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10 ideas for working successfully with adolescents

There are some people who just love working with adolescents and those of you who do will, I guess, already ‘know’ most if not all of these 10 ideas and already be implementing them in your practice.

1. Assume that adolescents have a good reason for being with you.

It is our job to find out what that good reason might be. And remember it is very often not the same as the referrer’s reason; emphasise the ‘you’ in ‘how will you know that talking together today has ended up being useful to you?’.

2. Start by assuming that adolescents have their own good reasons for their life choices

Adolescents who meet professionals often already feel much criticised by the adult world in relation to their life choices and people who feel much criticised almost invariably step into practices of ‘self-protection’ in the face of criticism. So start by assuming that adolescents have their own good reasons for their life choices. You can ask ‘I guess you had a good reason for doing things that way?’ Clients will then either explain their ‘good reason’ or, sometimes, will respond with ‘no actually’.

Either response can provide us with a useful platform from which to build forward in the conversation. The question has to be asked from a ‘good will’ position; adolescents are particularly adept at picking up adult ‘bull-shit’.

3. As far as possible work within your client’s frame, staying centred on what they want.

Working with a young person to ‘get adults off my back’ can often be easier, and indeed lead to the same outcome, as trying to persuade him or her that a behaviour change is required. When we are working with them to achieve ‘adults off my back’ then we can be perceived and experienced by the young person as genuinely helpful to them – with luck. The work might even become fun!

4. Stress that adolescents do not have to answer any questions that they would prefer not to…

…they won’t anyway but this way even silence can be viewed as cooperation with the work. Trying to ‘get’ young people to talk makes it too easy for them to ‘defeat’ us. All they have to do is to stay silent. Even a silent client may well be thinking useful thoughts in response to our questions and is more likely to be doing so if they are not having to invest all their energy and effort in the ‘refusing to say anything battle’.

5. A young person yawning may just be tired. Try to resist assuming the worst.

6. However adolescents respond just try to keep the conversation going

Try to focus, as Elliott Connie always reminds us ‘on the next question’. Nothing that happens in the session is predictive of whether the session will prove useful. The only way that we can ever know whether a conversation has been useful is when people return and answer the question ‘so what has been better?’.

7. Adolescents are by and large like the rest of us!

We all like to be complimented as long as the compliments are genuine, fit with the adolescent’s preferred view of self and have ‘no strings attached’. ‘Strings attached’ compliments are of course overt manipulations and adolescents are particularly good at spotting them.

8. Try not to be put off by ‘don’t know’.

It may be that the young person needs time to think, or the question is not clear, or the adolescent has not been asked that question before, or that the question is just difficult. If we always assume that clients are giving of their best then when the client responds with ‘don’t know’ then it remains our job to come up with a more fitting question.

9. If the adolescent is struggling to respond to the ‘best hopes’ question we can stress how important an answer is to help us to avoid ‘wasting your time’.

Only an answer to the ‘best hopes’ question can help us to really try to ‘get this right for you’. Adolescents can be intrigued by an adult who values their time (it is often not their experience) and interested in an adult who is working so hard to ‘get this right for you’. Adolescents more often seem to experience adults who require them to fit into the adult world so this is often an unusual and welcome experience for them.

10. An hour sat down talking with an adult is not much fun.

30 minutes or even less might work better. We can even ask ‘how long can you stand talking with me for?’ They might even laugh in response to that question!

And here is one more idea:

11. Suggest that adolescents might like to bring a friend to the next session.

Since the friend is less likely to be caught up in the particular battle that your client is having it really does seem to be easier for them to be incredibly sensible. Friends really do seem to believe that going to school, studying, having good enough relationships with parents are all sensible things to do and their view point can be explored, neutrally of course, during the course of the session.

And just one more:

12. ‘Right for you’ is a really important phrase!

Naturally ‘saving face’ is important for everyone and perhaps particularly so for adolescents and so ‘inclusive questions’ become really significant, ‘so if you were to go back into your history class how would you know that you were going back in the way that was right for you as well as right for your education and your future?’. ‘Right for you’ is a really important phrase!


This blog post was adapted from a Facebook post written by Evan.

You can find out more about BRIEF by visiting their website.


© 2019 Evan George. All rights reserved.


About Evan George

Evan George is a founding partner in BRIEF, the UK’s leading Solution Focused training, consulting and clinical organisation. Evan is the author of three books on Solution Focused practice and has been invited to present the approach throughout the UK, across Europe and as far afield as Singapore, New Mexico, South Africa, Abu Dhabi, South Korea and China.

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One Comment so far:

  1. Mark Adams says:

    “How long can you stand talking to me for?” Love it. A bit of humour can go a long way.

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