How Experiential Therapy Can Get Your Teen Talking

Even for adults, entering into a therapeutic relationship and beginning dialogue about your struggles can be extremely daunting.  So it should shock no one that teenagers will often struggle to engage in traditional elements of talk therapy and psychoanalysis.  Add in the fact that most teenagers attend therapy at the behest of their parents, and one can understand that it can become very difficult to achieve the desired outcomes of therapy.  This is where I believe experiential therapy becomes a vital tool in engaging teenagers who normally may struggle to buy into this process.

Setting Aside the Agenda

As an experiential therapist, I find immense value in finding ways to connect with clients that momentarily sets any therapeutic agenda aside.  Research tells us that independent of the modalities that we choose to use with our clients, the quality of the relationship between client and counselor acts as a far stronger indicator of clinical outcomes. 

This is where Experiential counseling may differ from traditional modalities in a way that can point towards greater outcomes.  Many teenagers struggle to connect to an adult in a traditional psychotherapy setting. It may feel sterile for them, they may feel on the spot, or often times may not feel onboard with the process. 

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I often find myself spending my sessions with clients out on the hiking trails, in the climbing gym, or elsewhere in the community.  This, to me, allows the setting aside of any agenda whenever necessary. For those that are open to talking about their struggles while out on a hike, they can do so. 

For those that may not be ready for the difficult talks, we can focus on connection and furthering rapport both in conversation and in our activities. And other times, it can be helpful to set conversation aside altogether and focus on the task at hand.  And let’s be honest, it’s much easier to get to know someone while out on a hike versus by having a forced and pointed conversation while staring eye to eye in an office. The relationship stands to benefit from going beyond simple conversation to shared experience. 

Integrating Mind and Body

Our mental health goes much deeper than cognitions, as it is largely impacted by the relationship withhold with our body.  An experiential approach allows us to integrate physical wellness into our mental health planning, examining our relationship with things like sleep, diet, exercise, and much more.  I often offer my clients a metaphor in which I compare our brains to a houseplant.

Most houseplants tend to thrive on sunlight, water, and a bit of food, but take away one of the three and it will likely begin to wilt.  Our brains thrive when we exercise, sleep well, and eat appropriately. These habits lead to increased focus, decreased feeling of depression and anxiety, and a general sense of well-being. I’m not saying that these will solve all of our problems, but it’s worth considering how easily these good habits fall by the wayside when we’re struggling. 

An image of exercise

An experiential approach allows us to get beyond merely talking about potential lifestyle changes that will benefit us.  It allows us to address them in the moment by first changing our lifestyles in session, and then expanding to other parts of life. 

Rather than just discussing how exercise can mitigate the symptoms of depression and anxiety, we can feel the effect of numerous neurochemicals shifting our mood at the conclusion of a challenging hike.  Experiential therapy comes down to just that, experience.  By no means do I mean to denigrate the value of traditional approaches to psychotherapy, however opening therapeutic work up to include shared experience allows for a new and dynamic approach to therapy that can engage those who need something different.  

By Blake Ruble, Alliance Experiential

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