disastrously bad consultant, John ends up complaining about how disrespectful our culture is toward teens. This leads Sara and John to affirm that, instead of lowering the expectation bar for teens, we should re-focus on what’s great about teenage brains. Overall, this turns out to be a celebration of all the great things about teenagers . . . along with a set of guidelines to help parents be positive and firm. Specific techniques discussed include limit-setting, do-overs, methods for helping teenagers calm down, role modeling, and natural, but small consequences.

If you want more info on this topic, check out the re-post below, originally posted on

A Short Piece on Disrespecting Teenagers

We have an American cultural norm to disrespect teenagers. For example, it’s probably common knowledge that teens are:
• Naturally difficult
• Not willing to listen to good common sense from adults
• Emotionally unstable
• Impulsively acting without thinking through consequences

Wait. Most of these are good descriptors of Bill O’Reilly. Isn’t he an adult?

Seriously, most television shows, movies, and adult rhetoric dismiss and disrespect teens. It’s not unusual for people to express sympathy to parents of teens. “It’s a hard time . . . I know . . . I hope you’re coping okay.” Stephen Colbert once quipped, “Nobody likes teenagers.” Even Mark Twain had his funny and famous disrespectful quotable quote on teens. Remember:

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

This is a clever way of suggesting that teens don’t recognize their parents’ wisdom. Although this is partly true, I’m guessing most teens don’t find it especially hilarious. Especially if their parents are treating them in ways that most of us would rather not be treated.

And now the neuroscientists have piled on with their fancy brain images. We have scientific evidence to prove, beyond any doubt, that the brains of teens aren’t fully developed. Those poor pathetic teens; their brains aren’t even fully wired up. How can we expect them to engage in mature and rational behavior? Maybe we should just keep them in cages to prevent them from getting themselves in trouble until their brain wiring matures.

This might be a good idea, but then how do we explain the occasionally immature and irrational behavior and thinking of adults? I mean, I know we’re supposed to be superior and all that, but I have to say that I’ve sometimes seen teens acting mature and adults acting otherwise. How could this be possible when we know—based on fancy brain images—that the adult brain is neurologically all-wired-up and the teen brain is under construction? Personally (and professionally), I think the neuroscience focus on underdeveloped “teen brains” is mostly (but not completely) a form of highly scientifically refined excrement from a male bovine designed to help adults and parents feel better about themselves.

And therein lies my point: I propose that we start treating teens with the respect that we traditionally reserve for ourselves and each other . . . because if we continue to disrespect teenagers and lower our expectations for their mature behavior . . . the more our expectations for teenagers are likely to come true.

John and his sister, Peggy, acting immature even though their brains are completely wired up.

Peg and John Singing at Pat's Wedding

A Brief History and Analysis of Antidepressant Medication Treatment for Youth with Depression Diagnoses

The popular press intermittently acts surprised that antidepressant medications actually have little scientific evidence supporting their efficacy. It’s old news, but it’s still important news and I’m glad for the recent reports. See:

Rita and I published an article about this in 1996. Below, I’ve pasted a pre-print excerpt from an article I published with Duncan Campbell in 2009 in the Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. It includes a brief summary of antidepressant medication research through 2008 or so. Check it out:

A Brief History and Analysis of Antidepressant Medication Treatment for Youth

Medication treatment for depressed youth has evolved over three relatively distinct periods. First, prior to 1987, small exploratory studies examined tricyclic antidepressant (TCAs) efficacy with young patients diagnosed with major depressive disorder (MDD). Second, from 1987-1994 there were a number of randomized, controlled trials (RCTs) of TCA efficacy; these efforts often employed double-blind procedures and inactive placebo controls. Third, since 1997, research efforts have primarily focused on evaluating selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) efficacy with RCTs.

Early Research: Pre-1987

In the early 1980s, psychiatric and pharmaceutical researchers began testing TCAs with youth. Early conclusions about the safety and efficacy of TCAs were generally optimistic (Klein, Jacobs, & Reinecke, 2007). This is a tendency that has been identified in the literature and it may be due to methodological limitations, confirmation bias or an allegiance to the medical model, or financial incentives associated with the pharmaceutical industry (Klein et al., 2007; Luborsky et al., 1999). For example, on the basis of existing studies and their very small double-blind trial with nine prepubertal children, Kashani and colleagues (1984) concluded that amitrityline was possibly efficacious for treating depression in children. Interestingly, the authors’ tentative claim was made despite the fact that no statistically significant effect was observed for amitriptyline and even though 11% of their sample “developed a hypomanic reaction while on the protocol” (p. 350).

RCTs with TCAs

From 1965 to 1994 there were 13 published RCTs evaluating TCA efficacy. Most of these studies were conducted from 1987 to 1994 (Fisher & Fisher, 1996; Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 1996). These RCTs confirmed the premature hopefulness of Kashani and colleagues’ early claims. Indeed, no study ever published showed that TCAs outperformed placebo in the treatment of youth depression (Hazell, 2000). More importantly, it is currently recognized that TCAs possess dangerous side effect profiles, while offering no demonstrable advantage over placebo in the treatment of youth depression (Hazell, 2000; Pellegrino, 1996).

In the mid-1990s there was considerable speculation about why TCAs were ineffective for treating youth. The primary hypothesis for involved the fact that children appear to have immature adrenergic synaptic systems. This possibility precipitated a more systematic inquiry of serotonergic medications.

RCTs with SSRIs

Using PsychInfo and PubMed searches combined with cross-referencing, we identified 12 published RCTs evaluating SSRI efficacy with 11 of these studies from 1997 to 2007. In total, these studies compared 1,223 SSRI treated patients to a similar number of placebo controls. On the basis of the researchers’ own efficacy criteria, six RCTs observed outcomes favoring medication over placebo, and six observed nonsignificant differences. Researchers described efficacious outcomes for fluoxetine (3 of 4 studies; G. J. Emslie et al., 2002; G. J. Emslie et al., 1997; Simeon, Dinicola, Ferguson, & Copping, 1990; Treatment for Adolescents With Depression Study (TADS) Team, US, 2004), paroxetine (1 of 3; Berard, Fong, Carpenter, Thomason, & Wilkinson, 2006; G. Emslie et al., 2006; M. B. Keller, 2001), sertraline (1 of 1; K. D. Wagner et al., 2003), and citalopram (1 of 1; K. D. Wagner et al., 2004). Neither of two studies observed efficacy for venlafaxine (G. J. Emslie, Findling, Yeung, Kunz, & Li, 2007; Mandoki, Tapia, Tapia, & Sumner, 1997), and the single escitalopram study returned negative results (K. D. Wagner, Jonas, Findling, Ventura, & Saikali, 2006).

Methodological Issues

Assessing a medication’s efficacy is a complex process with challenges that are difficult to address. We believe, however, that the six aforementioned RCTs favoring SSRIs suffered from methodological problems and issues that temper their positive conclusions. For example, (a) two of the three fluoxetine studies were characterized by unusually high and disproportionate discontinuation rates in the placebo conditions; (b) 11 of the 12 studies based their conclusions exclusively on a structured psychiatric interview; (c) despite simultaneous examination of several outcomes, no study used statistical adjustments for multiple comparisons; (d) placebo washouts and statistical approaches that advantage medications were nearly always employed (R. P. Greenberg, 2001); (e) no procedures were used to evaluate double-blind integrity (R. P. Greenberg & Fisher, 1997); and (f) despite documented inter-racial differences in medication metabolism and responsiveness, conclusions were generalized to all youth and inappropriately failed to account for racial/cultural specificity (Lin, Poland, & Nakasaki, 1993).

Side Effects and Adverse Events

In RCTs and other studies, patients treated with SSRIs experienced substantially more disturbing side effects and adverse events than those not treated with SSRIs. For example, in one of the most rigorous studies to date, the Treatment of Adolescents with Depression Study (TADS), 11.9% of the fluoxetine group evidenced harm-related adverse events (compared to 4.5% in the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy [CBT] group) and 21% experienced psychiatric adverse events (1% in the CBT group). Further, as the authors noted, “…suicidal crises and nonsuicidal self-harming behaviors were not uncommon and, with the caveat that the numbers were so small as to make statistical comparisons suspect, seemed possibly to be associated with fluoxetine treatment” (March et al., 2006; The TADS Team, 2007 p. 818; Treatment for Adolescents With Depression Study (TADS) Team, US, 2004).

Findings like these necessitate critical inspection of study results and should attenuate positive conclusions about medication safety. For example, Emslie et al.’s (1997) study of youth depression was the first ever to demonstrate superior outcome for an SSRI. In addition to the study’s numerous methodological problems, the authors noted that 6.3% of the fluoxetine patients (n = 3) developed manic symptoms. Although this percentage may sound small, extrapolation suggests that 6,250 of every 100,000 fluoxetine-treated youth might develop manic symptoms. Ultimately, despite data based solely on psychiatrist ratings and a placebo condition discontinuation rate approaching 46%, the authors concluded that fluoxetine “…is safe and effective in children and adolescents with MDD” (p. 1037). Moreover, the authors’ intent-to-treat analysis possibly conferred an advantage for the active drug group. In our opinion, this methodological problem and the mania data make it premature to conclude that fluoxetine is safe and effective in children.

Similarly, despite striking data that appear to demonstrate otherwise, authors of the single positive paroxetine study concluded that paroxetine is “safe and effective” for young patients (M. B. Keller et al., 2001). However, in their results section, the research team reported serious adverse effects, “…in 11 patients in the paroxetine group, 5 in the imipramine group, and 2 in the placebo group” (p. 769). More specifically, five adverse effects in the paroxetine group involved suicidal ideation or gestures. Despite these data, the researchers presented their results as evidence for the efficacy and safety of paroxetine treatment for adolescent depression. Because 12% of the paroxetine-treated adolescents experienced at least one adverse event and because 6% of these patients manifested increased suicidality or suicidal gestures (compared with zero in the imipramine and placebo groups), we believe the authors’ conclusion departs from the data in a significant and concerning way.
Shortly after publication of the Keller et al. (2001) study, regulatory agencies in France, Canada, and Great Britain restricted SSRI use among youth. In September of 2004, an expert panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) followed suit and voted 25-0 in support of an SSRI-suicide link. Later, the panel voted 15-8 in favor of a ‘black box warning’ on SSRI medication labels. The warning states:

“Antidepressants increased the risk compared to placebo of suicidal thinking and behavior (suicidality) in children, adolescents, and young adults in short-term studies of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and other psychiatric disorders. Patients of all ages who are started on antidepressant therapy should be monitored appropriately and observed closely for clinical worsening, suicidality, or unusual changes in behavior. Families and caregivers should be advised of the need for close observation and communication with the prescriber.”

In 2006, the FDA extended its SSRI suicidality warning to adult patients aged 18-24 years (United States Food and Drug Administration, 2007).

Combination Medication and Psychotherapy Treatments

Many view the 2004 TADs study as a ‘state of the science’ comparison of SSRI medication (fluoxetine; FLU) with CBT and their combination (FLU + CBT). To date, it represents the largest placebo-controlled study comparing mono-therapy (FLU or CBT alone) with combination therapy. Not surprisingly, the TADs study has generated numerous publications and much controversy (Antonuccio & Burns, 2004; Diller, 2005; Weisz, McCarty, & Valeri, 2006).

To summarize, initial 12-week outcomes showed that 71% of FLU + CBT patients evidenced “much” or “very much” improvement on the on the CGI-Improvement item, a clinician-based assessment. FLU alone produced a similar outcome (60.6%), whereas the CBT alone (43.2) outcome did not differ significantly from placebo (34.8%). Based on these outcomes, several CBT researchers and practitioners criticized the specific CBT delivered to TADs participants. Brent (2006), for example, described TADS psychotherapy as a relatively “dense treatment, with multiple CBT strategies, each delivered at a relatively low dose” (p. 1463). In comparing the initial TADs CBT outcomes with previous and subsequent CBT studies, Weisz et al. (2006) suggested that the TADs CBT was weaker than most CBT interventions, for various reasons:

“the CBT ES (effect size) generated in TADS is not characteristic of most CBT or psychotherapy effects on youth depression; 20 of the 23 other CBT programs. . . showed larger ES than the TADS version of CBT, and the mean ES value across the non-TADS CBT programs. . . was 0.48, markedly higher than the -0.07 ES associated with the TADS CBT intervention” (p. 147).

To complicate issues further, follow-up data suggest that the TADs CBT evidenced delayed effectiveness, as it eventually “caught up” with FLU and CBT+FLU (The TADS Team, 2007). At week 18, for example, there were no statistically significant differences between CBT and FLU, and by week 36 there were no statistical differences among the three groups (CBT, FLU, and CBT + FLU) on primary outcome measures. Although the interventions including FLU might evidence a speedier antidepressant effect, these results suggest that CBT is equally effective over time.

The depression treatment literature frequently includes recommendations for combined interventions in order to maximize outcomes (Watanabe, Hunot, Omori, Churchill, & Furukawa, 2007). Unfortunately, however, little data exists to support these recommendations. In addition to TADs, the only other published RCT comparison of mono- and combination treatments for depressed adolescents reported partial remission rates of 71% for CBT, 33% for sertraline, and 47% for combination (Melvin et al., 2006). Medication group patients also evidenced significantly more adverse events and side effects. Although the researchers attributed the delayed response in the combination group to sertraline, they concluded with the puzzling statement that “CBT and sertraline are equally recommended for the treatment for adolescents with depression, each demonstrating an equivalent response” (Melvin et al., 2006 p. 1160).


Counseling Culturally Diverse Youth: Research-Based and Common Sense Tips

This is a rough preview of a section from the 6th edition Clinical Interviewing. As always, your thoughts and feedback are welcome.

Counseling Culturally Diverse Youth: Research-Based and Common Sense Tips

Research on how to practice with culturally diverse youth is especially sparse. To make matters more complex, youth culture is already substantially different from adult culture. This means that if you’re different from young clients on traditional minority variables, you’ll be experiencing a double dose of the cultural divide. These complications led one writer to title an article “A knot in the gut” to describe the palpable transference and countertransference that can arise when working with race, ethnicity, and social class in adolescents (Levy-Warren, 2014).

To help reduce the size of the knot in your gut, we’ve developed a simple research- and common-sense list to guide your work with culturally diverse youth (Bhola & Kapur, 2013; Norton, 2011; Shirk, Karver, & Brown, 2011; Villalba, 2007):

1. Use the interpersonal skills (e.g., empathy, genuineness, respect) that are known to work well with adult minority group members. Keep in mind that interpersonal respect is an especially salient driver in smoothing out intercultural relationships.

2. Find ways to show genuine interest in your young clients, while also focusing on their assets or strengths.

3. Treat the meeting, greeting, and first session with freshness and eagerness. There’s evidence that young clients find less experienced therapists easier to form an alliance with.

4. Use a genuine and clear purpose statement. It should capture your “raison d’etre” (your reason for being in the room). We like a purpose statement that’s direct and has intrinsic limits built in. For example: “My goal is to help you achieve your goals . . . just as long as your goals are legal and healthy.” One nice thing about this purpose statement is that sometimes young clients think the “legal and healthy” limitations are funny.

5. Don’t use a standardized approach to always talking with youth about your cultural differences. Instead, wait for an opening that naturally springs up from your interactions. For example, when a teen says something like, “I don’t think you get what I’m saying” it’s a natural opening to talk about how you probably don’t get what the youth is saying. Then you can discuss some of your differences as well as you’re desire to understand as much as you can. For example: “You’re right. I probably don’t get you very well. It’s obvious that I’m way older than you and I’m not a Native American. But I’d like to understand you better and I hope you’ll be willing to help me understand you better. Then, in the end, you can tell me how much I get you and how much I don’t get you.”

6. Provide clear explanations of your procedure and rationale and then linger on those explanations as needed. If young clients don’t understand the point of what you’re doing, they’re less likely to engage.

7. Be patient with your clients; research with young clients and diverse clients indicate that alliance-building (and trust) takes extra time and won’t necessarily happen during an initial session

8. Be patient with yourself; it may take time for you to feel empathy for young clients who engage in behaviors outside your comfort zone (e.g., cutting)

I hope these ideas can help you make connections with youth from other cultures. The BIG summary is to BE GENUINE and BE RESPECTFUL. Nearly everything else flows from there.