3 Tips for Working with Resistant Teens
Working with teens can be a very fulfilling and rewarding endeavor. It can also be very challenging. Teens can test boundaries and become resistant to counseling interventions, classroom curriculum, or even towards us as adults personally. Ultimately this has the potential to make our work lives more difficult.
But what if there was a way to engage resistance for both the benefit of the teen and yourself?
Whether you’re a teacher who’s overworked and underpaid and constantly dealing with resistance from your class, or a therapist who specializes in working with trauma, resistance shows itself in many forms and it’s in the best interest of both you and the youth you serve to practice skillfully engaging resistance. A skillful approach to resistance helps the youth become more aware of what they’re doing (the resistant behavior) and why they’re doing it (insight) and helps you prevent burnout and maintain a model of self-care.
Below are 3 simple, yet powerful practices for engaging resistant young people. This is simply an introduction and these concepts are expanded upon in the MBSAT Curriculum training.
1) Alter you View of What Resistance Actually Is
Oftentimes resistance is looked at as something negative; something that needs to be eliminated in order for your work (teaching, therapy, etc.) to be able to happen. And oftentimes we as youth providers fall into this trap because it can be very uncomfortable when a youth becomes resistant. We want to “just get on” with our curricula, counseling, etc. The issue with trying to eliminate resistance is that it doesn’t address the root cause of the resistance and or lead to ability for that youth to gain insight into his or her resistant behavior.
The first practice is to alter your view of what resistance actually is. Rather than thinking of resistance as negative behaviors that you want to eliminate, think of resistance as a protective mechanism. Whenever a youth becomes resistant, consider that the youth is in some way protecting her or himself. This takes the focus away from the idea that the youth is “doing something to you” (i.e., an ego-based interpretation of what’s happening) and towards the idea that the teen is in some way protecting him or herself. I like Jim Bugental’s (the late prominent psychotherapist) analogy of the “space suit” in his book Psychotherapy Isn’t What You Think (and I encourage everyone, even youth workers who aren’t therapists to check out this book as it has many gems in it). He analogizes resistance mechanisms (like defense mechanisms) as necessary psychological structures that we need to survive. Just like an astronaut needs a space suite to survive in space, we all need our protective mechanisms to survive psychologically. And youth especially, who are still developing physically, mentally, and emotionally, need their space suites. When you engage this practice you will automatically approach the teen in a less reactive, demanding, and skillful way.
2) Manage Yourself In The Moment
Viewing resistance as a protective mechanism is the underlying paradigmatic lens to approach resistant behavior, but in the moment you may not remember this or you may be triggered so quickly that you have no time to think about it. In those moments, what’s most important is to manage your own experience so that you don’t say or do something extremely unskillful or regrettable.
How do you manage yourself in the moment?
The best practice I’ve come across is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being present to your experience (thoughts, emotions, sensations, etc.) with an attitude of non-reactivity. That is, when anger or frustration or anxiety arises inside of me as a result of a young person presenting with resistance, rather than quickly reacting to those emotions and saying or doing something I might regret, I take a few breaths, notice the experience, and let it ultimately pass away. Then I respond (rather than react) to the situation.
A great way to practice mindfulness in the moment is to sit in a comfortable position, close your eyes (if you’re comfortable with that) and focus your awareness on your breathing. Notice the breath as you breathe in; notice the breath as you breathe out. Focus your awareness where it’s easiest to sense your breath (i.e., the nostrils, the belly, etc.). Whenever the mind wanders away from the breath, simply redirect back to your breathing without judgment.
This simple practice will increase your ability to be present and non-reactive to internal stimuli (frustration, discomfort, etc.) when resistance arises in your work setting.
3) Use Reflective Statements and Questions
After you’ve managed yourself in the moment, it’s time to actually do or say something to the youth. This is what most folks want to learn about but trust me when I say those first two practices are equally if not more important: They contribute to speaking with a calm, non-demanding, non-disrespectful tone, and tone says it all when we are trying to engage resistant youth. It can be the difference between settling down a youth or group of teens or contributing to an eruption of further resistance. However, we do have to say or do something, and a basic (but still very powerful) way to intervene with resistance is to use reflective statements and questions.
What are reflective statements and questions? They simply get the youth (or whoever you’re talking to for that matter) to reflect on themselves in some way, to potentially gain insight into what’s happening for them in that moment. And that’s what our true goal with resistance should be: That the teen her or himself learns something about him or herself when it comes to resistant behavior. Here are a few examples:
Situation 1: Your teaching core curriculum (math, English, etc.) and a youth becomes resistant to your curriculum in the form of being the class clown, disrupting your class.
Possible Reflection (potentially ask the youth to talk to you one on one and not in front of the class): “You seem to have a lot of social power. When you make a joke, everyone listens to you and laughs, and stops listening to me, the teacher. Let me ask you a question, what do you think the purpose of you making jokes is? And I’m not trying to chastise you. I really am curious about what you think the purpose of your joking around is.”
Situation 2: A youth is resistant to talking about certain content (i.e., their parents) during a counseling session.
Possible Reflection: “I can tell that when I asked you about your parents you didn’t really want to talk about them, is that right? When I asked about them, what type of emotion came up for you? What was going on for you?”
Situation 3: A youth is in your counseling group or class and is extremely disengaged and bored.
Possible Reflection: “It seems like you’re really bored with [insert topic content]. I’m not going to try and talk you into liking something you don’t, but I just wanted to ask, what makes [insert topic content] so boring for you? Humor me with this question and then I’ll leave you alone if that’s what you want.”
Working with resistance is a critical aspect of working with adolescents. We can engage resistance skillfully and help youth gain more insight into their behavior while at the same time practicing self-care. Or we can react unskillfully and most likely make the situation worse and have a much higher potential for burnout. If you love working with young people, remember to view resistance as a protective mechanism (it’s not always about you), to manage yourself in the moment when resistance arises (mindfulness), and to start with non-attacking reflective statements and questions to help the youth become more aware of why they’re doing what they’re doing. This will help you build an authentic relationship and get better outcome, whatever your field is. To learn more about working with resistance, check out the Trauma Essentials Course, which covers segments on working with resistance and traumatic adaptations.
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