Using Values in Therapy with Teens

It isn’t surprising that we’re under the illusion that we own our time. People tend to talk about the future as if it’s a physical thing, something promised to us. Adults tell young people that what they’re doing in the present is simply preparation for an outstanding future career. Studying helps them get into the right university, volunteer work looks good on a résumé, and extracurricular activities will show a future employer that they’re well-rounded. Young people get so much reinforcement for preparing for the future that they grow into adults who live for the future; meanwhile, the seconds of each day evaporate.

And when they aren’t pulled to the future, young people are subjected to many valueless influences in the present moment, such as materialism, media, and negative peers. And peers often reinforce behavior that boosts status in the short term but has long-term negative consequences, like insulting teachers. Amidst this chaos and confusion, young people need to find their way, but how?

All young people want meaning and vitality, even if they aren’t able to speak about it. Of course, what constitutes meaning and vitality varies from person to person. It also varies depending on the stage of life.

But, in general, research suggests six activities that promote vitality: connecting with others, giving, being active, embracing the moment, taking on challenges, and caring for oneself (Aked, Marks, Cordon, & Thompson, 2009; Ciarrochi, Bailey, & Harris, 2014).

A value statement makes some activities more rewarding and others less rewarding, depending on whether the activity is consistent or inconsistent with the value (S. C. Hayes et al., 2001). For example, a young woman may view learning Spanish as incredibly boring. However, if she relates that task to her value of traveling, it may become reinforcing, or at least a good deal more bearable. She in turn creates a values-based rule for herself along these lines: “I love to travel. Learning languages will help me do this.”

Contrast this with a girl who’s relatively neutral about learning Spanish and loves playing challenging games on the Internet. When she takes a Spanish class, she discovers that studying for it takes a lot of time and interferes with playing games. She thinks, this class is keeping me from playing, and she starts to find the class increasingly aversive.

In ACT, a value is formally defined as a chosen quality of action. It is constructed through language and our interactions with the world, is evolving, and is intrinsically reinforcing (S. C. Hayes, Strosahl, et al., 2012). That’s a rather dense definition, so let’s break it down into its parts, with a focus on young people. Here are some additional ways to define values:

1. A value is chosen.

When asked, “What do I choose to care about?” we don’t need to have the ultimate answer to this question, but we do need to have some form of an answer, which we can refine and build upon with time.

2. A value is a quality of action.

A value is like a direction on a compass. We engage in valued actions, but we never obtain values, just as when we travel on our planet, we can never “obtain” west, no matter how long we travel west. This is good news because it means we can’t permanently lose our values. No matter how many times we fail to go west, each moment offers another opportunity to change direction and head west. Values are the same; we can always choose them as our direction. For example, a young person might say she values dancing and helping her younger brother with math. These values are described using verbs. They are actions. She can’t always be dancing or helping her brother. Indeed, sometimes she might avoid dance class or be unhelpful to her brother. But the inconsistent actions of these values don’t negate her ability to start again the next day and say, “I choose to value dancing and helping my brother.”

3. A value is not an outcome.

Values are about how people want to act, not about the outcomes they want to achieve or the way they want others to act toward them. So “being respectful to my teacher” is a value, whereas “getting respect from my teacher” isn’t. We can’t make people respect us or give us what we want, but we can act in ways that make those outcomes more likely.

4. A value is not a goal.

One way to understand values is to contrast them with goals. Values can never be permanently achieved, but goals can be ticked off a to-do list once they’re done. For example, learning is a value, whereas getting a good test score would be a goal. Being caring is a value, whereas getting support from others is a goal. That said, goals can be helpful for putting values into play.


5. A value is constructed from language and interactions with the world.

When we ask young people what they care about, we have to understand that the words they come up with may not point to a “true” answer. They can’t know what will give them meaning and joy in three months’ time, let alone three years’ time. Our role is not to quiz them relentlessly until they give us an answer that matches our definition of values; rather, it is to help them explore and construct their own values language. In the DNA-V (Discoverer Noticer Advisor – Values) model, this arises from discoverer skills, because values come from our experience in the world.

6. Discussion of values is held lightly.

Values talk is just a tool to get young people moving and interacting with the world so that their life has more meaning. Think of their words around values as being more or less useful, not more or less true. If a young boy says, “I love writing stories,” but never writes, then the words aren’t particularly useful. They are words without action. The next action is to either help him write stories or to help him discover other values that can encourage him to interact with the world right now.

7. Values are dynamic.

Values are fluid and can change in form and function. Consider a girl who says she loves learning to dance. This value might be linked to broader values, such as learning, being challenged, or perhaps being active. She may love dancing in eigth and ninth grade byt gradually lose interest and cease to love it in the eleventh grade. Assuming that she's genuinely disinterested in dance, we might help her to identify other activities that satisfy her values, as dance once did. Perhaps she'd like to try our activities like learning to surf or challenging herself at public speaking. Ceasing to love dance doesn't mean she ceases to love learning, being challenged, or being active. The way values are expressed can change as young people develop and learn from their experience.

 A value might also change in relative importance. For example, a young person may graduate from high school and spend a year living the value of being adventurous and exploring new places; ten years later, when he has young children, this value may be less important, and he may instead highly value keeping his loved ones safe and healthy. Similarly, a girl may value playing games with her dad when she's nine years old but decide it isn't important when she's fourteen years old.

8. A value is intrinsically reinforcing.

A value is something you do because it's important and meaningful, because it's enjoyable, or both. It isn't something you do because some arbitrary social agent wants you to do it or because you want to avoid feeling guilty. Consider the statement, "honesty is the best policy." A young person could follow this rule just to please her mom and not follow it when her mom isn't around. In this case, following the rule isn't intrinsically reinforcing. Many values start out in just this way. Over time, however, the rule may develop into a genuine value. This young woman may discover that being hohnest is personally important to her and helpful in building close relationships. Then she may behave honestly even when her mom isn't around, and even when she could actually get away with dishonesty. She has come to value honesty.

That said, it's important to be aware that behavior is almost always under multiple sources of control. There are probably few behaviors that are purely intrinsically rewarded or purely compliance oriented. For example, a boy may engage in physical exercise both because he feels he should and because exercise is enjoyable. Or he may study history to avoid getting in trouble with his dad and also because the subject is enjoyable at times.

For more about values work with adolescents, check out The Thriving Adolescent by Louise Hayes, PhD, and Joseph Ciarrochi, PhD.


Aked, J., Marks, N., Cordon, C., & Thompson, S. (2009). Five ways to wellbeing: A report presented to the Foresight Project on communicating the evidence base for improving people’s wellbeing. London: New Economics Foundation.

Ciarrochi, J., Bailey, A., & Harris, R. (2014). The weight escape: How to stop dieting and start living. Boston: Shambhala.

Hayes, S. C., Barnes-Holmes, D., & Roche, B. (Eds.). (2001). Relational frame theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition. New York: Kluwer Academic.

Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and commitment therapy: The process and practice of mindful change, 2nd edition. New York: Guilford.

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