When we work with adolescent clients the referral and initial appointment are often made by a parent or another responsible adult. From my experience and clinical practice, I have found that:
Parents usually seek counseling services for their children because of misbehavior or a conduct problem that has negatively impacted familial relationships and schoolwork.
However, suicidal attempts, trauma, depression, anxiety symptoms and potential eating disorders are other common reasons for others to refer youth to psychotherapy.
Building the Relationship with an Adolescent Client
It wouldn’t be difficult to make a list of the noticeable dramatic changes in behavior that are commonly seen during this phase. They include increased time spent with peers, rebellion against parental rules, engagement in risky situations, etc. Adolescence is a difficult time of transition, characterized by personal crisis and subsequent internal and external transformations. Teens may be affected by numerous issues, as emotional turmoil and ambivalent needs, characteristic of this phase, could be considered normative to development.
Unique characteristics of the teenage brain
A good starting point for parents is education about the rapid changes taking place in their child’s brain during this period of development.
“The last part of the brain to connect is the frontal and prefrontal cortices, where insight, empathy and judgment are controlled,” according to Jensen (2015).
This explains mood swings, the inclination to make “bad decisions,” and the lack of empathy that adolescents show in many situations. By understanding that the adolescent’s brain has not reached a sophisticated level of cognitive control, parents can become more patient with their child, focusing on constructive approaches.
The good news is that if parents apply effective interventions with consistency we are more likely to see positive results for the adolescents and others involved in the process.
Here are some strategies for parents that have shown successful outcomes:
- Develop a close relationship with your child and model effective communication;
- Set a proper example;
- Offer frequent words of encouragement;
- Point out what they do right, being generous with praise;
- Help them focus on their strengths and build self-esteem;
- Replace shame and punishment with positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior;
- Pick your battles by distinguishing what is important to address and what you can let go;
- Provide discipline with logical consequences.
An adolescent’s self-concept will influence the success of their transition and their social development. Beneath the apparent aggression and defiance on the surface, there may lie a substantial amount of emotional pain, fear and lack of confidence. Make sure to pay attention to the following indicators of increased risky behaviors, such as self-harm and suicide:
- Expressions of hopelessness for the future;
- Repetitive threats;
Strive to maintain a continuous presence in your child’s life from a healthy distance. In this way, you can get to know their world.
Working with the Adolescent’s Environment
As discussed, adolescence is often a time of emotional chaos. The adolescent often feels confused as they seek an identity. They often wish to break away from family. They care deeply about fitting in with peer groups. However, this is also a potential time to have many friends, dreams, and plans. It is a time to explore and enjoy life without the many responsibilities of the adult world. It can be seen as a time of trial and error, with unlimited possibilities and a long future ahead. It is a phase of huge transformation, and an opportunity to differentiate/individuate and transition to a bright future as an adult.
Jensen, F. E. (2015). The Secrets of The Teenage Brain. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/jan/25/secrets-of-the-teenage-brain
Dowshen, S. (2015). A Parent’s Guide to Surviving The Teen Years. Retrieved from
“Social Development During The Teen Years”. (2014, May 13). Retrieved from
About the Author
Nelida Louden is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist at Well Clinic in San Francisco.
According to Nelida, “Trusting our potential for growth and capacity for constructive change is the first step toward long lasting healing”