Psychotherapy with adolescents

Adolescence is a beautiful period in one's life, but also quite a difficult one. From a psychological point of view, adolescence redefines all the parameters of an individual's life: one's body, instinctive reactions, intellectual capacities, social relations, spiritual aspirations, interests and motivations. Due to the changes that are taking place on all these multiple levels, many adolescents go through a rough and troublesome period, during which they need a lot of care from those who are close to them.

According to Slomowitz (1991), there are three phases of adolescence, spanning from the age of 13 to that of 20+:

  • Early adolescence - marked by a distinctive physical growth and the intensifying of sexual interest; friendship relations become tighter and more solid and a degree of independence from the parents is starting to emerge; moodiness and a fragile self-esteem are typical at this stage.
  • Middle adolescence – Emotions and sensations grow more intense; an increased interest in social and self exploration, with the need of being defined as an unique individual becoming central.
  • Late adolescence – The level of independence is raised even more: many youngsters choose to move away from their parents, find their own income source and even enter long term love relationships.

The passage from childhood to adolescence implies changes on all levels. However, being at times confused and suspicious towards adults, adolescents often reject help and, as a result, they seek refuge in unhealthy habits, in groups involved in risky behaviours or in dangerous actions. In order to prevent, but also to treat these types of choices, psychotherapy for adolescence can be considered a solution: “The task of therapy is to facilitate the healthy maturation of the adolescent, to help him develop a concept of an independent self, with increasing mastery of the integrating part of the personality, which modifies, selects, controls and coordinates inner drives and modifies those in conflict with external reality.”(Teicher,  1959, p. 29).

Some of the risks associated with this age

  • Running away from home -  Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away from home in a year, according to 1800runaway.org. Often-times, adolescents and youths that run away from home come from troubled family environments (47% of runaway / homeless youth indicated that conflict between them and their parent or tutor was a major reason, and over 50% of youth in shelters and on the streets, reported that their parents either told them to leave or knew they were leaving but did not care).
  • Substance consumption / abuse – In order to run away from real problems and to alleviate the pressure put on them from all directions (family, school, peer groups, conflicting emotions and so forth), adolescents often find refuge in substances – from alcohol to the strongest and most dangerous drugs. Their choice is not only dictated by a desire to overtly stand out from the rest, certain emotional imbalances that require assistance almost always factoring into the situation.
  • Eating disorders – Even though they are more common with girls, eating disorders are becoming more and more frequent with the adolescent population of the entire world. The need to look good and having to adapt to a new aspect of the body that is undergoing development raises self image problems in some. Thus, seeking refuge in binge eating or reverting to the opposite and refusing to eat altogether can lead to serious illnesses, sometimes even with the risk of death being a factor to be considered (anorexia, bulimia and obesity).
  • Because the influence of the group is raising in importance in these phases and the opinion of the entourage often becomes more important than that of parents, many adolescents end up in dangerous social contexts. They run the risk of getting abused or involved with behaviours that can endanger their freedom and sometimes even their life.

Other common problems are bullying, learning difficulties, teen pregnancy, abuse but also psychological disorders that have an on-set during the adolescence period.

Types of therapy

Parents and coercive methods used to “bring them on the right path” are not always the solution, and so an impartial aid coming from a therapist that the adolescent can trust is what makes the deciding difference. There are numerous therapies addressing adolescents, regardless of whether in a group setting, in individual sessions or in therapies involving the whole family. For instance, family therapies are especially effective in cases of substance abuse (Robbins, Feaster, Horigian, Rohrbaugh, Shoham, Bachrach et al., 2011).

Art therapy and music therapy are more useful in cases of abuse and depression, when the availability to express emotions through words is reduced. After 20 years of research, Tervo (2001) has shown that classical music can increase the benefits obtained with psychoanalysis and psychotherapy with adolescents. On the one hand, music can help them with expressing negative emotions with more ease (especially rock music) while on the other hand, it helps them to get close to other people and allows them to fantasize about the opposite sex.

Regardless of your child's problems, don't forget that adolescence is a passing period, but the way in which the child traverses it will determine what kind of adult he / she will become. Continue to support your child, and do not hesitate to request the aid of a therapist as a proof of your love for him / her. Even though your child might not identify it as the best solution, one day he / she will thank you.

References

Robbins, M. S., Feaster, D. J., Horigian, V. E., Rohrbaugh, M., Shoham, V., Bachrach, K. et al. (2011). Brief Strategic Family Therapy Versus Treatment as Usual: Results of a Multisite Randomized Trial for Substance Using Adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0025477

Running away from home statistics: retrieved from http://www.1800runaway.org/?gclid=CIuulMaao7ACFQrN3wodpybMWg on 29th of May 2012

Slomowitz, M. (1991). Adolescent Psychotherapy (Clinical Practice). US: American Psychiatric Publishing

Teicher,  J.D. (1959). Psychotherapy of adolescents. Calif Med, 90(1), p. 29-31

Tervo, J. (2001). Music therapy for adolescents. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 6(1), p. 79-91

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