That the teenage years occupy a unique space in the stages of human development. These years are usually defined by exploration and risk, along with the struggle to solidify a sense of identity. If presented with a time machine, few of us would choose to turn the knob back to the setting labeled “teenage years.”
For therapists, reaching teens can be especially challenging. Teens are too old for many of the techniques used effectively with children, but they’re not quite mature enough to process issues like adults do. Working with adolescents often requires out-of-the-box thinking to connect with them and help them. In this post, we explore some creative ways to build rapport with teenage clients and share ten fresh and engaging teen therapy activities.
Step one in any successful client-therapist relationship is to establish mutual trust. Here are a few easy ways to engage teens in meaningful ways as you begin working together. For even more ideas, take a look at this helpful guide published by the Australian Psychological Society.
We’ve curated a list of our top ten favorite teen therapy activities that you can use in your sessions with teenage clients. These ideas come courtesy of Lina Lowenstein and the American Counseling Association.
1. I Am, I Think I Am, I Don’t Think I Am — Using a stack of cards that feature different character attributes, ask the teen to sort them into three piles. The first pile is for attributes the teen knows they have, the second is for attributes they think they have, and the last one is for attributes they know they don’t have. This activity gives you an opportunity to better understand the teen’s concept of themselves.
2. Anger Menu — Menus are a convenient way to display available choices when dining out, and they work just as well in therapy. Create a folded menu titled Anger Menu on the outside with Menu Options written on the inside. Brainstorm together on different options for expressing anger appropriately. Have the teen write down the different possibilities on the inside of the menu.
3. “It’s My Life” Music Album — Music is something most teens enjoy talking about. Start off this activity by inviting the teen to share their musical tastes, favorite artists, and albums. Ask them to design a vinyl cover for their own music album complete with album title, playlist, and album artwork. This activity can provide valuable insights as you observe and gently ask questions about their choices in artwork, song titles, etc.
4. Lifeline — In this activity, you ask the teen to create a timeline of their lives. Working with collage or by drawing, the teen will fill in the timeline up to the present day. Invite the teen to share about important life events, and complete the future section of the timeline based on their hopes and dreams for what lies ahead. This activity provides a less-intrusive means of gaining insights into the client’s early life history as well as their goals for the future.
5. Exploding Balloons — This engaging activity spurs some deep thinking about the importance of releasing pent-up anger in a healthy way. Have the teen start by donning a pair of safety goggles and hand them a deflated balloon. Ask them to think about a situation that made them angry when they weren’t able to talk through how the situation made them feel. Instruct them to blow a breath into the balloon. Have them repeat the process until the balloon explodes. Then, hand them a second balloon and instruct them to blow it up in the same way, stopping short of the exploding point. Prompt them to talk through their angry feelings around the situation, instructing them to release a little bit of air as they talk, until the balloon is empty. This time, no explosion! Brainstorm coping strategies they can use to release anger in healthy ways.
6. Paparazzi — Many teens follow celebrity news, and one of the primary ways celebrity lives are documented is with paparazzi photos. In this activity, the teen is instructed to be their own paparazzi, taking pictures of the important people and places in their lives. Once they’ve assembled a collection of photos that’s representative of their life, they’ll create a “tabloid” magazine with photos arranged and labeled by places, support people, and objects they consider important parts of their life.
7. The Paper Bag Story — Teens often struggle with expressing difficult parts of their lives directly. This activity is designed to provide an indirect means of disclosing challenging life experiences. You’ll begin by showing the teen a paper bag with instructions to create a mixed media collage about their life. The front and back of the bag are places to display important life events. The folded sides of the bag that are only visible when the bag is completely unfolded are spaces to document painful or challenging experiences. The bottom of the bag is reserved for those things that are the most difficult to express.
8. Social Media Profile — This activity leverages the familiarity with social media. After discussing as much of the teen’s social media profile as they’re comfortable with, you’ll present a social media-style paper template with each of the components of an online social media profile. Each section prompts the teen to describe some important belief they have about their life. For example, the profile photo section may contain a prompt to draw a vision of their future self, imaging what the future may look like for them. In the intro, the template may ask them to describe how they see themselves and how they believe other people see them. You can customize the prompts on the template to target individual clients’ treatment goals.
9. Talk Meter — Teens often find it difficult to talk to a new adult, especially about challenges they’re struggling with. The talk meter activity provides a way for them to indirectly express how willing they are to engage. You begin by presenting a sketch of a thermometer or other gauge, labeled in increments ranging from “not ready to talk at all” to “absolutely willing to talk.” Have the teen color the thermometer in up to the point that represents their current comfort level with talking. Wrap up by discussing the barriers they face to opening up during therapy.
10. How I Felt the First Day — It’s important to celebrate progress and look back on gains made during a course of therapy. This activity is a quick and easy way for a client to reflect on how far they’ve come. On the first day of therapy, ask them to write on the front of a blank piece of paper how they feel about therapy. Keep the paper in the client’s file, and on the last day, ask them to write on the back of the paper how they feel now. Celebrate the progress!
Working with teenagers in therapy can be incredibly rewarding, but they require an approach that’s tailored to the unique way that they perceive themselves and the world around them. When working with teens, therapists are most effective when they take the time to build a strong sense of rapport early on, building trust in the therapy process. Engaging adolescents in customized therapy activities keeps them open and engaged, increasing the chances that they’ll successfully meet their treatment goals.
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