Parents have a well-known goal of keeping their children safe while they grow up and explore the world. The parents’ job is to protect, while the children’s’ job is to explore. Naturally, these opposing tasks can create tension. As tension mounts, changes begin to take fold. During early adolescence in particular, teens tend to turn away from their parents, where their attention is focused inward on their own fascinating, yet possibly overwhelming, changes.
Adolescence has long been documented as a difficult period due to conflicts with parents and other authority figures, increased risk-taking behaviors and fluctuations in mood. Common adolescent challenges around conflicts with friends, academic pressure, poor body image, sexual confusion, family discord and a variety of other life domains often produce stress, anxiety, overwhelm, and apathy. These hallmark adolescent challenges, in conjunction with a slew of others, such as disturbance in self-image that includes decreased self-esteem and increased self-consciousness, suggest that a large portion of teens are vulnerable to emotional states and behaviours that produce significant negative consequences.
To set things straight, adolescence is a time of immense change. It is a time of much physical and psychological change, identity formation, self-absorption, and preoccupation with peer approval. Most parents feel like failures during this time of change, as they can feel shut out completely, impotent, and misunderstood. Adolescence in many ways is a period of cutting bonds and breaking free. In our society, teenagers feel pressure, particularly from fellow teens, to distance themselves from parents, when in fact; it is a time when they most desperately need a home base.
Fortunately, adolescence is time-limited. By late high school, most teens are stronger and the so-called ‘winds’ are dying down. However, for some, without help, the loss of wholeness, self-confidence, and self-direction can last well into adulthood.
Abandonment of True Self
With puberty, girls and boys face enormous cultural pressure to split into false selves. The pressure comes from school, magazines, music, television, ads, movies, and most notably, peers. Teens face a dilemma: they can be true to themselves and risk abandonment by their peers, or they can reject their true selves and be socially acceptable. Sadly, it is more often the case, particularly for girls, that they choose to be socially accepted, opting to become who they think they are supposed to be. The result is often that teens stop thinking: “Who am I?” “What do I want?” and start thinking instead: “What must I do to please others?” This splitting of the self and resultant identity conflict can result in even further disorientation, depression, loss of wholeness, decreased self-confidence, and self-direction.
Self-Esteem and Resiliency
An integral part of my work with teens centers upon that of authenticity. Authenticity is an ‘owning’ of all experience, including emotions and thoughts that are not socially acceptable. Since self-esteem is based on the acceptance of all thoughts and feelings as one’s own, teens often lose confidence as they become disoriented from who they truly are with the changes they are experiencing. In many ways, teenagers go through a process of ‘disowning’ themselves. Enormous losses are suffered when teens stop expressing certain thoughts and feelings.
Surface behaviours, such as anger outbursts, oppositionality, anxiety, sadness, irritability, etc., need to be understood in terms of the deep structure. For example, as a parent, try to keep in mind that arguing may be serving as a way to maintain a connection. Through guidance, I help teens to get in touch with parts of themselves, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, that can help them restore a sense of wholeness and clarity of what they are experiencing in their fast-changing lives.
The extent to which one approves or disapproves of their self can have far reaching implications, including affect, cognition and behavior. Conversely, higher levels of self-esteem can result in a host of positive outcomes associated with multiple domains. Specifically, teens with higher self-esteem perform better in school, exhibit better mental health and more positive overall functioning and are less likely to suffer from internalizing problems such as depression, negative body image, and disordered eating patterns. Such positive outcomes signal the importance of working on developing an individual’s belief in themselves during the course of counselling.
By believing in oneself to a greater degree, one is more apt to have greater resilience when faced with a challenge. Simply put, resilience is the ability to come back strong, healthy or successful after experiencing an unfavourable event. All of us love to know we are accomplishing things, achieving our goals, and making strides. After all, it is high self-efficacy (belief in our ability to succeed in specific situations) that drives major performance factors, such as goal-setting, expenditure of effort, and persistence.
To be clear, I view the therapeutic relationship (aka helping alliance) as the foundation of my work with teens. In fact, research on the working alliance suggests that it is a strong predictor of counselling client outcome. I am naturally drawn to discover in others where their strengths lie. I truly believe that every individual has the capacity for growth and development. The therapeutic relationship, for how I define it, is characterized by heartfelt compassion, committed support, concrete action plans and ongoing accountability. It is a connection that can help enable teens to navigate, make sense of, and better understand who they are during such a stormy period of change. Together, I strive with my teen clients to develop hopeful visions for the future, establish challenging, yet realistic goals and devise action strategies that facilitate ongoing growth and positive change in every area of their life from relationships to academic performance to self-esteem.
In counselling teens, I adopt a flexible approach that enables me to draw from various theoretical approaches, such as Positive Psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and Narrative Therapy to meet each individual client’s needs. Three guiding values that I practice in both my personal and professional life are: genuineness, honesty, and respect. It is a two-way street, in that what I hope to generate within my clients, I aim to model for myself as an individual and a professional. Through honest and meaningful conversations, identification of self-limiting beliefs, fears, obstacles and challenges that are taking a hold of a client is one way that I help to bring to light in a teen to realize their full potential.
Something I truly believe in and bring to each counselling session is the following guiding principle:
It is not the difficulties themselves that define who we are as an individual. Rather, it is how we respond to difficulties/challenges that helps to define and shape who we are.
While it can be very important to define a problem and explore it, I find that it is equally, if not so, more important, to identify and help draw upon the skills, qualities, experiences, and knowledge a teen has that can help them to get through their current situation, and possibly, future difficulties down the road. Each of us have strengths, whether we are aware of them or not, that enable us to succeed in many different spheres in life (e.g. academically, recreationally through various hobbies, personally, relationally, etc.).
During adolescence, inevitable challenges and difficulties are apt to occur in response to the immense psychological, physical, and developmental changes that take place. Making an effort to get in touch with our emotions, thoughts, and true identity, while developing coping skills and naturally, resilience in the process, are all facets that I believe are underlooked and undervalued in our society. I aim to help teens explore their identity as an individual outside of a problem they may be experiencing.
- Branden, Nathaniel (1995). The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem. Bantam
- Grencavage, L. M., & Norcross, J. C. (1990). Where are the Commonalities Among the Therapeutic Common Factors? Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 21, 372-378.
- Martin, D. J., Garske, J. P., & Davis, M. K. (2000). Relation of the therapeutic alliance with outcome and other variables: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 68, 438-450. doi: IO.I037//0022-006X.68.3.438
- Myers, J. E., & Sweeney, T. J. (2008). Wellness Counseling: The evidence base for practice. Journal of Counseling & Development, 86, 482-493. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6678.2008.tb00536.x
- Pipher, Mary (1994). Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls. Random House, Inc