Navigating the World of Adolescents

ImageTeenagers can be a challenging group to work with at times.  If you are the new therapist coming into the group, they begin to study you the moment you walk in the door.  What is she wearing today?  Does she look like a nice person?  What can I do to shake her up?  Will she like me?  And this all happens before you even say a word!  So yes, teenagers can be a challenge to work with.  Then add in previous abuse, mental illness or abandonment and you have to push hard to win their approval, or do you?

I spent many years working with adolescent psychiatric patients in college and during my first years as a music therapist.  I complained endlesslyabout it.  I felt like I was too close to their age and to top it off, I looked like I was a teenager until I reached my 30’s.  It was difficult for me to separate myself from them as an authority figure, rather than a peer.  For about 8 years I worked with other populations and avoided the teenagers as much as possible until last year when I received a call from a local hospital here in Denver.  They wanted me to do what?  Lead a weekly music therapy group where?  Oh yes, in the adolescent psychiatric facility.  “Yippee!” I said.  Nope.  Not really.  All I could think was, “I can’t do this.  I was awful the last time & will probably be again, but I guess I should at least try!”  I was scared out of my mind but did my best to hide it.

My first session with the teenagers arrived and it didn’t go so well.  I was nervous and they could tell.  A few complained, not wanting to participate.  Then others said, “so what time is music therapy over?”  Every week for the first month was like this, and I left feeling inadequate as a music therapist.  Until it happened.  It was sudden.  I began to realize a few key elements that made me happy and successful with this population, and I want to share them with you!

1–Be Yourself!
Teenagers and children have a keen sense of awareness when it comes to people.  They know when you are being real and genuine.  If a child or teenager is dealing with a mental illness, an abusive household or other challenges, they have encountered a lot of deceptive people, false love and broken promises.  They can spot a fake, so don’t be one.

2–Go Back in Time
Try to recall what it was like being a teenager when you were young.  The world was probably different and more innocent, but teenagers are teenagers.  If you can connect with them on that level, they will respect you.

3–Understand & Learn Their Music
Music is important to teenagers.  You don’t have to listen to and memorize their music, but you do need to have a working knowledge of the popular artists.  Every week my kids would talk about their favorite artists, and when I was able to converse with them on their level, they would open up in other areas.

4–Let Loose
Instead of towering over them like a military officer, be willing to have fun and get on their level.  You do have to establish your authority first, but once you have, let loose!  Joke around, laugh a little.

5–Don’t underestimate them
Remember that teenagers are still “kids” in big bodies.  Don’t underestimate or overestimate what they will enjoy or what they might think is childish.  You will see this put into action in one of the interventions below.  Teenagers enjoy when they are allowed to be kids.

6–Always be interactive!
Many times the reason these kids are in a facility is because they had difficulty communicating their feelings in a socially appropriate manner.  Allow them to interact as much as possible to give them opportunities to practice their social skills.

During my first month at this facility, I did very few interventions that were interactive.  Sometimes I think I was afraid of interacting too much because that is usually where conflicts will occur between patients.  But once we started interacting, the teenagers lit up, expressed more than I could have ever imagined and they learned how to deal with conflicts as they arose.  Below are two of my favorite interventions for teenagers.  The first one is called the Musical Obstacle Course.  I credit this to one of my amazing internship supervisors from Cleveland.  It was a part of her internship in Texas!  Another intervention I will share is called Emotional Chairs.  They LOVE this intervention!!!!

Musical Obstacle Course

blindfold (use an old long-sleeved t-shirt.  Cut off the bottom half, discard.)
chairs or any other large objects
at least 4 rhythm instruments (can be all drums or different hand held instruments)

For this intervention, you will need to give clear, precise instructions.  I usually repeat them several times and then have the patients repeat them back to ensure their understanding.

Set up the chairs or large objects around the room.  The patients will be navigating around them.  Choose 4 patients as the direction-givers (DG) and 1 as the blindfolded participant (BP).  Each of the 4 DG’s will be responsible for telling the BP which direction to go:  Left, Right, Forward, Stop.  If you choose to use only drums, come up with 4 distinct rhythms/sounds to represent each direction.  If you use hand-held instruments, be sure each is distinct in it’s sound.  (for example, don’t use the bells & the triangle.  They could confuse the sounds with each other).

Once everyone has their “job”, practice each direction multiple times before allowing them to lead the BP through the obstacle course.  Quiz them and then go!

When everyone has been the BP, take time to discuss.  How did it make you feel to be blindfolded?  Was it hard to trust?  Did your trust increase as you progressed?  When you finish discussing the obstacle course, turn it inward and talk about who they trust and don’t trust in life.  Ask them what may help them to trust and how they can be trustworthy people themselves.  We had amazing disclosures every time we completed this intervention.


Emotional Chairs

Card stock with emotions written on one side (angry, sad, happy, mad, disappointed, encouraged, etc.)

This intervention is played like musical chairs except everyone has a place to sit.  Line the chairs back to back in a line.  Tape an emotion on the back of each chair so that the patients are unable to see the words.  Turn on the music, let them walk.  When you stop the music, they will all sit.  No one will be without a chair.  This is the only difference between Emotional and Musical Chairs.  Once everyone is seated, have them look at their word and talk about the last time they felt that way.  Be prepared for their reponses.  They can be very transparent and deep.  I usually go through the process 2-3 times and then we play the “real” musical chairs.  And yes!  They LOVE it!  The first time I did this intervention, I stopped after we processed their feelings and was ready to quit.  Then they all begged me to do the kid version of musical chairs!  It became a regular part of the intervention from then on.  You will see lots of smiles, but be sure to give the ground rules so no one gets hurt when they are knocked out of a chair!  🙂


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