Stories and Solutions in Psychotherapy with Adolescents

By Biever, Joan L.; McKenzie, Katherine et al. | Adolescence, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Stories and Solutions in Psychotherapy with Adolescents


Biever, Joan L., McKenzie, Katherine, Wales-North, Mary, Gonzalez, Roberto Cortez, Adolescence


INTRODUCTION

Therapeutic work with adolescents is often seen as more challenging, difficult, and less fulfilling than work with adults or younger children. For example, Trepper (1991) described working with adolescents as an "adversarial sport" in which the therapist rarely ends up on the winning team. Trepper goes on to say, "Actually, adversarial sport may be too soft a metaphor. Most therapists view working with adolescents and their families as blood sport" (p. ix). In part, this adversarial view of working with adolescents may be due to the cultural view of adolescence as a tumultuous time of raging hormones and rejection of adult values. Therapists, as well as parents, teachers, and other adults, may anticipate that interactions will be conflictual and frustrating and thus approach adolescents with such expectations. It is not surprising, then, that therapists often find themselves at odds with adolescents with whom they are working.

Another source of conflict occurs when therapists assume that adolescents who do not adhere to adult norms of behavior are deviant or pathological. It is all too easy for adults working with adolescents to fall into the trap of urging adolescents to adopt adult norms of behavior. Adults, including therapists, often ask questions with the intention of leading adolescents to the conclusion which the adult believes is correct (e.g., attend school, quit using drugs, remain celibate) while at the same time the adults are stating that they respect adolescents' right to make their own choices in these crucial areas.

Therapists who work in settings where they are expected to enforce rules (e.g., schools) need to make it clear to their adolescent clients which "hat" they are wearing during any particular conversation. Adolescents can be especially sensitive to such behavior on the part of adults as they are often being bombarded from many directions with ideas of how to behave, think, and construct values and priorities. Parents, teachers, siblings, extended family members, and peers may all be trying to influence the adolescent's thinking or behavior. Adolescents may be ambivalent about consulting with adults, especially when it seems likely that the adult will take a rigid stance on issues such as sexuality, substance use, peer and dating relationships, and conflicts with other adults. Thus, adolescents may simultaneously seek and resent adult intervention into their lives. If adults are too directive in advocating values and behavioral choices, the adolescent may become oppositional or simply stop listening, resulting in a conversational impasse.

Such impasses were described by Anderson (1986) as occurring in conversations where each of the participants believes that his or her description or explanation of a situation is correct and tries to convince the others(s). This completion of ideas causes the participants to become increasingly rigid in their own beliefs. Thus, the conversation becomes "stuck" with little opportunity for the development of new ideas or behaviors. A parent/child conflict, when this is the presenting problem, can involve a therapist in an impasse. When therapists try to impose their own beliefs about "healthy" actions or attitudes on adolescents, this, too, can lead to impasse.

The work of Harlene Anderson, Harry Goolishian, and others at the Houston-Galveston Institute (Anderson, 1986; Anderson & Goolishian, 1988; Loos, in press) suggests that the way out of such situations is to approach therapy as a collaborative venture in which new stories or narratives are developed. This approach and other current approaches to therapy which emphasize the importance of stories (Andersen, 1991; Parry, 1991; White & Epston, 1990), are based on the philosophy of social constructionism. Social constructionism suggests that what we know as reality is the result of interactions with others (Gergen, 1985). Thus, meanings, and understandings are fluid, determined by the social world of the person. …

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