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teens

By Britt H. Rathbone, MSSW, LCSW-C

Therapists often struggle when they meet a teenager who is reluctant or downright refuses to engage in treatment. The self-assuredness and biting sarcasm of an angry adolescent sometimes provokes an authoritative response in the therapist that leads to a disintegrating treatment relationship. So, how do you turn this around, build a connection, and get results?

When it comes to adolescents, we know that teen-adult relationships can be a powerful influence on teen behavior. Clinical social workers Britt Rathbone and Julie Baron pulled together some of the research that proves both the importance of the therapeutic relationship in teen interventions and some of the qualities that are found in the most effective alliances. They’ve also identified some pitfalls—selective use of skills and lack of motivation, for example—and presented ways to deal with each.

Inconsistency

Last week we presented a round-up of research that illustrated how important respect is to teens, and suggested that adolescents learn respect by receiving respect. But developing the ability to both experience respect for the adolescents we work with and display that respect in effective ways does not always come easily. While there are teens we naturally develop fondness for, there are also many who we find irritating, triggering, or even repulsive.

The need to be valued by others is universal (Kurzban & Leary, 2001; DeCremer & Mulder, 2007). While demonstrated differently in different cultures, it is a fundamental human need, and it is required to establish a secure sense of self. It is the fuel that feeds our drive to find a sense of purpose in our lives and to form attachments and connections with others. Without expressions of respect, we cannot know the value in ourselves or the value in others. Imagine how empty we would feel without this.

When it comes to helping our teens achieve success in their academic, social, and future professional lives, it has been proven that relationships with significant adults matter, and that as adults, it’s on us to develop a positive working alliance with youth. But how are we to truly know if our relationship is on track? And if it’s not, what do we need to do to improve it?

As an educator, you probably feel, at least sometimes, totally depleted and stressed. The demands of your job are herculean, and in meeting them you are accountable to administrators, the strategic plans of your school system or organization, state laws and standards, national laws and standards, parents, and your students. Perhaps the best argument for attending to and strengthening your relationships with your students is a putatively selfish one—your own well-being.

There is a growing disparity in academic achievement between boys and girls—with boys, specifically boys of color, underachieving. In response to this widening gap, Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley (2013) studied relational teaching approaches and found that positive relationships between students and teachers ended obstructive, resistant behavior and increased student engagement and willingness to complete assigned tasks.

It has been proven that the strongest indicator of success in therapy is the quality of relationship between the client and the therapist. So when it comes to teens, it is not surprising that a positive working relationship is correlated with improved therapeutic outcomes. In these instances, while it’s unclear whether the engagement in therapy and improved outcomes are a direct result of the relationship, or whether effectiveness leads to the positive relationship, it is clear that the relationship matters.

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