Adolescents rarely seek psychological help on their own. More often than not, they are encouraged to seek a psychologist or therapist by family members, friends, or teachers. When teenagers commit illegal offenses, law enforcement may require that they attend therapy. Regardless of how they get there, the goal of therapy is usually the same, to improve behavior and emotional well-being. Family therapy interventions for teens are designed to provide an environment that can address not only the concerns of the teens with relation to the family construct but also the individual needs of the adolescent. But getting an adolescent to participate in these sessions can be quite challenging.
The therapeutic alliance or therapeutic bond that is created at the onset of treatment can often dictate the outcome. Therapists who build strong alliances based on mutual respect and cooperation will most likely see more willingness from their clients than therapists who begin treatment with rigid and dictating alliances. To gauge just how communication and alliance influence the outcome of adolescent treatment, Cristina Muniz de la Pena of the Department of Psychology at the University of Albany in New York recently led a study that examined 10 dyads of Spanish adolescent/therapists working together in brief conjoint family-based therapy. The dyads were evaluated for working alliance, dominance, submission, conflict, and competitiveness.
Muniz de la Pena found that the in most cases, the therapists asserted more control than the teens and dictated the communication style of the sessions. This resulted in submissive responses from the teens. The only exception to this was in the dyads with weak alliances. In these cases, the teens dominated the communication and the result was increased conflict and poorer outcomes. These findings suggest that teens respond best when therapists present a sense of control and power at the onset of therapy. But, Muniz de la Pena cautions, too much power can result in more rebellion and competition which can prevent positive progress. She says that teens are brought to therapy in order to transform their lives. “Indeed, some of the most defining life changes take place during adolescence,” says Muniz de la Pena. Therefore, she recommends that therapists work to achieve a sensitive, respectful, and mutually open communication style with adolescents in order to reinforce the working alliance and set the stage for successful treatment.
Muniz de la Peña, C, Friedlander, M. L., Escudero, V., Heatherington, L. (2012). How do therapists ally with adolescents in family therapy? An examination of relational control communication in early sessions. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0028063
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