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While researching for research on how to counsel adolescents with discipline /behavioral problems, I found that all of the authors agreed that adolescents are the most difficult clients to work with in a counseling context. Adolescents already have their own set of problems with growing up, facing biological changes and peer pressures. Children and adolescents with behavioral or discipline problems present a formidable challenge to the most skilled counselors. There have been several strategies and intervention techniques developed on how to engage this group in treatment. There is not a lot of research on how to effectively with this group. This is partly due to the fact that many professional avoid the prospect altogether, preferring to work only with adults and young children. There is also a lack of training in counseling approaches with adolescents (Rubenstein & Zager, 15). Even limited experience with these young people quickly reveals how crucial the therapeutic relationship is to achieving beneficial change in their lives. Little therapeutic benefit can be accomplished in its absence. Dozens of studies have provided evidence of the importance of an empathic therapeutic relationship in achieving positive outcomes in general. The importance of an empathic relationship is also vitally important for defiant and difficult adolescents and is probably the pivotal point that determines eventual success or failure in counseling. Strong counselor and client relationships are based on mutual trust and respect.

The strategies mentioned in this paper come from literature written by a host of well noted psychologists. Young people typically display hostility, defiance and other resistances to treatment. The strategies are arranged under three categories Reaching, Accepting and Relating. Along with these strategies it has also been found that Adventure Based Counseling (ABC) and in particular low-element challenge courses (LECC) has been proven especially useful in working with children and adolescents who are at risk for delinquent behaviors.

If a technique is well executed by the counselor, a positive result can further enhance the relationship. The strategies presented will not work with all clients, in all cases and it is up to the practitioner to determine what is appropriate for a particular client, depending on his or culture, class, context, and developmental level.


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One of the first things to recognize about defiant adolescents is that often they have been deprived of people who can serve as models of how to react and relate to others. The idea of reaching them refers to being able to cross the barriers common to adolescence.

Offer a snack. This is a good icebreaker. Offering a snack can often influence “mouths to talk” and can even give an indirect suggestion of nurturance (Rubenstein, 16).

Avoid desks. Sitting at a desk or even near a desk can maintain the stereotypical view of the counselor as a representative of a hostile, controlling adult establishment. The counselor should sit face to face with client. When there are no obstructions the counselor may be seen as a genuine person.

Allow the client to occupy their hands while talking. Many adolescents have an amazing way of being able to both talk meaningfully and listen intently, even though their hands are busy and their eyes will not meet those of the counselor. Many feel more comfortable being freed from having to establish eye contact and for some, eye contact may not be culturally appropriate (Ivey, 14).

Get out of the office when ever possible and appropriate (Gendin, 186). Just talking can be painfully boring to some adolescents. A change in environment will sometimes stimulate meaningful conversation. The counselor must remember to get permission from the appropriate source and remember the issues of confidentiality.

Be genuine and unpretentious. (Orlinsky, Grawe & Parks 14). To produce more positive outcomes a counselor should be genuine. This seems especially true when working with adolescents, who can detect phoniness and insincerity in a matter of minutes, with amazing accuracy and clarity (Ohlsen, 170).

Show deep respect for the client. Courtesy and consideration should be given to a client at all times, even while he or she is profoundly angry, spiteful, or resentful. Adolescents are often surprised by this kind of courtesy and will often comment on it later. Some good work can be done during time of acting out.

A sense of humor is invaluable for working with adolescents. It has been noted that in many cases, just having a few laughs can shift easily from defiance to therapeutic conversation. Adolescents often appreciate and trust a person who can make them laugh.

Be able to laugh at yourself. Adolescents tend to look differently at adults who can laugh at their own faults. This help them to be seen as real people rather than the rigid, pompous adults that most defiant adolescents are so dedicated to resisting and confounding.

Educate the client about counseling. Explain that counseling can help a person be happier, more popular, and get along in life more easily. Have the client identify how they would like things to be. Illustrate how your work together can help achieve this outcome.

Use a variety of media to allow the client to express what is inside without having to rely solely on verbal skills. Many adolescents respond well to using art in the form of drawing, cartooning, painting sculpture, and collage. A lot can be revealed through this method. Both the client and counselor often discover strengths or talents through this strategy that might have otherwise gone unrecognized.

Avoid taking an expert stance, until the relationship is fairly stable. Question the client from the standpoint of not knowing (Biever, McKenzie, Wales-North, Gonzalez, 15) allowing the client to inform you.

Avoid flaunting credentials to a defiant, aggressive adolescent or group. This can actually create distance and tension. It has been found that counselors often do this to gain control of a session. Respect is usually lost for the counselor. On the other hand if the client asks about credentials it is appropriate to share at this time.

Avoid thinking in clinical labels. When it comes to establishing relationships, it is best to focus on the “person”, (Gendlin, 1) called the person, the “I who looks at you from behind the eyes”. The “I” that he speaks of is the person/client, who should be accepted unconditionally even though their negative behaviors are seen as something in need of change.

Address positive personality aspects. When confronted by a particular resistant adolescent who is not at all interested in counseling, there is helpful alternative to talking about how uninterested he or she is in counseling. One can ask, “Is there a small part of you that is worried about what is happening with you? If the answer is affirmative, and it often is, the counselor can ask, “What percentage of your whole attitude is made up of that part that is worried about you?” Once this is established, the counselor can then address that part directly and begin to work with it. This approach is based on classic ideas found in works by Jung (14/16).


It is important for the counselor to communicate the acceptance of the client. This can be communicated to the client with statements such as “I can sense the goodness in you regardless of your attitudes and behaviors.” Adolescents who have any heard how “bad” they are will be amazed and touched by this approach.

One of the primary difficulties in working with defiant and aggressive adolescents is a situation in which the counselor actually begins to resist the resistant client, even to the point of being resentful toward the client for not improving (Hanna, 16). The counselor can experience a variety of feelings that can range from pity and sympathy regarding the child’s family situation, all the way to hostility, disgust, and resentment. These feelings are generally referred to as countertransference. Stream (1), used more descriptive term called “counterresistance”. The feelings mentioned are fine, but giving into these feelings is unprofessional and confuses roles. The ability to recognized and manage these feelings makes up much of the difference between an effective and ineffective counselor. Here are some techniques that have been found to be of assistance in accepting and avoiding countertransference situations.

Be clear about boundaries of acceptable behavior in a counseling session. Limits regarding such things as physical contact, smoking in a session, and coming in under the influence of drugs or alcohol need to be clarified from the beginning.

Draw the line Violence or threats of violence are not allowed under any circumstances. It is one thing to be accepting, but the physical safety of the counselor must be made a priority. Clients should be informed from the beginning that legal action can be and will be taken in response to violations of the counselor’s policy.

Avoid power struggles. These are almost never therapeutic. If a client is playing games of power and control, acknowledge the game. I the counselor can call the game faster than the defiant adolescent can create it, then productive conversation can ensue. Empathy and patience is the key.

Avoid any unnecessary insistence on being verbally respected. Much of what a defiant adolescent says should be accepted and acknowledged, not matter filthy, vulgar, or disrespectful to the counselor’s so-called authority. The counselor must earn respect. If the counselor does his or her job effectively, respect will come naturally.

Accept flaming anger and hostility as a real aspect of the client’s life. I the counselor is resistant to, disgusted by, or shrinks back from anger or talk of violence, the adolescent will sense this and the counseling relationship; may be compromised.

Validate the client’s perception. Meller (186) noted that people who are denied power tend to be remarkably perceptive. Therefore it is very important to accept and explore an adolescent’s perceptions.

Treat shocking statements with equanimity and instant reframes. Many defiant adolescents like to talk in ways that are intended to be shocking to adults. The instant reframe requires skill and practice but can be highly effective.


How the counselor relates or interacts with adolescents with behavior problems can have a critical influence on therapeutic outcomes. Parts of the problems are recognizing that adolescents will sometimes defiantly reject help and at other times humbly seek it (Church, 14).

A counselor should admit when they are confused or uninformed. When working with adolescents it is important to stay abreast of the evolving youth culture.

Expect a crisis to occur and be ready for it when it does (Liddle, 15). Crisis situations such as being suspended from school, being arrested, or running away from home, routinely occur with defiant adolescents.

Let clients know how much you have learned from their sessions. Be as specific as possible. The counseling process should include the counselor’s willingness to learn and change along with the client, emerging as enriched and fulfilled (Howard, 18).

A counselor should stay in touch with his or her own adolescence. Winnicot (as cited in Church, 14) noted that adults’ difficulty with adolescents stems from their own unresolved adolescents issues.

If another counselor has a better rapport with your client, consider switching. The counselor can not be all things to all clients. The client’s needs are the priority and concern and justify appropriately initiated referrals.

Recognize the limits of counselor self-disclosure. Self-disclosure can be powerful and helpful and seems to be related to the modeling process (Bandura, 177). The rule here is to avoid self-disclosure regarding an issue or incident that the counselor has not yet resolved internally. Another obvious rule is to avoid self-disclosure of anything that you do not want repeated (Berstein, 16).

Do not underestimate the sexual intensity of many defiant adolescents. Sexuality rages in many adolescent boys. Female counselors should be aware that hugs and touching can be highly erotic for many boys. Likewise, male counselors may be targeted for acceptance by adolescent girls dressing provocatively. Counselors should deal with such issues directly by pointing out the behavior simply, honestly, and dispassionately.

If the client is seeking attention, give it. Let the client know that they have your full attention, rather than ignoring behaviors that may be inappropriate. After this, the client can learn to seek attention only at appropriate times.

Develop a naturally confrontative demeanor. Confrontation is a natural and important aspect of working with defiant and aggressive adolescents (Bernstein, 16; Church 14). This demeanor seems to pay dividends when major confrontations become necessary. If confrontation is a natural part of the counselor’s nature, the client will hardly ever question it when it happens; treating it as though it was a part of routine conversation.

With gang members, acknowledge the gang’s therapeutic benefits. Close inspection will reveal that many of Yalom’s (15) therapeutic factors of group therapy can be found in a street gang, regardless of its ethnic or racial makeup. Gangs often give the client a sense of belonging and acceptance.

Adventure-Based Counseling (ABC) and Low-Element Challenge Courses

Adventure-Based Counseling (ABC), and in particular low-element challenge courses (LECC), are group-oriented programs that help participants learn to share responsibility, develop cooperative problem-solving skills, and increase self-confidence and well-being. These outcomes are consistent with the tenets of Adler’s Individual Psychology. Participants in ABC programs experience psychological, sociological, educational and physical benefits that can help improve their self-concept, self-confidence, and well-being (Ewert, 18). ABC programs have proven especially useful with children and adolescents at risk for delinquent behaviors. For example, Liberman and DeVos (18) found that special-needs children with behavior and adjustment difficulties who participated ABC activities in the school system improved their self-concept, decreased their anxiety, and showed an increase in positive attitudes toward school The evolution of Adventure-Based Counseling can traced to the 140s, when Kurt Hahn and Lawrence Holt developed a wilderness program incorporating helping interventions. Low-element challenge course programs, and outgrowth or subset of ABC, are typically shorter in duration, lasting only a few hours. Typical ABC programs utilize high-element exercises or a series of rope-based activities. The relationship between the group leader and the participants is an important aspect of both programs. Leaders attempt to create an environment where the group members work together to solve their own issues, those relating to the challenges being faced, and those within the group structure.

A well trained staff includes individuals competent in the challenges used, committed to the safety of participants, and able to define lessons appropriate to the specific needs of participants. Group leaders regulate the stresses encountered by program participants and must know when to terminate an exercise. A group leader in this instance initiates an activity by describing a task and then framing or staging the element for participants. After the task is completed, successfully or not, the counselor processes the events with the entire group. The purpose of this process is to allow the participants to discuss in detail what they have experienced and to relate the activities to their everyday lives. Counselors who participate in these types of programs must be well trained. If not, the program may result in fun for the clientele, but otherwise offer little or know therapeutic or educational value (Harris, 1).

The goal of both ABC and LECC programs is to help individuals deal with their fears and push them outside of their physical and psychological comfort zones. An important aspect of ABC and LECC is encouragement which is viewed by many Adlerians as being the single most effective tool in changing behavior. Encouragement also strengthens relationships among group members by suggesting that they can be successful in the challenges as well as in life. The process focuses on success and skills rather than focusing on failure or lack of ability. The combination of these two techniques appears to be a natural alliance. Each technique is based upon an equal alliance between counselor and participants and focuses on clients’ strengths rather than weaknesses. Putting these two strategies together provides a potential to create positive change in adolescents, especially those identified as delinquent.


Working with unmanageable, defiant and aggressive adolescents can be a source of joy and hope rather than frustration, but it is important that one genuinely likes adolescents and wants to focus on this age group. Most of the authors found it best to take a theoretically integrative approach, making use of behavioral, cognitive, Adlerian, multicultural and family systems approaches as appropriate. A wide range of counseling modalities should be used when counseling adolescents with behavioral problems. Some adolescents respond best to individual counseling, others to group, and still others seem to do best in family settings. In many cases, a defiant adolescent can benefit from all three modalities. A counselor should not limit himself or herself to one modality. Go with whatever gets the desired results. Working with defiant, aggressive adolescents requires wisdom. Such wisdom includes deep insight into the human condition, self-awareness, dialectical thinking, problem-solving skills, advanced empathy, clinical intuition, proper timing, and recognition of culture and context (Hanna, Bermak, & Chung, 1). It also requires perspicacity in the sense of being able to “see through” deceptions, lies, and manipulations (Sternberg, 10). Although it is not an easy path for the counselor to tread, the lessons learned are remarkably valuable and rewarding for counselor and client alike.


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