Counsellors working with young people often find it can feel like messy, complex work. What helps when counsellors are stuck?

counsellorNick Luxmoore, author of Practical Supervision for Counsellors who Work with Young People, explores the positive impact that good supervision sessions can have on counsellors who are struggling to break down barriers with young people in their care.

It’s Nikki’s first day as a counsellor and she’s about to see four young people. “Help!” she says, panicking. “What am I supposed to do?” Elsewhere, the girl Stephanie’s been seeing for counselling has ripped up a box of tissues and stormed out of the room, Marvin’s complaining that his counselling waiting list is getting longer and longer, and all the young people at Maggie’s school appear to be cutting themselves or feeling suicidal….

However experienced or inexperienced they may be, all professional counsellors are obliged to have regular meetings with a supervisor: someone with whom they can untangle the “stuckness” that develops in their thinking and relationships. Most are only too glad of the facility and most counsellors are able to choose their supervisor, someone who may or may not already have experience of working with young people.

But what goes on in the supervision sessions? What gets talked about? What helps? There are books of supervision theory and books about counselling with young people. There are no books about what actually goes on in supervision sessions with hard-pressed counsellors like Nikki, Stephanie, Marvin and Maggie. What happens when the personal and the professional collide? How do counsellors and supervisors make use of psychotherapeutic theory? How directive does a supervisor need to be? What happens when the counsellor and the supervisor disagree?

My new book is a collection of supervision stories. I’ve been a counsellor with young people for 30 years and, nowadays, spend most of my time supervising counsellors like Alison whose client hasn’t turned up for the last two weeks; like Fergus, well and truly stuck with a boy who won’t say anything; like Gillian, whose mother is dying and whose clients all seem to want to talk about death; or like Lucy who’s disturbed by the way a 14-year-old has started looking at her….

The book starts with stories about counsellors near the beginning of their careers but, thereafter, counsellors come and go in the book, bringing to our supervision meetings a miscellany of different experiences and issues. And because supervisors are established practitioners who draw on their own clinical experience to support (usually) less experienced colleagues, the book also contains a few accounts of my own work with young people, trying to puzzle things out myself, trying to understand the contexts in which young people find themselves and, like my supervisees, trying to respond as helpfully as possible.

Good supervision offers counsellors many things: support and encouragement, challenge and teaching, exploration and collaboration. Supervisors can’t be overly prescriptive but nor can they afford to be wishy-washy. They have to recognize what’s therapeutically possible and what isn’t. For twenty years I’ve supervised counsellors working with young people in community settings and in schools; counsellors with lots of experience and counsellors with none; counsellors enjoying the luxury of open-ended relationships and counsellors working within tight time contraints. Those counsellors who stick around learn that it’s rarely as simple as a young person turning up on time once a week and then going away again. Often, there are other professionals with whom the counsellor must liaise; there are parents or friends of the young person wanting a word. In schools, there are all sorts of contextual issues that have a bearing on the work and must be managed. And then there are the young people who are late. Or don’t turn up. Or turn up with a friend. Drunk. And the friend wants counselling….

It can feel like messy work. Counselling with young people involves living with a perpetual sense of inadequacy, knowing that however good the session, many young people will go back to a world in which their parents are absent or don’t seem to care, a world full of unfairnesses to which young people must adapt at the same time as they’re adapting to all the developmental changes going on in themselves. It’s tempting to reach for a manual, to cling to a set way of doing things, to follow the teachings of one particular therapeutic modality.

But with experience and with good supervision comes the confidence to be more adaptable, to live with all the uncertainties, all the impingements. Supervision helps counsellors deploy their experience while continuing to pay attention to a young person’s truth, however skewed it may sound. It helps them develop therapeutic alliances in which both people in the room have a degree of power. It helps them resist the temptation of quick fixes when – ninety-nine times out of a hundred – there aren’t any…. My book explores these and many other issues through the conversations that typically occur in supervision.

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One thought

  1. Hi,

    I am a big fan of Nick Luxmoore`s therapeutic work with young people in adolescence. As an adolescent psychotherapist myself I am always on the lookout for new ideas and creative ways to engage with young people, especially adolescents who are quite resistant to any kind of therapeutic engagement with a counsellor. I`m wondering might there be an opportunity to email Nick directly and explore this issue with him, or perhaps you could suggest a paper and/or text that he has written that would throw some light on this kind of issue that arises from time to time.

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