3 Basic Counseling Skills for Working With Teens
Working with teens has its own unique set of challenges and often times as providers we’re relegated to positions of listener, mentor, and guide, regardless of whether or not we’re actual therapists or counselors. I have known many teachers who build authentic relationships with their students and in turn their students feel more comfortable talking to them about their problems rather than the school therapist. For educators, it’s important to know that there are limitations to the counseling-type conversations one may have with a youth, while at the same time understanding that it’s important to have some basic counseling skills to help facilitate the authentic relationship. Thus, these basic skills presented here are applicable to anyone who works with youth; from the math teacher who has a connection with a particular group of students, to the licensed therapist who sees youth in individual and/or group psychotherapy. They are basic enough so that the novice can learn and practice them, but important enough that even skilled psychotherapists will benefit from their implementation.
1) Deep Listening
Of course, oftentimes when a youth has an issue and needs to connect with an adult, listening on the adult’s part is a core ingredient for whether or not the youth feels heard. The issue is, many adults don’t practice basic listening skills and youth often are left feeling unheard and not understood, if not completely written off.
Deep listening is the practice of bringing one’s awareness to the present moment with an attitude of non-judgment—a type of mindfulness practice. The difference between deep listening and mindfulness meditation, for example, is that in meditation the object of our awareness is often our breath, body, thought process, and sometimes even just experience itself. In deep listening however, the object of focus is on the conversation you’re having, and the experience of the person talking to you. The benefit of this skill is that the teen that’s confiding in you will feel heard, listened to, understood, and as a result your relationship will grow stronger. While practicing deep listening it’s often skillful to be aware of our own bodies and to portray interested, curious body language (appropriate eye contact, potentially leaning in, and an overall orientation toward the teen talking rather than a dismissive one).
Practice Tip: Find someone you feel comfortable practicing deep listening with; a friend, colleague, or even teen if you feel comfortable enough to implement this practice in vivo.
With your body: While they speak to you, orient your body towards them, maintain a physical posture of interest, and maintain appropriate eye contact.
With your mind: Keep most of your awareness on the story/narrative of what the other person is disclosing. Every once in a while make sure to check-in with your breathing; feeling your breath in the body to ground yourself in the present moment. Staying in the present moment will help you stay more present, and it will increase your presence—the felt sense that you’re listening, from the perspective of the teen.
Deep listening is a very basic, but critical counseling skill and you’d be surprised how many human beings don’t practice it.
2) Skillful Questions
Asking questions can be a great way to engage teens in lively discussion and help build self-awareness. Questions also show that you are curious and have an interest in the lives of the youth you’re talking to. There are a number of different types of questions and all have a time and place. The key is to check-in with your gut about when to use which question. None should be over-relied upon and of course as in regular conversation questions should be interspersed with reflective statements, affirmations, and other ways that show the youth you’re listening.
You might remember open-ended questions from a previous post where I briefly overviewed OARS—open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective statements, and summarizing, all basic counseling skills often employed in motivational interviewing and therapy.
Open-ended questions often result in a more thorough response on the youth’s part as opposed to close-ended questions, which often are answered with either a yes/no or one word question. Here are some very basic examples of open-ended questions:
“How are you feeling right now?”
“How did the fight between you two start?”
“What is it about him that you really like?”
“What could get in the way of graduating high school?”
“How do you think your actions might affect your family?”
Open-ended questions are skillful because they get youth talking more. And for those of us working with teens, we know that sometimes the goal is just getting the teen to open-up; the more talking, the more likely the youth starts to feel comfortable, the deeper potential for the youth to confide in us when it really matters (i.e., a stressful situation, etc.).
There is of course, a time and place for close-ended questions. It’s just better to start with open-ended questions because it gives the teen a chance to reply with a lengthier response and guide the conversation.” As stated above, close-ended questions are often answered with one-word and sometimes simply a “yes” or “no” (yes/no questions are a form of close-ended questions). While it’s best to lead with open-ended questions, the benefit of close-ended questions are that it may help youth who are really uncomfortable talking to you at least engage in the conversation. Some basic close-ended question examples are:
“Are you feeling upset right now?”
“Did the fight start because she upset you?”
“Do you like that he’s a nice person?”
“Was it exciting to graduate high school?”
“Do you think it’ll be difficult for your family to deal with what you did?”
Again, if a youth isn’t opening up you don’t necessarily want to push to early in the relationship. Close-ended questions can be a great way to give uncomfortable youth a way to still engage in a conversation with you. I wouldn’t ask too many however. If I get too many one-word responses after another, I will most likely change the medium through which I relate to the youth (i.e., probably stop talking and try to engage them in some sort of game like cards if I have time).
Meaning making and Socratic questions get youth to think about the deeper meaning, mechanism, or assumptions of a situation. The term “Socratic Questioning” is often referenced in Cognitive Therapy but has also been used in Existential and other forms of counseling as well. It comes from the classical Greek philosopher Socrates who was known for questioning the make-up of reality. Such questions might be:
“What might that mean?”
“What’s the evidence to support that idea?”
“What would an alternative scenario be?”
“What does that say about you?”
Note that all of the above also fit criteria for open-ended questions, however it’s necessary to give these types of questions there own category given how important they are and that they often influence youth to go beyond the surface level and engage in some form of either critical thinking or introspection.
In reality, a healthy conversation with youth probably has all of the above forms of questions (open-ended, close-ended, and meaning-based). It’s recommended to use open-ended with meaning-based questions the most, with close-ended for follow-ups for the sometimes uncomfortable youth that doesn’t want to divulge too much but still wants to be in conversation with you.
Let’s take an example of a teacher noticing that a student hasn’t turned in some assignments and has appeared checked-out in class. The teacher asks the student to talk after class and the student agrees.
Teacher: Tell me about what’s going on with you. (not technically a question, but could be and is open-ended)
Student: I don’t know. It’s just hard to talk about (subconscious self-protection).
[Student is showing some resistance/self-protection, a close-ended question might help get him/her going]
Teacher: Is it difficult to discuss because you think I might judge you, or that it will reflect badly on your grade? (close-ended)
Teacher: let me clarify that I do care about your well being, and do want you to do well in this class, and if there’s anything I can do after hearing what’s going on with you I will. Is that okay? (clarifying here-and-now feelings toward client with close-ended question)
Student: Yeah, thanks.
Teacher: What’s going on?
The above is a basic example of the natural flow of a conversation. What’s key is to get a sense of where the student is in the moment and not push too hard. That’s why closed-ended questions can be great prompts/follow-ups if open-ended and/or Socratic questions don’t garner much response.
3) Goal setting
Goal setting is a great way to get teens to think about their future. It’s great to get youth to think both about long-term and short-term goals. Since I’m a big dreamer, I often engage in big vision-like activities with youth. I’ll at times ask, “What’s your wildest dreams of success for yourself 10 years from now?” This can be a great question that can lead to some concrete long-term goals. I once had a business mentor who would talk about Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) as a way to get us thinking about the larger organizational goals we needed to be successful. She’d then “take us down the mountain” with 5-year, 4-year, 3-year, 2-year, and 1-year goals that would contribute to the BHAGs. While it may be a little overwhelming for a youth to map out 5-10 years, year-by-year, it’s definitely skillful to help them develop the overall long-term vision, devise a specific goal, and then develop short-term goals that can contribute to their long-term goal.
Developing the Vision—Long Term Goals
The way I like to help youth develop a vision for the future (especially when it comes to success) is through a meditation I learned while working with the Mind Body Awareness (MBA) Project. This is called the 10-year meditation and basically involves a youth being led on a guided visualization 10 years into the future to envision what “success” would look like. If the youth you’re working with feels comfortable enough to engage in a meditation with you, use the following script (and if not, these prompts can be used conversationally as well):
Close your eyes if you feel comfortable and sit in a comfortable position. Start by taking a few breaths in and a few breaths out … notice what it feels like to breath in your body … notice all the sensations associated with breathing … the expansion of the belly or chest, the touch of the air on your nostrils … use the breath to bring your mind into the present moment … simply breathing in, and breathing out. Next, I want to invite you to think about yourself 10 years into the future. If you’re 16 you’ll be 26, if you’re 17 you’ll be 27. I want you to think about what success is. Think about yourself as a huge success. What does that mean to you? Where are you waking up every morning? In a house? An apartment? What type of job do you have? Do you have family? If so, how many children? What does happiness look like for you? Look around and really experience yourself as a success. How do you feel? All the while you’re breathing in, and breathing out. When you feel comfortable, you can slowly open your eyes if they were closed and come out of the formal meditation.
If you have a meditation bell it’d be good to use it at the start and finish of the meditation. Also, as for the script above, you’d of course want to pause for sustained periods of time and not always be talking so the youth can actually envision what you’re suggesting without having to more too quickly to the next prompt. You can also tweak it to be 5 years, 2 years, or any amount of time in the future. After you’re done with the meditation, talk with the youth about their experience and try to distill one or two specific long-term goals. Even if their goals are big dreams, the above meditation is a great way to get them thinking about the future.
Short-Term Goals of SMART Too!
Of course, it’s important to develop specific short-term goals to help youth achieve longer, bigger goals in achievable steps. One method for doing this is to help youth develop Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound (SMART) goals. These would be the goals that would be developed for year 0-1 in the BHAGs example above. They get us taking steps (sometimes baby steps) on the path for our larger goals.
Let’s apply the SMART framework for a teen that has a medium-sized goal of graduating high school (her big, long-term goal is to be a firefighter so she knows she needs to graduate high-school). She’s a senior in high school and wants to graduate in June with the rest of her class, but is struggling to keep up in her current classes.
In order for her to graduate on time she’s going to need to develop some short-term goals to meet. For example, she’ll probably want to attend every day of school, complete all of her homework, study for all her tests, and communicate with her teachers for help or any necessary extensions.
Let’s review her first goal of attending school everyday within the SMART system:
Is this SMART? Yes. It’s specific, measurable (by attendance records), achievable (she just needs to commit to showing up), Realistic (given that she needs to be in school regardless, it’s probably realistic) and Time-bound (she only has a limited number of days left before the senior year is over).
You can apply the SMART system to all of the above goals and they would probably pass. What’s critical is that your teen chooses goals that pass the SMART test because when he or she reaches those goals, there’s more of a likelihood that s/he will create other short-term, SMART goals that lead to that grand vision. That’s where our guidance as adults comes in. While it’s great for youth to dream big, it’s better for the caring adults in their lives to apply the SMART framework for shorter-term goals so that they actually achieve them.
It’s good to create both short-term, SMART goals, and long-term, big dream goals, with the youth you work with. This will enable a healthy dose of dreaming, hope, and visioning, with the balance of learning how to choose and evaluate shorter goals that can actually point them in the direction of success.
Deep listening, skillful questions, and goal setting are just three, simple counseling skills that can help you build authentic relationships and contribute to positive outcome with the young people you work with. If you’re interested in learning more about working with teens, check out our courses: Teaching Mindfulness To Teens, Trauma-Informed Care for Professionals Working with Youth, and the Advanced Trauma-Informed Care Toolkit for Youth Workers.
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