Age of Experimentation: How ACT Reframes the Challenges of Adolescence

Teenagers sitting on bleachers

The following is an interview with Louise Hayes, PhD, clinical psychologist, peer-reviewed ACT trainer, academic and internationally-known expert in acceptance and commitment therapy for adolescents. She is co-author of the best selling books Get Out of Your Mind and Into your Life for Teenagers and The Thriving Adolescent.

Praxis: Because of their developmental stage, are teenagers in a better or worse position to learn the skills taught to clients in ACT?

LH: Teens are in a unique phase of life where risk-taking and sensation-seeking are the hallmarks of development. Adolescence is also considered the most emotional time of life by some key researchers. It isn’t that they are in a worse or better position, it’s simply that they are at a different phase of adaptation than adults.

The key tasks of teens are learning how to leave the family, to go out in the world, find independence, find a job or career, and try out adult relationships and sexuality. There are many things that they’re trying for the very first time.

Adults are often coming to therapy because they have gotten stuck with something, whereas adolescents are often coming to therapy because they are on the cusp of learning new things. Teens are in a unique position of learning how to grow, whereas adults—although they really are learning to grow too—are often learning how to “de-problem” problem behaviors. It’s a different space.

Praxis: Why do you think ACT is so well-suited to work with teens?

LH: In the past, we’ve tried to use adult ACT and take it “down” to address the needs of adolescents. Our model, DNA-V was deliberately set up to be from the time of birth, and up. As a model, DNA-V is unique because it is about growing up. We teach young people how to have thoughts and feelings, but we also teach them how their verbal behavior can be developed in flexible ways; i.e. how to grow beliefs, judgments, rules in ways that are flexible.

We also spend a lot of time on noticer skills, which is helping teens learn about their bodies, how they can hear messages in their body, how they can notice the inside world, and how they notice the outside world. We help them understand that feelings are not the enemy.

We use the discoverer piece as a unique space to learn about broadening our lives; building strengths, creating values as we move about in the world, testing what works, and testing again. It is something like what toddlers have to do when they learn to walk—stand up, fall down, stand up, fall down. There are some really hard things facing teens and the discoverer skill we teach helps them to continue to broaden and build their skills.

Praxis: In your book, The Thriving Adolescent, you modify the definition of psychological flexibility for teens. What is the modified version?

LH: We argue that adolescents, by virtue of their developmental time, are unlikely to be flexible all of the time (and adults aren’t either). But part of the definition of psychological flexibility is being able to pursue what you care about, even if your thoughts and feelings are difficult. Adolescents are in the space of discovering and creating what they care about, so they might not always know in advance what that is, in order to pursue it. There is a testing, trying, and reviewing process. When we do ACT with adolescents, we don’t assume values are there. We understand that we are working to help them create them.

Praxis: DNA-V was designed specifically for work with teens. How easy is it for an ACT therapist to pick up the DNA-V model and begin using it? Does a practitioner need to be very skilled in ACT or is it accessible to newer ACT therapists?

LH: I have been doing DNA-V training across the world to ACT therapists and non-ACT therapists. I think it is a pretty easy model to use, and we’ve had lots of feedback that suggests that it is easy to learn. The one thing I would add is that people often say seeing DNA-V in action—in a workshop setting, specifically—brings it to life. So we are trying to get as much live training out as we can.

Praxis: Tell us a little bit about the experiential exercises you do that encourage adults who work with teens to take the perspectives of teenagers. What do you notice about the way adults respond to these exercises and how they may help inform the work they do with teens?

LH: One thing I often notice is the shocked look on adults’ faces when we talk of revisiting memories of their adolescence. That in itself tells us that this is a powerful time of strong emotions and memories, and if it’s hard for an adult to revisit it, it must also be hard for teens to be living it.

Adults often tell me that when they do these exercises, they learn about how strong the emotions are, how powerless they felt when they were teens, how much past experience influences their way of moving in the world, and so forth.

Even though none of us really ‘love’ revisiting our memories of our teen years, when we sit across from a teenager and work with them, our own adolescence is in the room. So it is good for us to be comfortable with that. And it helps a lot to remember how powerless we were to change many things. After all, adults can leave many things if they don’t like them—jobs, relationships, and so forth. It may be hard, but as adults, we can choose to leave. But many teens are stuck in places where leaving is almost impossible—families, schools, friendships. Remembering this perspective is powerful for adults.

Praxis: What do you think are the most important factors for adults who wish to engage effectively with teenagers? What styles of communication, approaches, etc., work best for teenagers?

LH:  Be real. Be human. Teens, like all humans, have an incredible ability to adapt to any context. As Kelly Wilson has said, they are not problems waiting to be solved; they are whole, complete humans who have adapted to their environment as best they can. Yet, instead of focusing on how well they’ve adapted to an all-too-often deficient environment, our professional training often focuses on their weaknesses.

Given this context, when you approach young people seeking help, they’re likely to think you’re just another adult who sees them as broken and in need of fixing. That doesn’t set the stage for an effective intervention. In fact, it creates resistance. Remember the power you have as an ‘adult’. Do ACT, don’t talk about it.

We need to appreciate the context that adolescents are growing in, and step into that space. It is very easy to come across as the expert in their lives, but they won’t respect that. We need to be ‘with’ them on the journey.

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