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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Bullock

Working with Teens: More Play. Less Advice

Teenagers experience a lot of stress, expectations, and pressures from school, friends and family. They are asked to adjust to a world that likes to stereotype them: “Those hormonal, brooding teens’, or they are objects of research: “The teen brain is in a growth spurt which makes impulse control difficult.” But do we really see teenagers as who they are? Do we hear them? Do we understand their pain and anxieties coming of age in today’s uncertain world? And do we need new tools for supporting them to grow?

With over 25 years in practice as a social therapist, I have worked with hundreds of young people and their families. Group therapy is my primary modality. I am not focused on deficits, diagnoses or fitting in. Rather my teen groups support young people to develop social and emotional tools while actively building our lives and growing together.

Here are some tools I have found to open doors and reach adolescents. Relationships vs. self-focus, wellness vs. illness, creativity vs. managing behavior. Over the years the young people have taught me to have an open mind, patience and courage. I have had to give up my pull to be the expert, to teach lessons, to invoke my authority. Teens roll their eyes at advice of any kind, especially when it’s about managing depression, anxiety and problems with their parents or relationships. Teens like to test, provoke and challenge adults and I have come to enjoy and play with their provocations. As you will see in this narrative of a typical night at my teen therapy group, there is no censorship and no authoritarian reaction:

Client A: Hey there's a new group member. Hi!

New client: Hi.

Client B: How do we want to welcome our new group member?

Client C: Let’s come up with a unique introduction.

Client D: Like what?

Client E: What do you think, Jenn?

Me: Not sure…. what do you all think?

Client A: OK, let’s say our name, age, school and sexual orientation.

Client B: What if I don’t know mine?

Client C: That’s cool; we don’t have to know it here.

Later on in the group…..

Client A: Hey guess what? I’m back together with my girlfriend. Are you guys mad at me?

Client D: Yes, but we love you anyway!

New Client: Wow! We’re allowed to talk so freely here?

Client C: Yep. But Jenn gets antsy if she thinks we’re mean to each other. I need help with job interview skills, I need to get a job and don’t know how.

Client E: OK, lets create a job scene. What about a strip club?

Me: How do we want to do this? How does group feel about that suggestion?

Group: Lets do it!

Client D: OK let’s pick our roles. [Group proceeds to play out a job interview skit. Raucous laughter ensues, wild ideas about a strip club, and actually some good tips on getting hired for a job].

Client E: Jenn are you disappointed in us for talking sex?

Me: Not at all.


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