Young People Up Close

Working with adolescents

When things go wrong

Turning mishaps into therapeutic opportunities

The fire alarm goes off in the middle of the session.... The room is double-booked.... I'm late because of traffic.... Someone's moved all the furniture.... The young person must go immediately to be vaccinated....

I work as a school counsellor and, from time to time, practical things go wrong. Of course counsellors prefer to see young people at the same time and in the same room every week. Counselling training teaches the importance of consistency and, for young people whose lives have been chaotic, consistency is vital. So I try to minimise the likelihood of these things happening by always getting to the room early, keeping up to date with whatever's happening in school, warning young people about changes and so on. But from time to time practical things do go wrong and the way the counsellor reacts is of huge interest to the young person.

"I'm afraid your room's not available because there's an exam going on this week. Did no one tell you?"

The young person is watching. If I throw up my hands in professional horror, cursing under my breath, glaring at the poor messenger and, in all sorts of other ways, indicating my disgust, the message is that untoward events like these are catastrophic and that the untoward things happening in that young person's life will also be catastrophic. But if I allow that things do go wrong, that they're not ideal but - hey - we'll cope, then the message to young people is that they too can cope. It may be unfair and annoying but we won't need to panic, we won't need to lash out. Okay, so sometimes we have to meet in a different room which is untidy, a bit cold and not entirely sound-proofed - big deal! We can make this an interesting rather than a problematic experience. After all, it's our conversation that matters, not the room in which we have the conversation.

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It's easy for counsellors working with young people to attract positive rather than negative transferences. Counsellors come to seem like parents who do care, who do have time, who do understand. Unlike real parents, they don't have to quarrel with young people over bed-times or computer use or getting homework done on time. Because of this idealisation, counsellors have to develop a capacity to disappoint young people, to be ordinary rather than perfect. They have to make clear their inability to wave magic wands or change a young person's basic circumstances because, after the apparent wonders of counselling, life will still be unfair, things will still go wrong, people will still die. It may be inevitable that young people will idealise their counsellors for a while but, as soon as the time is right, counsellors have to step gently off their pedestals.

Things that go wrong are therapeutic opportunities, therefore. They demonstrate a counsellor's inability always to control the environment and they demonstrate the way he or she reacts to this, adapting thoughtfully to whatever's happened or vengefully acting out a whole stack of pent-up feelings.

 

Nick Luxmoore is a counselor at King Alfred's College, in the UK.

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