Category Archives: Therapy with Adolescents

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.

Working with Challenging Parents and Youth . . . and Loving It

Supplementary Handout – Adams State University – Alamosa, CO – 2/27/15
John Sommers-Flanagan, Ph.D., Professor
Department of Counselor Education, University of Montana

I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors
— Henry David Thoreau

The following techniques and strategies are discussed in the workshop. More extensive information is included in the Tough Kids, Cool Counseling (2007) book published by ACA publications and other resources listed in the reference section.

1. Acknowledging Reality: Teenagers and some pre-teens are likely to be initially suspicious and mistrustful of adults – especially sneaky, manipulative, authority figures like clinical mental health or school counselors. To decrease distrust, it is important to simply acknowledge reality about the reasons for meeting, about the fact that you’re strangers, and to notice obvious differences between yourself and the teenager. Another way of thinking about acknowledging reality is that it’s a form of counselor transparency or congruence. Research on evidence-based relationships has indicated that transparency, congruence, or genuineness is a predictor of positive counseling or psychotherapy outcomes.

Following is an example of how you might talk about confidentiality with young clients and their parents or caretakers using the acknowledging reality principle. Notice that this example uses a very direct and open discussion of confidentiality issues:

You may have read about confidentiality on the registration forms, or you may have heard the word before, but I want to discuss it with you now anyway. Confidentiality is like privacy. That means what you say in here is private and personal and will not leave this office. Of course, I have a secretary and files, but my secretary also will keep information private and my files are locked and secure.

What I’m saying is: I won’t talk about what either of you say to me outside of here, except in a few rare situations where I’m legally or ethically required to speak with someone outside of this office. For example, if any of you are a danger to yourself, or to anyone else, I won’t keep that information private. Also, if I find out about child abuse or neglect that has happened or is happening, I won’t keep that information private either, but I’ll work with you to get the best help possible. Do you have any questions about confidentiality (privacy)?
Now (the counselor looks at the child/adolescent), one of the trickiest situations is whether I should tell your mom and dad about what we talk about in here. Let me tell all of you how I like to work and see if it’s okay with you. (Look back at parents) I believe your son (daughter) needs to be able to trust me. So, I’d like you to agree that information I give to you about my private conversations with him (her) be limited to general progress reports. In other words, aside from general progress reports, I won’t inform you of details of what your child tells me. Of course, if your child is planning or doing something that might be very dangerous or self-destructive. In those cases, I will tell your child (turn and look to child) that he (she) is planning something I feel very uncomfortable with and then we will have everyone (turn back to parents) come in for an appointment so we can all talk directly about whatever dangerous thing has come up. Is this arrangement okay with all of you? (pp. 30-31)

2. Sharing Referral Information: To gracefully talk about referral information with teens, therapists need to educate referral sources about how this practice will be used. Specifically, referral sources should be trained to give therapists information about clients that is both accurate and positive. If referral information from teachers, parents, or probation officers is especially negative, the therapist should screen and interpret the information so it is not overwhelming or off-putting to young clients. Simblett (1997), writing from a constructive perspective, suggested that if therapists are planning to share referral information with clients, they should warn and prepare referral sources about such a practice. If not, the referral sources may feel betrayed. Also, when sharing negative information about the client, it’s important for the counselor to have empathy and side with the client’s feelings, while at the same time, not endorsing the negative behaviors. For example, “I can see you’re really mad about your mom telling me all this stuff about you. I don’t blame you for being mad. I think I’d be upset too. It’s hard to have people talking about you, even if they might have good intentions.” Here’s a more extended case example of sharing referral information from the Tough Kids, Cool Counseling (2007) book:

A female counselor is meeting for the first time with a 16-year-old female client. Immediately after introducing herself and offering a summary of the limits of confidentiality, she states, “I’m sure you know I talked with your parents and your probation officer before this meeting. So, instead of keeping you in the dark about what they said about you, I’d like to just go ahead and tell you everything I’ve been told. This sheet of paper has a summary of all that (counselor holds up sheet of paper). Is it okay if I just share all this with you?”

After receiving the client’s assent, the counselor moves her chair alongside the client, taking care to respect client boundaries while symbolically moving to a position where they can read the referral information together. She then reviews the information, which includes both positive information (the client is reportedly likeable, intelligent, and has many friends) and information about the legal and behavioral problems the adolescent has recently experienced. After sharing each bit of information, she checks in with the client by saying, “It says here that you’ve been caught shoplifting three times, is that correct?” or “Do you want to add anything to what your mom said about how you will all of a sudden get really, really angry?” When positive information is covered, the counselor says thing like, “So it looks like your teachers think you’re very intelligent and say that you’re well-liked at school . . . do you think that’s true . . . are you intelligent and well-liked?” If referral information from teachers, parents, or probation officers is especially negative, the counselor should screen and interpret the information so it is not overwhelming or off-putting to young clients. (excerpted from Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, p. 32)

3. Collaborative Goal-Setting: 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.

4. Exploring and Understanding Early Memories (using the affect bridge): The affect bridge is designed to link current emotions with past emotions. Originally described as a hypnoanalytic technique by John Watkins (1971), the procedure can be used without a trance state to deepen your understanding of the origin and power of your client’s problematic affective states. The technique is simple and direct. For example, you might say: “You’re doing a great job telling me about some recent things that really make you mad. Now, tell me about an earlier time, when you were younger, when you felt similar feelings.” This technique or prompt will often elicit early memories that can then be used, similar to Adler’s early recollection method, to understand the client’s schema, cognitive map, or lifestyle.

5. Reflection of Emotions: Emotional reflections, a la Carl Rogers (1942, 1961), are very important in counseling adolescents. This is because most youth are just learning about themselves and calibrating their emotional selves. Emotional reflections serve at least a two-fold purpose: (a) they provide youth a chance to see/hear themselves in an emotional mirror, and (b) they provide youth with a chance to tell the therapist that he or she has it all wrong (a corrective function). If the therapist begins noticing that he or she is consistently getting the emotional and content reflections incorrect with a given client, an effort at emotional repair is warranted. This simply involves apologizing for being incorrect, appreciating the client’s efforts to correct the therapist and a statement of commitment to continue trying.

The first video clip in this workshop focuses on a single session conducted with “Meagan” a 16-year-old White female. This video clip is used to discuss the first five techniques, described above. Following is a short description of and commentary on the Meagan video clip, including portions of the session that are not included on the video.

During this session opening and during several of the openings illustrated on this videotape, I begin by acknowledging that Meagan and I are strangers, that we don’t know each other very well. This opening is simply an acknowledgment of reality and is used because teenagers often find it to be a bit of relief when an adult simply and directly acknowledges the reality of a situation.
Very early in the session, Meagan and I decide together to focus on her anger for the remainder of the session. I then ask her to describe an early memory of being very angry. This “early memory” technique is derived partly from Adlerian theory (Eckstein, 1999). However, the suggestion that Meagan focus on an “angry” early memory is an example of an “affect bridge.” The affect bridge technique was originally described by John G. Watkins (1971), a renowned hypnotherapist.
Meagan responds to the affect bridge technique by describing two different childhood anger episodes. Whether you agree with using a historically-oriented question or not, my purpose was to gather data to help me conceptualize her anger “buttons” or “triggers” or “activating events” (which is a reasonable purpose based on contemporary cognitive-behavioral anger management strategies; Ellis, 1987; Novaco, 1979). It may be interesting for you to think about whether using the historically-oriented affect bridge is acceptable from your personal therapeutic framework or theoretical orientation.
Although you don’t have an opportunity to watch this session (or any of the sessions) in its entirety, the remainder of the session includes the following:
• After the historical questions, I ask Meagan for a current anger example
• I use a case conceptualization technique with Meagan, wherein I tell her that I think her main “button” is related to having a strong reaction to acts of injustice (toward her or toward others). I use this conceptualization even though I recognize that there are also un-articulated abandonment and humiliation issues linked to her early memories of being angry. The main reasons for this choice include (a) the fact that we’re on video; (b) the brief nature of our counseling relationship; and (c) the fact that the deep issues come out so early.
• Meagan is very responsive to being described as a person very sensitive to injustice. She also resonates well with the idea of wanting to “teach others a lesson” when they engage in unjust or unfair behaviors.
• Toward the end of the session, I lead Meagan through a very brief relaxation procedure.
• The session ends with me giving Meagan an “identity suggestion.” Specifically, I ask her to consider that her idea of herself as someone who gets angry easily and quickly might be growing outdated. Instead, I ask her to begin thinking of herself as the kind of person who is calm and happy. I also ask her to keep practicing some breathing or relaxation techniques. (from: Sommers-Flanagan and Sommers-Flanagan, 2004)

6. Dealing with Initial Provocations: Adolescent clients are known for their ability to be provocative and push their counselor’s emotional buttons. For example:

Counselor: I want to welcome you to therapy with me and I hope we can work together in ways you find helpful.
Client: You talk just like a shrink. I punched my last therapist in the nose (client glares at therapist and awaits a response). (From Sommers-Flanagan and Bequette, 2013)

Think about how you might respond to this scenario. We (John and Rita) believe that if counselors are not aware of how they are likely to react to emotionally provocative situations (such as the preceding) and prepared to respond with radical acceptance, empathy, validation, and concession, they may not be well-suited to working with adolescent clients (Sommers-Flanagan & Richardson, 2011).

Nearly all adolescents have quick reactions to therapists and unfortunately these reactions are often negative, though some may be unrealistically positive (Bernstein, 1996). Adolescents may bristle at the thought of an intimate encounter with someone whom they see as an authority figure. Having been judged and reprimanded by adults previously, adolescents may anticipate the same relationship dynamics in psychotherapy. Therapists must be ready for this negative reaction (i.e., transference) and actively develop strategies to engage clients, lower resistance, and manage their own countertransference reactions (Sommers-Flanagan & Sommers-Flanagan, 2007).

7. What’s Good About You? This procedure provides an opportunity for a rich interpersonal interaction with teenage clients. It also generates useful information regarding child/adolescent self-esteem. I like to initially, introduce it as a “game” with specific rules: “I want to play a game with you. I’m going to ask you the same question 10 times. The only rule is that you cannot answer the question with the same answer twice. In other words, I’ll ask you the same question 10 times, but you have to give me 10 different answers.” When playing this game therapists simply ask their client, “What’s good about you?” (while writing down the responses), following each response with “Thank you” and a smile. If the client responds with “I don’t know” the therapist simply writes down the response the first time, but if the client uses “I don’t know” (or any response) a second time, the therapist reminds the client, in a light and possibly humorous manner, that he or she can use answers only one time. As with all techniques, this should be used with client consent or agreement. If the client is uncomfortable and does not want to proceed, his or her reluctance should be respected. In some cases, there may be cultural reasons (i.e., a client has a collectivist cultural background) for refusing to do this activity.

8. Asset Flooding: With many teens who engage in challenging behaviors, communication breaks down because of how badly they are feeling about themselves. Consequently, communication and cooperation can be enhanced when the counselor simply stops and reflects on the teen’s positive qualities. Of course, you need to have several positive attributes available in your mind before beginning this intervention. You can proceed by saying something like: “You know, I was just thinking about how I think you have all sorts of good qualities. . . like you’re always on time, you hang in there and keep attending your classes, even though I know sometimes you don’t really like them. . . that tells me you’ve got courage, courage to face unpleasant things. . . I also like your sense of humor. . . and. . .”

9. Generating Behavioral Alternatives: Frequently teens become focused on one or two maladaptive behavioral responses to challenging situations. For example, they may either yell at their teacher or run out of class, but they seem unable or unwilling to try a more moderate response such as discussing their conflict or problem with the teacher in order to seek resolution. In the workshop, I will discuss a counseling session illustrating a modified behavioral alternatives procedure designed to reduce behavioral aggression.

10. Addressing Multicultural Differences: In the video clip with John and Michael, John begins by noting differences between the two of them and then asking Michael to share some of his personal experiences about being an African American gang member. This opening comes dangerously close to an inappropriate request – for Michael to educate John about his culture and lifestyle. However, because John emphasizes his interest in Michael’s personal experiences, the opening may be appropriate – but you can be the judge. After years of reflection, my (John’s) conclusion is that proactively addressing diversity issues is less genuine and may increase discomfort and decrease trust. It’s likely better practice to be genuine and genuinely respectful and then to address culture as it arises in the session . . . but I’m open to alternative ideas.

11. Noticing Process and Making Corrections: When there’s a clear pattern that begins to manifest itself in the counseling session, it’s best to acknowledge that pattern. This may be a pattern, as in the John-Michael clip, where the counselor is not “getting it” or having trouble accurately listening to the client. Or, it may be a situation where the counselor is trying to convince the student of something, but the student is resisting. In these situations, it’s recommended that the counselor acknowledge the process reality in the session.

12. Using Riddles and Games: In the Tough Kids book we describe a number of interesting activities that therapists can use with young clients. One strategy is to initiate some “mental set” activities with your client. For example, you might say, “I’d like you to say the word ‘ten’ ten times and I’ll count.” The client then says, “10, 10, 10. . .” and at the end you say, “Okay, what are aluminum cans made of?” Often the youth will say, “TIN” which of course the wrong answer, because the correct answer is aluminum. After doing this you can then discuss how our minds sometimes will misinterpret things which is why we should always think twice before reacting.

13. Cognitive Storytelling: Most teens, especially elementary teens, have a natural interest in stories and storytelling. In addition to using stories as metaphors, it can be useful for counselors to incorporate storytelling procedures that illustrate cognitive and behavior principles into counseling. The road rage, monkey surgery, or cherry story will be shared with participants in this workshop.

14. The Satanic Golden Rule: This technique is derived from Eva Feindler’s work with aggressive youth. It involves using the “Fool in the Ring” metaphor for helping youth see that they are giving up freedom when they react (predictably) and aggressively toward individuals who provoke them. The therapist draws a picture of two stick-figures engaging in a conflict and brainstorms how the young person being provoked might respond to conflict situations without engaging in retaliation and without engaging in behaviors likely to perpetuate aggression and result in negative consequences. Additionally, the message behind this metaphor and brainstorming activity is further developed by discussing the Satanic Golden Rule. In the end, youth are encouraged to use a more thoughtful and intentional response to provocation – instead of simply responding to aggression.


Bernstein, N. (1996). Treating the unmanageable adolescent. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Castro-Blanco, D., & Karver, M. S. (2010). Elusive alliance: Treatment engagement strategies with high-risk adolescents. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Creed, T. A., & Kendall, P. C. (2005). Therapist alliance-building behavior within a cognitive– behavioral treatment for anxiety in youth. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 73, 498-505.
de Shazer, S. (1985). Keys to solution in brief therapy. New York: Norton.
Feindler, E. (1986). Adolescent anger control. New York: Pergamon Press.
Glasser, W. (2002). Unhappy teens. New York: HarperCollins.
Hanna, F. J., Hanna, C. A., & Keys, S. G. (1999). Fifty strategies for counseling defiant, aggressive adolescents: Reaching, accepting, and relating. Journal of Counseling & Development, 77(4), 395-404.
Hawley, K. M., & Garland, A. F. (2008). Working alliance in adolescent outpatient therapy: Youth, parent and therapist reports and associations with therapy outcomes. Child & Youth Care Forum 37(2), 59-74
Kazdin, A. E. (2008). The Kazdin method for parenting the defiant child: With no pills, no therapy, no contest of wills. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change (3rd ed.). New York: Guilford Press.
Rogers, C. R. (1961). On becoming a person. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Bequette, T. (2013). The initial psychotherapy interview with adolescent clients. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 43(1), 13-22.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., Richardson, B.G., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2011). A multi-theoretical, developmental, and evidence-based approach for understanding and managing adolescent resistance to psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 41, 69-80.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Campbell, D.G. (2009). Psychotherapy and (or) medications for depression in youth? An evidence-based review with recommendations for treatment. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 32,111-120.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2007). Tough kids, cool counseling: User-friendly approaches with challenging youth (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2014). Clinical interviewing (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2012). Counseling and psychotherapy theories in context and practice: Skills, strategies, and techniques (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Sommers-Flanagan, J., & Sommers-Flanagan, R. (2004). The challenge of counseling teens: Counselor behaviors that reduce resistance and facilitate connection. [Videotape]. North Amherst, MA: Microtraining Associates.
Watkins, J. G. (1971). The affect bridge: A hypnoanalytic technique. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Hypnosis, 19, 21-27.
Weisz, J., & Kazdin, A. E. (2010). Evidence-based psychotherapies for children and adolescents (2nd ed.). New York: Guilford.
Willock, B. (1986). Narcissistic vulnerability in the hyper-aggressive child: The disregarded (unloved, uncared-for) self. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 3, 59-80.
Willock, B. (1987). The devalued (unloved, repugnant) self: A second facet of narcissistic vulnerability in the aggressive, conduct-disordered child. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 4, 219-240.

If you have questions about this handout, or are interested in having John SF conduct a workshop or keynote for your organization, please contact John at: 406-243-4263 or You may reproduce this handout to share with your colleagues if you like, but please provide an appropriate citation. For additional free materials related to this workshop and other topics, go to John’s Blog at:

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.”



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:



Teaching Teens Better Strategies for Getting What they Want

On Thursday of this week I’ll be at the Hilton Garden Inn in Missoula doing a day-long workshop on how to work effectively with challenging youth and challenging parents. Of course, the first point to make about this is that this entire concept is flawed; it’s flawed because it’s not fair to call youth and parents “challenging” when, in fact, for them, the whole idea of sitting down and talking with a counselor is challenging. It would be equally reasonable to hold a workshop for parents and youth titled, “Working with Challenging Counselors.”

One of the approaches featured during the workshop will be to engage teenagers in using better (healthier and more legal) strategies for getting what they want. Rita and I wrote about this approach in our book, Tough Kids, Cool Counseling. . . and so here’s an excerpt that describes the approach and provides a case example:


The following techniques focus more specifically on interpersonal behavior patterns.

Teaching “Strategic Skills” to Adolescents
Weiner (1992) described many delinquent or “psychopathic” adolescents as inherently understanding the importance of using strategies to obtain their desired goals (p. 338). Despite this general understanding, disruptive, behavior-disordered adolescents frequently utilize ineffective interpersonal strategies and thereby obtain outcomes opposite to what they desire. For example, increased freedom is commonly identified by adolescents as one of their primary therapy goals. However, attention-deficit and disruptive, behavior-disordered adolescents consistently engage in behaviors that eventually restrict their personal freedom (e.g., curfew violation, disrespect toward parents, illegal behavior). The “strategic skills” intervention is designed to help adolescents understand how their own behavior contributes to their inability to attain personal goals (e.g., perhaps by producing increased limits and restrictions).

The therapist must provide two relationship-based explanations to implement the strategic skills procedure. First, the therapist must directly inform them of a willingness and commitment to assist them in personal goal attainment. For example:

It sounds like you want more freedom in your life. I imagine it’s a drag being 15 and still having all the restrictions you have. I want you to know that I’m willing to work very hard to help you have more freedom. We just have to put our heads together and think of some ways you can get more freedom.

The purpose of this statement is to reduce resistance and distrust. Many, if not most, adolescents expect therapists to side with their parents, teachers, or authority figures. The process of valuing the adolescent’s pursuit of freedom can surprise the adolescent and thereby reduce resistance.

Second, therapists must set clear limits on the type or quality of behaviors they are willing to support and promote. This is because adolescents may try to manipulate therapists into supporting illegal or self-destructive behavior patterns (Weiner, 1992; Wells & Forehand, 1985).

I need to tell you something about what I am willing to help you accomplish. I’ll help you figure out behaviors that are legal and constructive and help you get more freedom. In other words, I won’t support illegal and self-destructive behaviors because in the end, they won’t get you what you want. And there may be times when you and I disagree on what is legal and constructive; we’ll need to talk about those disagreements when and if they arise.

If adolescents respond positively to their therapists’ offer of support and assistance, the door is open to providing feedback about how to engage in freedom-promoting behaviors. Therapists can then tell their clients: “Okay, let’s talk about strategies for how you can get more of what you want out of life.” Subsequent discussions might include the following problem areas that frequently contribute to adolescents’ restrictions: staying out of legal trouble, developing respect and trust in the adolescents’ relationships with parents and authority figures, and analyzing and modifying inaccurate social cognitions. Essentially, therapists have facilitated client motivation and cooperation and can move on to analyzing faulty cognitions, modeling and role-playing strategies, and other effective psycho-therapeutic interventions.

Case example. A 12-year-old boy entered the consulting room in conflict with his father over how many pages he was supposed to read for a specific homework assignment given to him by a teacher whom he “hated.” The boy was disagreeable and nasty in response to his father’s comments; direct discussion of issues while both father and son were present was initially ineffective. Therefore, the father was dismissed. After using distraction strategies and a mood-changing technique (See Chapter 3), the boy was able to focus in a more productive manner on the conflict he was having with his father. The boy indicated that his father was partially correct in his claims about the reading assignment, but that the boy’s “hate” for this particular teacher made him want to resist the assignment.
The individual discussion between the boy and his therapist focused on (a) how the boy’s dislike for the teacher produced a “bad mood,” which subsequently produced his resistance to the assign-ment, (b) how the boy’s bad mood and resistance to the assignment had produced disagreeable behavior toward his dad, and (c) how the boy’s bad mood, resistance to the assignment, and disagreeable behavior had produced a bad mood and disagreeable behavior within the father (who was now resisting the boy’s request that the assignment be modified). Consequently, after the boy’s mood was modified, the boy and therapist were able to brainstorm strategies for helping the father change his mood and become more receptive to the son’s request. With assistance, the boy chose to tell the father “You were right about the assignment . . . “ when his father returned to the room. This “improved” interpersonal strategy (which had been role-played prior to father’s return) had an extremely positive effect on the father. Additionally, the boy was able to introduce a compromise (“I’ll do the assignment if my dad will listen to me without disagreeing when I bitch about how unfair and stupid this teacher is”). In response to his son’s admission “Dad, you’re right,” the father stated (with jaw open): “I don’t know what happened in here when I was gone, but I’ve never seen Donnie change his attitude so quickly.” Donnie and his father successfully negotiated the suggested compromise, and before Donnie left, the therapist pointed out (by whispering to the boy) how quickly he had been able to get his father’s mood to change in a positive direction.

In this case scenario, the therapist helped to modify the son and father’s usual reciprocal negative interactions in a manner similar to one-person family therapy advocated by Szapocznik et al. (1990).


Entering the Danger Zone: Why Counselors (and Psychologists) Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

This article was published in the Reader Viewpoint section of Counseling Today magazine this week. If you get the magazine, you’ll find it on page 52. If not, because it’s not available online, I’m posting the article (with minor modifications) in-full right here. To check out the Counseling Today magazine, click here:

Here’s the article:

Reader Viewpoint

Entering the Danger Zone

Why Counselors Need to Find the Courage to Talk with Boys about Sex and Pornography

By John Sommers-Flanagan

For the most part, the United States lacks a coherent and systematic approach to sexual education. Instead, as lampooned in an online issue of The Onion, sex education is typically informal, unorganized, and inaccurate. The Onion article describes a scene in which a 10-year-old boy takes his 8-year-old cousin behind his parents’ garage with a page ripped out of a magazine and shares “the vast misguided knowledge of human sexuality he had gleaned from classmates’ hearsay as well as 12 minutes of a Real Sex episode he watched in a hotel room once.” The older boy recounts his rationale: “Every time people have sex the woman has a baby, and I just want [my younger cousin] to be completely prepared before getting naked with a girl.”

The good news about this is that The Onion is a fictional news source. The bad news is that the current state of sex education in our country isn’t much better than The Onion’s version.

Consider that a report this past April from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that more than 80 percent of adolescents between the ages of 15 and 17 have no formal sexual education before actually having sex. If teenagers have no formal sex education, then what informal sex education do you suppose they take with them into their first sexual experiences?

One such source of informal sex education is pornography. In 2009, University of Montreal professor Simon Louis Lajeunesse designed a study to evaluate how pornography use affects male sexual development. He planned to interview 20 males who had viewed pornography and then compare their responses with those of 20 males who had never viewed porn. Remarkably, Lajeunesse had to abandon his project because he couldn’t find any college-aged males who hadn’t already viewed porn.

Other researchers report similar experiences. It appears that most boys, rather than learning about sex from a well-meaning, albeit uninformed cousin, get their information from the pornography industry … and my best guess is that the porn industry isn’t focusing on the best interests of American youth. This is one way in which reality may be worse than The Onion.

The absence of formal and accurate sexual education is a particularly American problem that may find its way into the offices of professional counselors. Many young males probably have very little basic knowledge or hold unhelpful ideas about sex and sexuality. Some will have porn addictions. Others will want to talk about how pornography may be affecting their real sex lives. You may also have clients who are concerned about their partner’s or potential partner’s porn viewing behaviors. Working with young (and older) males (and females) who want to talk about their sexual knowledge, beliefs and behaviors, including watching pornography, is both a challenge and an opportunity for professional counselors.

Counselors have an ethical mandate to strive toward competence. As articulated in the multicultural counseling literature, this requires cultivating personal awareness, gathering knowledge and developing skills.

Awareness: Expanding your comfort zone

Talking about sex, sexuality and sexual attraction can be difficult at every level. Think about yourself: How easy is it to talk about sex with your supervisor, colleagues, students, or clients? Your own experience may give you a glimpse into how challenging it can be to broach the topic of sex — even for professionals.

In comparison, it’s probably an understatement to say that it is especially difficult for boys to initiate a conversation about sex or sexuality with a professional counselor. This is why counselors who work with boys should become comfortable initiating conversations about sex. If you don’t ask at least a few gentle, polite, yet direct questions, you may be waiting a long time for the boy in your office to bring up the subject.

On the opposite extreme, some young clients will jump right into talking about sexuality and push us straight out of our comfort zones. Recently, I was working with a 16-year-old boy who described himself as a polyamorous “furry” (which I later learned involved sexualized role-playing as various animals). Admittedly, it was a challenge to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude. But without such an attitude, we wouldn’t have been able to have repeated open and useful conversations about his sexuality and sexual identity development.

Knowledge: The effects of pornography on boys and men

Many potential areas related to sexuality deserve attention, focus, and discussion in counseling. But because pornography and mixed messages about pornography are everywhere, it can be an especially important subject.

Most counselors probably believe that repeated exposure to pornography has a negative impact on male sexual development. This negative impact is likely exacerbated by the fact that most boys aren’t getting any organized, balanced, and scientific sexual information. Nevertheless, within the dominant American culture, there remains strong resistance to both sex education and pornography regulation. Even in a recent issue of Monitor on Psychology, the authors of an article questioned whether porn is addictive and blithely noted that “people like porn.”

It’s not surprising that porn has advocates. After all, it’s estimated to be a $6 billion-plus industry. In addition, media outlets explicitly and implicitly use pornlike sexuality to attract an audience and sell products. Recently, we’ve seen the increased use of hypermasculine male body types in the media, but most of the rampant sexual objectification still focuses on young female bodies.

Given that sexual development includes a complex mix of culture, biology and life experience, it’s not surprising that researchers have had difficulty isolating pornography as a single causal factor in male sexual developmental outcomes. However, a summary of the research indicates that as the viewing of pornography increases, so does an array of negative attitudes, behaviors, and symptoms. Generally, increased exposure to pornography is correlated with:
• More positive attitudes toward sexual aggression, increases in sexual aggression, multiple sexual partners, and engaging in paid sex
• Increased depression, anxiety and stress, and poorer social functioning
• Positive attitudes toward teen sex, adult premarital sex, and extramarital sex
• More positive attitudes toward pornography and more viewing of violent or hypersexual pornography
• Higher alcohol consumption, greater self-reported sexual desire, and increased rates of boys selling sexual acts

In contrast to these findings, a 2002 Kinsey Institute survey indicated that 72 percent of respondents considered pornography to be a relatively harmless outlet. This might be true for adults. I recall listening to B.F. Skinner talk about how older adults could use pornography as a sexual stimulant in ways similar to how they use hearing aids and glasses.

But the point isn’t whether people like porn or whether porn can be relatively harmless for some adults. The point is that pornography is a bad primary source of sexual information for developing boys and young men. As a consequence, it’s crucial for counselors who work with males to be knowledgeable about the potential negative effects of pornography.

Skills: How can counselors help?

A big responsibility for professional counselors who work with boys is to consistently keep sex and sexuality issues on the educational and therapeutic radar. This doesn’t mean counselors should be preoccupied with asking about sex. Rather, we should be open to asking about it, as needed, in a matter-of-fact and respectful manner.

As with most skills, asking about sex and talking comfortably about sexuality requires practice and supervision. But as Carl Rogers often emphasized, having an accepting attitude may be even more important than using specific skills. This implies that finding your own way to listen respectfully to boys (and all clients) about their sexual views and practices is essential. It also requires openness to listening respectfully even when our clients’ sexual views and practices are inconsistent with our personal values. As with other topics, if we ask about it, we should be ready to skillfully listen to whatever our clients are inclined to say next.

Case example
Some years ago, I had a young client named Ben who was in foster care. We began working together when he was 10 and continued intermittently until he was 17.
When Ben was around 13, I started routinely asking about possible romance in his life. He typically redirected the conversation. Occasionally he gave me a few hints that he wanted a girlfriend, but he mostly still seemed frightened of girls. As my counseling with Ben continued, I became aware that I had been conspiring with him to avoid talking directly about sex, possibly because I was afraid to bring it up.

I finally faced the issue when I realized (far too slowly) that Ben had no father figure in his life and, thus, I was one of his best chances at having a positive male role model. With encouragement from my supervision group, I was able to face my anxieties, do some reading about male sexual development, and finally broach the subject of having a sex talk with Ben.

Toward the end of a session I said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking we’ve never really talked directly about sex. And I realized that maybe you don’t have any men in your life who have talked with you about sex. So, here’s my plan. Next week we’re going to have the sex talk. OK?”

Ben’s face reddened and his eyes widened. He mumbled, “OK, fine with me.”

The next session I plowed right in, starting with a nervous monologue about why talking directly about sex was important. I then asked Ben where he’d learned whatever he knew about sex. He answered, “Sex ed at school, some magazines, a little Internet porn, and my friends.”

I felt a sense of gratitude that he was listening and being open, even if we were both feeling awkward. We talked about homosexuality, pornography, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy, contraception, and emotions. I tried to gently warn him that too much porn could become way too much porn. He agreed. He told me that he didn’t feel like he was gay but that he didn’t have anything against gays and lesbians. At the end of the conversation, we were both flushed. We had stared down our mutual discomfort and navigated our way through a difficult topic.

Professional sex educators emphasize that parents shouldn’t have just one sex talk with their kids; they should have many sex talks. What I thought was THE talk with Ben turned into something we could revisit. Over the next two years, Ben and I kept talking — off and on, here and there — about sex, sexuality, and pornography.

Final thoughts

Boys are a unique counseling population, and sex is a hot topic. Together, the two provide both challenge and opportunity for professional counselors. As counselors, we should work to develop our awareness, knowledge, and skills for talking with boys about sex and sexuality. You may not be the perfect sex educator, but when the alternatives for accurate information are pornography or someone’s uninformed older cousin, it becomes obvious that having open conversations about sex with boys is an excellent role for counselors to embrace.


John Sommers-Flanagan is a counselor educator at the University of Montana and the author of nine books. Get more information on this and other topics related to counseling and parenting at

Letters to the editor:

Readings and resources for working with boys and men
• A Counselor’s Guide to Working With Men, edited by Matt Englar-Carlson, Marcheta P. Evans & Thelma Duffey, 2014, American Counseling Association
• “Addressing sexual attraction in supervision,” by Kirsten W. Murray & John Sommers-Flanagan, in Sexual Attraction in Therapy: Clinical Perspectives on Moving Beyond the Taboo — A Guide for Training and Practice, edited by Maria Luca, 2014, Wiley-Blackwell
• Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, by Michael Kimmel, 2010, Harper Perennial
• Tough Kids, Cool Counseling: User-Friendly Approaches With Challenging Youth, second edition, by John Sommers-Flanagan & Rita Sommers-Flanagan, 2007, American Counseling Association
• The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help, by Jackson Katz, 2006, Sourcebooks
• The Good Men Project:

Non-Drug Options for Dealing with Depression

Evidence supporting the efficacy of antidepressant medications continues to be weak. That doesn’t mean they never work; some individuals with depressive symptoms find them very helpful and that’s okay. But for many, antidepressant meds just don’t work very well . . . there are side effects and less than desirable antidepressant effects. This is why many people wonder: What are some of the best non-drug alternatives for treating symptoms of depression?

Here’s a short list that might be helpful.

1. Counseling or Psychotherapy: Going to a reputable and licensed mental-health professional who offers counseling or psychotherapy for depression can be very helpful. This may include individual, couple, or family therapy.

2. Vigorous aerobic exercise: Consider initiating and maintaining a regular cardiovascular or aerobic exercise schedule. This could involve a specific referral to a personal trainer and/or local fitness center (e.g., YMCA). In a recent small study of adolescents with clinical depression, 100% of the teens in the aerobic exercise group no longer met the diagnostic criteria for depression after receiving several months of exercise treatment.

3. Herbal remedies: Some individuals benefit from taking herbal supplements. In particular, there is evidence that omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil) and St. John’s Wort are effective in reducing depressive symptoms. It’s good to consult with a health-care provider if you’re pursuing this option.

4. Light therapy: Some people describe great benefits from light therapy. Specific information on light therapy boxes is available online and possibly through your physician.

5. Massage therapy: Research indicates some patients with depressive symptoms benefit from massage therapy. A referral to a licensed massage therapy professional is advised.

6. Bibliotherapy: Research indicates that some patients benefit from reading and working with self-help books or workbooks. The Feeling Good Handbook (Burns, 1999) and Mind over Mood (Greenberger and Padesky, 1995) are two self-help books used by many individuals.

7. Post-partum support: There is evidence suggesting that new mothers with depressive symptoms who are closely followed by a public-health nurse, midwife, or other professional experience fewer post-partum depressive symptoms. Additionally, new moms and all individuals suffering from depressive symptoms may benefit from any healthy and positive activities that increase social contact and social support.

8. Mild exercise and physical/social activities: Even if you’re not up to vigorous exercise, you should know that nearly any type of movement is an antidepressant. These activities could include, but not be limited to, yoga, walking, swimming, bowling, hiking, or whatever you can do! In the same exercise study mentioned above, 71% of the teenagers in the mild exercise group experienced a substantial reduction in their symptoms of depression.

9. Other meaningful activities: Never underestimate the healing power of meaningful activities. Activities could include (a) church or spiritual pursuits; (b) charity work; (c) animal caretaking (adopting a pet); and (d) many other activities that might be personally meaningful to you.

The preceding list is adapted from a tip-sheet in our book, “How to Listen so Parents will Talk and Talk so Parents will Listen.” See:

John and his sister working on their positive emotions.

Peg and John Singing at Pat's Wedding