Therapist-Adolescent Conflict and Communication Styles

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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  • keisha

    June 25th, 2012 at 11:31 AM

    You know how adolescents are. If they don’t like you and make some kind of connection with you then they are not going to go the extra mile that it might take in order for them to make some real and substantial progress. But if they like you they are going to do whatever it might take to please that adult. That is why it is so important for this bond between the teen and the therapist to be forged as soon as possible, so that there will be that trust and communication there that will allow for that positive change to come.

  • Cole F

    June 25th, 2012 at 3:57 PM

    I don’t know that I could work with these kids who didn’t even want to be there. How are you ever supposed to break through when most of the sit around all sullen and waste my time?

  • N.Taylor

    June 26th, 2012 at 12:12 AM

    Having been taken to a counselor as a teen,I can tell you that simple things like maintaining a welcoming approach while still holding the control is what is required of the professional.Of course the teen client may not be willing for very thing suggested but some basics can go a long way in such a scenario.

  • Anita

    June 26th, 2012 at 4:23 AM

    Just like any other situation that involves adults and kids, you have to show them first that you are in charge, and then when that is established then you can be their friend.

    I think thats where adults often screw up in situations like this is when they go into something trying to be a friend first, and kids this age don’t respond too well to that. They see that as a chance for them to gain the uppser hand because they sense that the adult wants something from them and they will withhold it in order to maintain what they perceive to be a better balance of control for them.

  • natalie R

    June 27th, 2012 at 4:35 AM

    Counselors who work with children have it tough because there are so many barriers that adolescents can put up that can be difficult to break through.
    But I think that if you offer them a safe place to talk and share in a way where they will not feel so judged, then eventually you will be able to make a positive impact in their lives.

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