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How to counsel clients through teen years

Counseling teens through challenging years

For some teens, the changes and social pressures they face during their development may be too much to handle, leaving them feeling like no one understands what they're going through — perhaps even they don't understand. In response, some may react in startling ways, including acting out toward others or injuring themselves.

Josephine Ellsworth, LPC, an instructor for the Master of Science in Counseling program at the University of Phoenix Southern Arizona Campus, says these reactive behaviors are a cry for help, and a plea for acceptance by parents and social groups, adding that counseling can help. For counselors trying to help teens through these trying times, there are a variety of useful tactics, from bringing parents into the counseling sessions to illustrating to the teens themselves that this, too, will pass.

Involving parents in the treatment is important for changing behaviors, and helps parents not only understand their teen, but gain perspective on what they're going through. Sometimes, however, parents can exacerbate the situation.

"They may not agree on the severity of their child's behavior," says Ellsworth. "One parent thinks it's indicative of an underlying serious issue, while the other believes their child is merely acting out and will grow out of it." She says when parents can't agree on the problem, it's less likely they'll agree on the remedy — and the teen's behavior may continue or worsen.

A function of counseling is to help children see themselves into their future.

In such a situation, Ellsworth says it's critical that teens have "that place" where they feel acknowledged and supported. Unfortunately, it's not always at home, where triggers may exist for detrimental behavior. She says that "the school community is a great place for that to happen."

The vast majority of students wind up in counseling in a school setting through friends or teachers, according to Ellsworth, who also is an academic counselor in private practice and has more than a decade of school counseling experience.

"A function of counseling is to help children see themselves into their future," she says. She'll ask them questions such as, "Do you want a happy life?" and "Do you want to be around people who love you in ten or twenty years?" She finds that, by pushing teens to imagine where they want to be when they're adults, they can understand how their current behaviors impact their future.

If formal counseling isn't a viable option, whether due to cost or availability, school psychology classes can provide teens with a path to understanding their feelings and behavior. But Ellsworth says many high schools don't offer such classes, a missed opportunity to help adolescents who need to learn that, often, what they're going through is common.

"It's just normal separation stuff, getting away from parents and defining themselves and learning that it's OK to want to be different," says Ellsworth. "It's important for teens to know that 'you're not always trapped in 7th grade hell,' that you grow up. We just have to love our children through it, whatever it is."

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