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Working with Adolescents

A Therapist’s Personal Perspective

Teresa Ryan writes about her work with young people in an inner city school

For many people, childhood has been a very traumatic experience. When adults come for 
therapy they are often surprised to realise that most of their present day difficulties stem
 from the unresolved issues of childhood. If they had an opportunity for therapy in their 
earlier years, when their lives were less complicated, a lot of later suffering and hardship 
could have been avoided. In addition, a wider range of choices would have been available
 to them in their lives.

My personal background is in teaching and guidance counselling. Realising my training 
was inadequate to deal with the difficulties I encountered, I took many in-service courses 
which were useful, but not sufficient for my needs. I then enrolled in a professional train
ing in counselling and psychotherapy.

Pastoral Care Ethos

I am fortunate to work in a school which has a strong Pastoral Care ethos and which welcomes and supports innovative programmes in an attempt to meet the varied needs of the 
pupils through a whole-school approach. Due to the inner city environment, with its depri
vations and difficulties, it is a very challenging work situation. The principal, vice-princi
pal and the majority of staff support all efforts to address the pupils’ needs, to help them 
grow in self-esteem and to develop their unique personal talents.

Variety of the Work

My day to day work is varied. It includes seeing adult clients, facilitating women’s per
sonal development groups and working in a Dublin inner city girls school as a therapist.
 The experience of working with both adults and young people from the same community 
has been the catalyst for my work, using a systemic perspective and developing a creative, 
holistic and eclectic approach with young people. Seeing the huge problems with which 
adults present, reinforces for me the necessity and value of providing an opportunity for 
young people to work through their issues before they begin to build their lives.


The average Second Level School has large classes, structured curricula and an examination oriented approach to teaching and learning. This is not a very facilitating environment 
for many of our pupils who are distressed or disturbed, attention seeking and often either 
withdrawn or aggressive. Department of Education restrictions regarding funds and
 staffing prohibit the development of specialised programmes that are essential to the needs 
of these students. The provision of Home/School/Community Liaison schemes and the 
more practical courses (Junior and Leaving Certificate Applied) are welcome movements. However these students need specialised teaching in small groups where 
they can feel comfortable to work at their own pace, with more interactive methods
 according to their own needs. With the backup of specialised interventions, therapy could 
be more effective in school for such pupils. In the meantime, I do the best I can to pro
vide a therapy service given the limitations already mentioned.

How I work

The basis of all my work is respect for each individual person and the belief that each has 
within her both the potential and drive towards holistic growth. A safe, caring and confidential environment is required to develop the relationship which is essential to all thera
peutic work. Clients are referred by parents, teachers or come of their own accord. Over 
90% come as self-referrals, often encouraged by school friends. I see those referred by
 others only with the clients’ full co-operation. The range of issues can vary from child
 abuse, separation, bereavement, rape, pregnancy, drug/AIDS related issues, and is often 
crisis work.

Sometimes, because of the immediate availability of the therapy, three or four sessions can
 work wonders, and the client is visibly changed. On other occasions the work is long-term
 and may include working with parents and consulting with teachers – always with the 
clients’ consent, and often at their request.

My way of working with a particular client is process oriented and depends on what best 
facilitates the client’s self-expression. Many are only too willing to talk, while others find 
this very difficult. With the latter group especially I used varied methods such as visualisation, drawing, modelling, sand/play therapy, focusing, body awareness and energy 
work. Both my clients and myself enjoy, and are often amazed by, the insights that can 
come from a respectful, creative and often lighthearted approach. Many have reported 
how they continue to use skills learned in sessions to great benefit in their lives outside of

Difficulties encountered in the work

Working in a school setting presents its own difficulties. The school attendance rate of 
some clients is very poor due, understandably, to inner city environmental difficulties. So
 irregular sessions are part of the process. Being a school, clients do not attend during holidays.
  • Teachers often do not recognise that therapy can be a slow process. Because of the classroom difficulties created by some clients, their teachers, with the best will in the world,
 expect therapy to solve these quickly
  • As professional therapeutic services are a rarity in schools, it is often frustrating when a
 client is occasionally referred elsewhere by another professional from the medical or
 health services, not realising the school provides such a service.
  • There are conflicting opinions about whether a therapeutic service should be offered 
within a school or in an outside facility. Since I have chosen to work therapeutically in a
school, naturally there will be some clients who would prefer an outside facility. Luckily,
 there is such a service within easy reach for those who wish to avail of it.
  • A major difficulty is that the Department of Education does not pay for the services of 
a therapist in schools. As a result of this I am paid by the school from its limited budget,
 as a part-time teacher. Should the school wish to employ me on a full-time basis as a ther
apist, under the present system I would not be paid or recognised by the Department of 
Education, or have any of the benefits of full-time employment. So much for the State’s 
commitment to the welfare of our younger generation!

My Supportive Role:-

As therapist part of my role is to build support for pupils, teachers and parents.
 Accordingly for pupils I attempt:

  • To widen their network of support by group work with particular issues, i.e. teenage 
mothering, relationships, children of separated parents, school difficulties, bereavement 
and stress management.
  • To bridge the gap between pupils and teachers by encouraging clients to approach and
 relate to their choice of teacher for additional support.
  • To discuss clients’ difficulties with teachers with a view to increasing awareness and
 understanding, making it easier for teachers to make appropriate allowances discreetly.
  • To co-ordinate a Rainbows programme for bereaved pupils in the school, and for those 
whose parents are separated. This involves on-going training and supervision of facilita
tors from the local community.
  • To train senior pupils in leadership who act as prefects. These young people can make 
a real contribution to the life of the school while, at the same time, developing their own 
leadership and interpersonal skills and enhancing their self-esteem.
  • To run a peer support programme for first year students facilitated by fifth year students.
 These students are selected on application and specially trained and supervised to support
 and be alert to the needs of first year students, especially those at risk. This programme I 
have called ‘5 + 1’ and it has become an integral part of the Pastoral Care system of the
 school. The response to it has been very positive from first year students as well as being 
very empowering for the fifth year students involved.
  • To recognise the local drug problem, a Peer Drug Education Programme has been
 devised with the help of a psychologist. Its aims, initially, are to educate and support first year students. It will involve group work which will be facilitated by specially trained fifth 
year students which I will co-ordinate and supervise. This is an exciting new development
 for all of us.

In supporting Teachers I aim:

  • To provide a supportive and consultative role when requested.
  • To encourage their participation in the school programmes already mentioned.
  • To help them recognise their own skills and to support them in dealing with the diffi
culties they encounter with the pupils.
  • To participate with them by offering my perspective when new programmes are being 

I support Parents by:

  • Helping them in their parenting role.
  • Offering places on personal development courses.
  • Offering individual therapy with myself, or a colleague, if requested.
  • On-going training in facilitating the Rainbows Programme.
  • Including them in my work with their children when relevant.

To conclude, while I find this work challenging and rewarding, I sometimes find it diffi
cult, draining and frustrating especially when I am faced with impossible situations due to 
ethnic, cultural or social limitations. Nevertheless, the energy which flows from the cre
ativity of the work and the enthusiasm of the young people, together with my own personal 
therapy, supervision and support from friends and colleagues, sustains and enlivens me.
 When a number of long term clients with severe difficulties told me they would never have
 survived without therapy, I feel my work has been worthwhile and I have made my own
 small contribution to the healing of the next generation.

Teresa Ryan IAHIP IACT

Useful Books:

Windows to our Children: Violet Oaklander, Real People Press, 1978

Inscapes of the Child’s World: John Allen, Spring Publication, 1988

Dealing with Difficulty – A Systems Approach to Difficult Behaviour Mark Provis, Hodder
 & Stoughton, 1992

Art Therapy for Groups: Marian Liebmann, Routledge, 1987

Sand Play – Silent Workshop of the Psyche: K. Bradway, B. McCoard, Routledge, 1987

Scripted Fantasy in the Classroom: E.Hall, C.Hall. A.Leech, Routledge, 1990

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