Counseling the Resistant Teen
Fear Leads to Resistance
Fear of man is the primary reason that teens resist counseling. This is revealed in a variety of ways, but some of the most common are:
In order to be prepared to encounter a resistant teen, it is helpful to gather data from the parents before you begin meeting with the teen. It takes some digging in to their history in order to get an overall view of the teen. Teens are often unreliable historians because of their limited perspective and resistance to counseling.
Here are a few questions that are important to ask the parents:
Have there been any major changes in her life recently?
Has she had trouble like this before, or is this a new problem?
Has she ever been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder? Is she medicated? Ask for details.
How well does she cope with school, peers, church life, hobbies, sports, etc?
Is there anything going on in your marriage or home life that could be troubling her?
What behaviors are you most concerned about? (Defiance, isolating herself, mood swings, suicidal, substance abuse, sexually acting out, etc.)
The parent's perspective on these types of questions gives you a good starting point when approaching the resistant teen. With this kind of background, you will know better what direction to go in your initial discussions. That will be critical to building some trust.
A Resistant Teen
Here is an example of a counselee that was initially resistant to counseling. Ahead of the initial session, the mother told me that this teen was failing in school, angry and defiant with both parents, isolating herself from the family, and she had told a teacher that her mother hit her (which was true, resulting in a CPS investigation, which led to the counseling referral.)
This 14 year-old girl walked in to my office, looked around as if to take note of some Christian themed decor, and before she took 2 steps she pronounced "I am an atheist". She looked surprised when I invited her to have a seat as I told her "that's ok, I look forward to getting to know you, and I was one until I was 30 years old."
Behind what she meant to be intimidating and off-putting to this biblical counselor, I could hear the fear. She clearly hoped I would be offended and excuse her from the session. Instead, I invited her to tell me her story.
She talked of troubled relationships at home, insecurities at school, conflicts with peers, and insistence that at age 14 she feels quite ready to be emancipated. Her reasoning for rushing her independence is, she stated, to “get away from the people who are causing all my problems.” She told me that she does not need counseling, and that she only needs to be rid of her parents. This unearthed a long story of family dysfunction and trouble on many levels.
I listened, interjecting heart-probing questions, and listened some more as I allowed her to tell me what is troubling her. She eventually broke down in tears and I was able to ask her if she knows about the gospel. She said yes, because she has been in church most of her life. She told me she remembers Awana verses from years past, and has always attended Sunday school. And then she admitted that she is not really an atheist, but “I was hoping you would be mad when I said that and then I would not have to stay in counseling.”
The Gospel Breaks Through Resistance
By the end of this first session, we were able to begin the process of seeking God’s Word to address her fears. We began with a basic teaching about the fear of man...what it is and how to address it. Galatians 1:10 gave us a good starting point.
"For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ." Gal 1:10, ESV
This led to a discussion about the details of the gospel, which she understood intellectually but admitted she is not certain she really believes it. Because she had shared some of her story, we could start to discuss how her story fits in to the story of redemption found in her Bible.
She had softened to the counsel, I believe, because we were able to get right to the heart issues. Because I had the background from the parents, I was prepared to address her fears and give her hope. The fear of man is a very relatable issue because it is common to all of us. We began to talk about the ways it manifests in people's lives and I briefly shared some of my own struggle with it so that she would see me as a mentor more than an authority figure. The beginning of a potentially fruitful journey together began that day. We did not get to every discussion needed to address her struggles, but we did get to the gospel and she was listening.
The gospel breaks the barriers of resistance with teen counselees.
Psalm 34:4 " I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears."
Join the Conversation
What other causes of resistance have you experienced in discipling teens, and how did you address it?
NOTE: a version of this post first appeared on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog.
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