Teen and Youth Therapy Techniques

Written by Nicole Laoutaris
Last updated on: May 16, 2024

Social, academic, emotional and physical changes are natural during teen years, but can be difficult to navigate. At the same time, these years are critical for developing healthy mental and emotional habits that will be carried into adulthood. 

Teens are faced with certain risks to their mental wellbeing, including social pressure to conform, seeking or lacking a sense of autonomy, and discovering new aspects of their sexual identity. Socioeconomic hardships, discrimination, an increased reliance on technology, substance abuse, and the lack of quality support at home or in peer groups can further hinder positve mental health outcomes for teens. 

Teens can benefit from talking to a therapist to guide them through these normal challenges of this age and phase, or they may be needed to treat more targeted traumas or diagnosed disorders.

Common mental health disorders affecting teens

Emotional and mood disorders, like anxiety and depression, are common for teens, especially given the unique life challenges and stressors for this age group. Teenage years are also when diagnosable mental health disorders tend to manifest—according to the World Health Organization, half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14. 

Psychosis is particularly important to recognize in earlier years because it can be a lifelong illness, but is often treatable; many people with psychosis experience their first episode in adolescence. Psychosis may be a symptom of another mental health condition, like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, or it may be caused by other medical conditions, substance use (including prescription drugs), or even sleep deprivation. Psychosis can make teens anxious, confused, have exaggerated mood swings or lack emotion. This can be very disruptive to a teen’s sense of self when they should be developing a healthy outlook on life and strong coping mechanisms. 

Societal and external pressures can lead to a number of other issues like increased stress, worry and low self esteem. In particular, there is ongoing attention on teens and body image—one-in-seven Canadian teens are teased about their appearance. This can result in a number of challenges, including eating disorders. While eating disorders are a risk for all teens, they are the third most common chronic illness amongst adolescent girls. 

Signs a teen might be struggling with their mental health

Teens often display shifting moods and energy levels, so it can be easy and understandable that parents or caregivers might chalk up their struggles to regular teenage behaviour. However, studies show that seemingly inconspicuous teen behaviour can be real indicators that there are issues to address. 

For example, mental health data from Statistics Canada show that kids with poor mental health tend to receive lower grades and have more trouble making friends. They found that 32% of kids aged 3 to 17 with fair or poor mental health had grades at a C or lower, compared to just 9% of kids with good or excellent mental health. More drastically, 25% of kids aged 5 to 17 with fair or poor mental health had difficulty making friends compared to only 1% of kids with good or excellent mental health.

The Canadian Mental Health Association of Ontario lists moods and behaviours—avoiding friends and family, outbursts of anger, constant worry, lacking energy or motivation— that might be associated with mental health concerns or disorders if they are persistent (lasting a few weeks or more), intense, or interfere with life. 

If you’re a teen or are a parent of a teen and you’re concerned about certain emotions or behaviours, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor or a therapist. 

Techniques used for teen and youth therapy

Therapy for children and teens needs to be adapted to their age and stage. It should be sympathetic to their stressors, social environments, responsibilities, and adapted for their brain development. The parts of our brain that handle rational thinking, decision-making and emotions are not fully developed until about age 25.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is a commonly used modality (technique) within psychotherapy and it’s used for treating a variety of disorders and challenges. It may be used for teen therapy, but with some adaptations. CBT teaches us how to reevaluate our thought process for a more positive emotional perspective and to motivate better behaviours. Teen brains may not yet be capable of such a high level of self assessment and behaviour adjustments. Effective treatment may take parts of CBT to teach teens how to manage their thoughts or how to replace negative statements about themselves with positive. Eventually it becomes automatic.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) may be another form of psychotherapy, like CBT, that is effective for teens. ACT is all about accepting emotions, including negative ones. This can be incredibly validating for teens and push them to better manage their thoughts and behaviour. 

Teens may also benefit from group therapy. Social interactions are so vital to the teen experience, and this format allows them to communicate with those who understand them and get feedback from their peers. Similarly, teens could benefit from family therapy. Having strong, safe and supportive environments at home can make a difference in a teen’s mental health outlook. A therapist can help the whole family build techniques to better communicate and interact with one another during these crucial years. 

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About the Author

Nicole Laoutaris

Nicole Laoutaris is a freelance writer and adult learning professional based in the Greater Toronto Area. She specializes in educational content for brands and companies in industries such as mental health, pet health, lifestyle and wellness, cannabis, and personal finance. Nicole holds a double undergraduate degree in Communications and Film studies from Wilfrid Laurier University, and post-graduate certificate in Corporate Communications from Seneca College. She currently lives in Hamilton Ontario with her spouse and her cat.