“Forty-four? the teenager asks. Yes, that’s my age. At least it is for another few months. That’s what I tell my young clients, even though everything inside me is itching to assure them that I am 18 with 26 years of experience. Although adolescence is a time most of us remember as stressful, awkward, and confusing, it is also a period of life that we often wish to recapture. We do so because it was a time of adventure, discovery, and exhilaration. The mixture of feelings we experienced as teenagers is often present in the treatment of adolescents.
Providing therapy to angry or mistrustful adolescents who do not even want to be in our offices, much less talk, is one of the most challenging scenarios we face as Christian counselors. It is not one, however, that we encounter infrequently. Many teenagers come into our offices reporting that The school thinks that I should be here, or My pare not’s say I need to come, or The court says I have to. How do we engage these young people? Where do we begin?
An Angry Young Man: Johnny was one such young person I encountered very early in my career. I had just begun my first job in the field, and Johnny was a middle-schooler who had been referred to services by his school. He was described as a very troubled, angry, and non-communicative young man who tended to be a loner and was given to bizarre acting out. Reportedly he would regularly make all sorts of noises during class and frequently got out of his seat and wiggled about the classroom floor like an eel. My supervisor explained that Johnny had already gone through three other therapists and that I did not have to accept him as a client. However, since I needed to build up my caseload, I was free to do so. Johnny arrived at our first session wearing jeans, sneakers, a black T-shirt, and a partially opened black leather jacket. Plopping into a chair, he pushed himself into the corner as he straightened out his legs. He dropped his chin to his chest and flipped up the collar of his jacket, which he then zipped closed with an angry jerk. Any little shift of my head to catch some glimpse of his face was met with a countering shift of the client’s posture. This kid was not allowing any contact.
All my attempts at establishing rapport bounced off Johnny like a brick wall. Listen, I said to him, I know you do not want to be here. I am sure the last thing you wanted to do was run over here as soon as school let out. He lifted his head but dropped it again, shaking it from side to side. We sat in a painfully long silence, and I began thinking more about how Johnny might be feeling right at that moment. I also began paying more attention to what I was feeling about sitting there and how I might have felt when I was his age. I thought about what I did know about Johnny and how he might have handled those feelings if remaining in defiant, Impassive silence was not his number one reason for being. This is boring! I blurted out Johnny grunted and turned away. I made an exaggerated movement to stay in his view. He turned further and I got out of my chair, saying I could not take any more boredom and leaned against the wall to gain his view. Johnny turned away, head down, his chin back inside his jacket. I got down on the floor in front of him.
I shifted back and forth a few times, checked my watch, and got back in my chair facing him. Look, I do not know about you, but just sitting here feels like detention. Johnny’s head popped up, curious and mistrustful. Getting out of my chair and onto the floor makes it a little better, but it also makes me feel stupid and probably has you thinking I am pretty weird. There is got to be a better way of spending our time together. If you do not want to come back next week, Ill tell my supervisor that this isn’t going to be productive, and you won’t have to return. Johnny sat up straighter. But here is your situation.
The school has told your parents that you have to go for counseling, and your parents have made it clear that they are going to follow through with the schools direction. You do not have to come here again, but that means your parents will take you to another service that has been recommended, and you will have to keep replaying this until the school is satisfied that you have gone for counseling. That can be here or nowhere else. If it’s done here with me, that’s fine, but I’d rather not spend another hour like this. If you do not want to talk about home or school, and then bring something in we can talk about…music, books, comics, magazines, cards, if you like. So how about next week? Do you want me to tell my supervisor to recommend other services to your parents, or do you want to plan to come back here and bring something we could talk about or do next week? Johnny shrugged. Does not matter. Is it true you like BMX riding? Do not they have magazines or catalogs on them? Yeah, I got a ton of them. You mean I could bring them in here to read? Sure, but if you do not want to talk about them bring in a few for me. I do not want to do charts with you sitting here.
The next week Johnny showed up with about five magazines. I began learning about such things as the gear ratios and the various alloys used in the manufacturing of BMX bikes. I also discovered what excited and disappointed this incredibly bright young man. Three weeks later, we were walking toward my office to begin our session. Johnny was moving quickly and ahead of me. We have got to talk! My mom is really starting to tick me off! Over the next several months, I continued to learn more about BMX bicycles, and we got a lot of productive work done, the positive effects of which were reported from school and the home.
Drawing on our own Creativity: Across my professional career I have matured (hopefully) as a counselor through continued training and experience. I have learned to incorporate and refine joining, reframing, and paradoxical techniques to negotiate the types of challenges presented by teenagers. The reason, however, I chose to share this case from my first month in the field is to help us recall the intuitive and creative use of ourselves in helping others that was there when we were first drawn into the field. Before we had theory and training, we had ourselves, our sensitivity to others, and our openness to the spirits leading.
I strongly believe that counselors must be informed by theory and prepared by training, but these should enhance and not replace those natural gifts which previously existed. In working with clients, especially those like Johnny, it is very important not to be rigidly constrained by one’s own therapeutic model. Ultimately, counselors need to be directed and constrained by the therapeutic relationship their knowledge of themselves and their clients and not by rigid allegiance to or dependence upon a given model or theory.
It is also helpful to re-frame ourselves as well as our clients. When we make the shift from viewing these situations as those in which we must overcome resistance to those in which we must increase client readiness, we make an Important attitudinal shift one that will reinforce our roles as facilitators and will help protect us from viewing our clients as adversaries. Find a counselor for suggestions.
It is also important to find something in our clients that is likable and interesting and delve into their interests. Most Importantly, we need to be willing to join our clients on their own ground, to enter their territory. This may involve assuming a one-down position from time to time, but isn’t that Implicit at a certain level in all our therapy? That is, how can we expect to help our clients if we do not first learn from them?