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Understanding Differences & Creating Trust

Working with Adolescents


This article is looking at general as well as Gestalt literature to identify various developmental issues, needs as well as ethical challenges faced while working with adolescents, their families and the social set up. Particularly it is taking into consideration Gestalt field perspective, exploring various family as well as social dynamics that adolescents encounter while relating with their parents and their world during this phase of life. It is looking at what is needed for a healthy successful outcome in the developmental process of young people, also taking into account those field factors responsible for maladaptive adjustment socially as well as psychologically in young people. Lastly, it is considering the dialogical and phenomenological approach in Gestalt therapy while working with adolescent clients, making a comparison with a different methodological approach.    

Adolescence is the stage in a persons’ life span between childhood and adulthood. Working as counsellors with adolescent clients, we are faced by a developmental transformation that is challenging the young person at all levels: physiologically, as the young person develops physically, hormonally and sexually; cognitively, by acquiring new ways of thinking critically and of processing information; and psycho-socially, with changes in belief system, attitudes, self-perception and relationships as part of a socialization process (Geldard & Geldard,1999, pp.2-5). Fundamentally, the psychosocial development during adolescence resides in the re-organization and the re-integration of the environmental field (Wheeler, 2001, p.12), according to newly discovered dimensions of self. The central aspect in the process of counselling adolescents is then supporting the quest for self-discovery of the young person, while reconsidering the values and culture of parents and family, as well as the search for integrity in identity formation, while choosing among a complexity of newly arising experiences and aspects of self-hood (Berger 2001, p.435). Thus, since, as Wheeler contends (2001, pp.10-11), this developmental phase is essentially a field condition, the counselling process needs to take into consideration what are the challenges arising from the client’s social and family field enhancing growth and well being in the young person, and those that aggravate hazardous risky behaviours and psycho-social maladjustment.

In fact, it is at this time that relationships with parents undergo destabilization and a sort of de-idealization of parental infallibility, causing potential conflict to arise within the family, as well as diminished trust, closeness and reliance towards family support. Although researches prove, as Collins & Laursen describe (2004, pp.337-338) that the relationship with parents remains most influential, shaping important decision making processes, McConville (2011, p.179), clearly points out that what adolescents needs in relation to their parents is a “redistribution of power”, and a” transformation of boundaries”. As presented by McConville (1995, pp.5-6), this developmental phase challenges the needs in the young person of reorganization of relationships and interpersonal contact boundaries, as well as the adolescent relationship to self. In the Gestalt developmental model, McConville (1995, cited in Singer 2001, p.180) elaborates three significant factors to take into consideration while counselling young people, significantly contributing to the formation of a newly emergent self in the adolescent. First of all, attention needs to be given to the process of “disembedding”, meaning to the process of differentiation from the family of origin and the child’s field experience; secondly, an increasing capacity for “interiority”, meaning the capacity for self-organization supported by self-reflection and awareness, needs to be developed so that the adolescent shifts making meaning from external introjected references to an internal mode of feeling and experience; and thirdly the counselling process needs to help the young person consolidate the “integration” of inner and outer changes within one’s life space (McConville, 2001, p.38-291). In Erickson 8 stages of life span development the fifth psychosocial stage of human development “Identity versus Identity Confusion” states that if adolescents are not encouraged in taking the chance to explore new roles following a path of positive self-affirmation, they remain confused about their identity, and may experience a personality crisis later in life (Powell, 2006, p.77). Thus counselling adolescents needs taking into consideration a individuation process that requires the young person to strive for autonomy, having enough freedom to test the limits and boundaries of his/her environment, as well as testing life with a risking behaviour, including various forms of rebelliousness, (destructive or self-destructive behaviours may be also part of it), in order to establish self-differentiation and identity formation.

Fundamentally what young people need is to feel valued and on an equal bases of power in the interactions with their parents. They need to feel respected while exploring emancipating behaviours necessary to their individuation process. On the contrary, parents and families may try to control and limit the young person in an attempt to protect them from dangerous and risky circumstances, and the young person may experience this control as a form of domination (Collins & Laursen 2004, pp.332-333). The counselling process in order to successfully help the outcome of this interaction will need to invite the young person as well as the parents, to discover a healthy mutual communication able to respect, approve and foster the young person autonomous behaviour, at the same time able to clearly define limits and boundaries (Geldard & Geldard, 1999, p.34). Additionally, McConville (2011, pp.180-183) outlines how parents may need to be supported in developing competent supervision, able to negotiate with clarity and decisiveness, at the same time encouraging the young person responsibility and accountability. Other factors that needs to be encouraged while working with adolescents and their families for a positive outcome during this developmental stage, as prospected in the research of Collins & Laursen (2004, p.333), are: interpersonal warmth in the family characterized by disclosure especially with mother and shared activities with father; clear expectations from parents for appropriate mature behaviour and social responsibility; building of trust and intimacy that foster a spirit of consultation, conversation and an increased expression of feelings within the family. Thus, ultimately a family who encourages a rational and supportive interactive communication with teenagers provides a necessary degree of self-esteem and self-confidence to enable them facing the challenges of developmental exploration, decisions making processes and life choices in a positive and healthy way.

This is also a time when the young person while distancing and differentiating, is pushing against the constraining boundaries of the familiar environment, finding new support and refuge in peer groups (McConville, (2001, p.30). This aspect may pose various ethical challenges to the counselling process. Nevertheless, although there is a stereotyped myth that peer pressure may have negative influences on the young person, in reality peer groups can have a constructive value. Peers interactions, first of all, provide a new environment and spaces different from the family environment, where the young person is free to experience independence that is fostering individuation by promoting exploration of interrelationships (including interrelationships with the opposite sex), as well as various kinds of social interests, and participation (Collins & Laursen, 2004, pp. 445-447). Secondly, changes in personal appearance, such as ways of dressing or hair style, indicators of certain group affiliation, and creating apprehension in parents, can actually be seen as a starting point of exercising personal choices (Geldard & Geldard, 1999, p.35). Thus, in a counselling process, the choices of one’s peer-group, although at times manifesting in anti-establishment rebelliousness or various forms of risk-taking behaviour eliciting social and ethical concerns, can be considered part and parcel of modern rituals of identification as well as socialization processes.  

In fact paradoxically, risk-taking behaviours, including antisocial behaviour, that many adolescents find themselves involved with, are ways of taking control and overcome a sense of powerlessness within the family, and within society. These behaviours exacerbate into socially destructive as well as self-destructive forms (such as vandalism or juvenile delinquency) when there is a lack in family stability, or when there is a history of abusive relationships within the family, lack of communication, social isolation and neglect. For example, researches confirm that divorce and remarriage, quite prevalent in today’s society, is one of the sources of maladjustment, disorganization and disruption in young people’s life (Collins & Larsen, 2004, p.349). It is here also where suicidal behaviour associated with hopelessness in completed suicide (Gould, Shaffer & Greenberg, 2003, p. 19) can be seen as part of a continuum of an unsupportive environment where a reactive impulsive emotional style during stressful events, is predisposing the young person to conditions such as depression, anxiety, disruptive disorders, self destructiveness and risk behaviour (King, Richkin, shwab-Stone, 2003, p.45). Thus rather then looking at the problematic of adolescents from an individual point of view, Gestalt field perspective encourages an exploration of the young person’s field, supporting healing and change by working with awareness in clearly establishing the connection of adolescents’ psycho-social stress and vulnerability, to trauma, neglect, abuse or underlying family issues.

Consequently, fundamental to Gestalt practice, and of utmost importance while working with adolescents, is establishing a successful dialogical relationship that enlarges the communication skills of the therapist and the ways of making contact with adolescents much beyond a purely verbal approach, incorporating non-verbal skills and techniques. Here it is important using the young person constructs and own personal experience, also in the form of metaphors, in a way that is heightening the joining and the separation within the therapeutic relationship itself, enhancing the counselling communication. For example, McConville (2001, p.293) clearly uses the young client’s construct of “skateboarding” as his preferred platform from which starting to give new meaning and a new organization to his sense of self, his abilities and his world view, creating a total change in client’s self-perception and consequently in his behaviour. The dialogical exploration also increases self-awareness in the young client, by learning to “speak reflectively about themselves” (McConville, 1995, p.106). It also helps the individual to feel validated and confirmed, as the therapist is supporting the young client with unconditional regard and undivided attention, helping making sense of the bigger picture in their lives, learning to establishing new boundaries, as well as encouraging the exploration of new aspects of behaviour. Additionally the dialogical relationship in itself, may help the young person modelling new ways of being and relating in the world, learning to take responsibility for one’s feelings and actions, as well as learning ways to communicate assertively by owning one’s experience and being available to communicate one’s own feelings to others with respect (Fodor & Collier, 2001, p.223). Thus verbal and non verbal dialogical strategies used to externalise and express thoughts and feelings, may help to broaden the young person self-definition and self-regard, achieving cohesiveness of thoughts, feelings and behaviour, reducing symptomatic behaviour by promoting acceptance, awareness, expression and resolution of negative or painful feelings and emotions.

Next, Gestalt phenomenological exploration is particularly helpful in working with adolescents to fundamentally change negative attitudes and feelings towards one’s own body, significantly helping to shift the immediate body experience in itself (Blaney & Smythe, 2001, p.208). For example is common for many young people who suffered from traumatic experiences, to exhibit numbness in various parts of their body, or emotional withdrawal, massively avoiding or suppressing feelings through frozen reactions or rigid body postures. Other times, acting out behaviour, impulsivity and restlessness seems to prevail. Additionally, many adolescent girls may seldom experience a peaceful or accepting coexistence with their hormonally changing body.

Here the phenomenological exploration may be leading to creative strategies to help the young client to further get in touch and express feelings; to explore unaware parts of self; to understand roles within the family or to externalise, thought processes, family dynamics, feelings or believes. Of great importance is the Oaklander’s (1991-1993) phenomenological principle that the therapist needs to enter the adolescent’s world gently, looking at the presenting problems, while respecting various defence mechanisms. Phenomenological exploration also activates symbolic imagery, helping adolescents’ self- reflective capacity. Working with symbols help the externalisation of internal content high lightening polarities and the availability of choices, since the translation of images into words externalises client’s internal world, revealing insights, secrets, coping strategies, contact styles or body postures, repairing psychological damage (Gil, 2006, pp.74-77). The phenomenological approach may also be very helpful in dealing with shame, enabling the therapist to receive those parts of the client that may seem impossible to be received (Lee, 2001, p.262). Thus the use of a phenomenological process is essential in helping the young person to shift from victim identification, fragmentation of self, anger or dissociation, to a sense of self-awareness, self-empowerment and control.

Now, looking at an experimentation with a young person, I’m first of all taking into consideration the importance of the very first impact, especially in this case where the young person had a natural tendency towards silence and monosyllabic dialogue. Not only I took great care in my attending behaviour, showing deep interest towards my young client, as well as communicating deep respect and great care through my body posture and other non-verbal cues, as well as dialogically expressing respect and confirmation, but I also made sure not to allow too much silence to fall in between us. I think that the fact that I took such a great care in establishing the relationship mainly by showing high level of interest for his life through a warm contacting style, made my young client feel more and more comfortable in self-disclosing. By our third session he revealed the deep secret of habitually drifting in an internal or imaginative world where he could contact higher energies and spiritual feelings of unbounded love, at the same time causing a yearning eliciting suicidal ideations. Consequently, after this disclosure we could successfully unpack negative perceptions about self, as well as the negative meaning he was projecting over this internal experience. By the time I did offer my young client to consider a different perspective to the spiritual experience of meeting higher feelings, he was more than ready to elaborate on this possibility, thus being able to create and give new meaning to his experience, and consequently to his life.

Next, doing a comparison, it can be clearly observed that behavioural and cognitive behavioural strategies (CBT) mainly support understanding, challenging and changing self-destructive beliefs, and cognitive schemata, specifically targeting behaviour (Geldard & Geldard, 1999, p.155). The therapy follows first, the identification of the problem behaviour; secondly the observation of the behaviour; thirdly, its evaluation; and lastly is setting the punitive or rewarding consequences for the behaviour (Geldard & Geldard 1999, p.160). The adolescent is free to think about alternative beliefs until ready to explore changing self-destructive behaviours. The therapy also helps in identifying steps towards anger management, helping the adolescents externalise the problem, understanding personal triggers, while focusing on personal power for choice (Geldard & Geldard, 1999, p.169-171). However, although behavioural and cognitive behavioural therapies have been successful to varying degree when working with adolescents’ anxiety, depression, oppositional disorders, or with difficulties in interpersonal and social skills, it has been proven that the application of their modalities achieves greater results when used in conjunction with other creative and expressive therapies, than when used just on its own (Gil, 2006 p.101).

In conclusion, the counselling process needs supporting the main quest of self-discovery as well as a re-organization of the life space of the young person. Relationships with parents and family need to be explored, and the needs of the adolescent to feel independent and of being in charge of his/her life need to be respected and fostered in the interactions within the family. Parents may be encouraged towards understanding and accepting the young person differentiation as well as individuation process while maintaining competent supervision encouraging accountability and responsible behaviour. Peer affiliation, although manifesting as rebellious antisocial behaviours, may play an important role in the process of individuation and socialization. Antisocial behaviour is the outcome of instability, lack of communication, neglect or abuse within the family system, creating high levels of stress and psycho-social maladjustment in the young person. Consequently it is important that the counselling process maintains a strong field perspective, and a well established dialogical stance, using verbal as well as non-verbal approaches, within a phenomenological base that fosters self-awareness, self-reflection and healing. Although CBT offers a methodology to effectively deal with self-destructive beliefs and negative schemata, it seems to achieve better results if used in conjunctions with other creative and expressive modalities. Thus the Gestalt approach offers a very rich tapestry of dialogical contact, as well as many different forms of therapeutic intervention, that creatively and respectfully supports young clients to discover boundaries, individuality and difference, while integrating their experiences at many different levels, physically, within their bodies, as well as emotionally and psycho-socially.



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