Psychotherapy for Teens and Young Adults

Therapy with teenagers and college students can be challenging, but it is also rewarding. According to a study by the American Counseling Association, communication serves as the basis for change in counseling. Counselors need to understand and utilize their client’s inner resources and strengths to help them move toward their treatment goals. When working with teenagers, however, some may feel scared, reluctant, or ambivalent about treatment, which can serve as a barrier to this crucial exchange. Beginning with the first session, engagement is one of the most significant tools counselors can employ when working with teens who are hesitant to participate in counseling. Engaging clients can take a variety of forms, but it comes down to the counselor taking an active, invested interest in the client and a willingness to meet the client where they are at. This is the first step in forming a therapeutic alliance because it makes clients’ therapy experience meaningful and autonomous.


There are many different types of therapy that may be useful for treating adolescents. To choose which type of therapy is right for your teen, it can be helpful to learn more about your options and how different types of therapy work. 

Brief list of types of therapy and pros & cons of each approach

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

  • Family Therapy

  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)

  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)

  • Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)

  • Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most predominant forms of psychotherapy. It is an umbrella term used to describe various approaches that focus on connecting thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT is often used to treat anxiety and depression in teenagers and college students and works by helping clients learn new ways to change unhelpful or maladaptive thought or behavior patterns. In session, CBT therapists may help teach their clients new skills that can help them re-interpret their experiences or change their behavior to be more adaptive. CBT may also use homework to help clients create change outside the session.


CBT has strong empirical support, with many studies showing that CBT is helpful for various conditions. It is also usually short-term, with clients benefitting from therapy within a few weeks to a few months.


CBT is a highly structured form of therapy and requires commitment from the client to practice skills and sometimes engage in daily homework out of session. Clients who may not be able to commit to this may not be able to benefit as much from the sessions. Additionally, CBT’s benefits may not last long-term, with ‘refresher’ sessions being needed later on in life.

Family Therapy


Family Therapy is another type of therapy that can be useful for treating adolescents or college students. It involves working with the entire family to change how the family members interact with each other, improve communication, and resolve conflicts. Family therapy makes the family system more flexible, adaptable, and supportive for all members. By changing the adolescent or college student is environment, they may be able to function in more adaptive ways. Family therapists may help families practice new ways of relating to each other in session, teach family members how to support each other, and utilize activities and questions to help family members understand how their own behaviors affect the family.


Often times, when a teenager is struggling, this can create ripples throughout the whole family. As such, family therapy can be of help to everyone in the family, not just the teenager or young adult. Additionally, family therapy can be helpful for families experiencing sudden change, loss, conflict, and power struggles between parents and children.


Family therapy works best when the whole family can participate. As such, it requires a time commitment from everyone involved, which can often be a hurdle to overcome for families with caregivers who work or have several commitments.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)


Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) helps clients accept difficult thoughts and feelings and commit to positive changes in their lives. As opposed to CBT, which focuses on changing our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, ACT focuses on accepting one’s experiences. By doing so, clients can learn new ways of relating or adapting to these experiences based on one’s values and what they believe to be meaningful in life. ACT therapists usually help clients learn to accept and tolerate these uncomfortable experiences through practicing mindfulness and other exercises while helping clients identify meaningful values and goals they can work toward despite unpleasant experiences.


ACT can be helpful for clients who experience a lot of unavoidable, uncomfortable experiences or feel as though they have little control over their lives. ACT is extremely helpful for Anxiety and OCD disorders, Depression, Grief, and Chronic Pain.


ACT is very present-focused and may not help process past trauma or adversity. Additionally, clients with difficulty with mindfulness or meditation practices may struggle with this approach, as these techniques are often at the heart of ACT.

Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)


By integrating an inner acceptance of who we are with a deep belief that we can always grow and change, DBT attempts to help clients regulate their emotions and improve their interpersonal relationships. DBT helps people by teaching clients how to accept their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors while providing individuals with new skills and techniques to help them adapt to difficult emotions, distress, and interpersonal situations. DBT therapists will use weekly monitoring sheets and homework to help clients practice these new skills.


DBT has been found to be extremely effective in helping clients regulate strong emotions such as anxiety, depression, and stress. It has also been found to be helpful for people who have experienced adversity or trauma in the past.


DBT is a highly structured therapy that often requires meetings for weekly group therapy, individual sessions, and daily homework. As it is quite intensive and structured, individuals who struggle with structure may not be able to benefit as much from DBT as others.

Interpersonal Therapy (IPT)


IPT is a type of therapy that focuses on improving communication and relationships with others. Developed primarily to help clients with depression, IPT helps clients address various interpersonal challenges that create or perpetuate distressing feelings, such as sadness, loneliness, grief, or anxiety. Therapists might help clients identify various interpersonal patterns that perpetuate their problems, help them problem-solve, and use supportive listening to help them identify solutions to their problems.


IPT is an evidence-based approach to helping clients with depression, grief, and addiction issues. It is also time-limited, and clients can expect the treatment to be relatively brief.


Cons: IPT doesn’t take the past into account, focusing on the here and now instead. Additionally, IPT takes an interpersonal approach to depression, and often ignores or minimizes other, more individual factors.

Psychodynamic Therapy (PDT)


PDT is a type of therapy that helps clients understand how past experiences and early relationships connect to current problems in life. Additionally, PDT may also help the client explore how current problems may be a result of unconscious feelings, wishes, or fears that the client is unaware of. PDT therapists might use a variety of approaches to help clients do this, through exploring earlier memories, dreams, and clients’ free associations to help clients discover the unconscious meaning of the symptoms.


PDT has been found to be effective in treatment anxiety, depression, and other conditions in adolescents and college students. It is also thought that this approach addresses the underlying source of the issues, rather than just dealing with the symptoms. It has also been found that PDT may offer longer-lasting results than other CBT approaches for depression and anxiety in particular.


PDT often is a long-term form of therapy, with treatment lasting several months to a few years. Additionally, some PDT therapists request clients meet multiple times a week (up to 2-3 times a week). As such, PDT is often a long-term and intensive commitment.

There are several other forms of therapy

There are several other forms of therapy, with these just being some of the most common. In addition to the approaches and interventions discussed here, there are many creative and developmentally appropriate techniques that counselors and other mental healthcare professionals can use to engage teenagers in therapy throughout all of these approaches. Counselors can also use techniques like role-playing, storytelling, using art or music, cultivating mindfulness, and encouraging journaling to help teenagers explore their thoughts and feelings.

The overall takeaway from all of these approaches is that there are countless ways in which psychotherapy can help adolescents and young adults struggling with both mental health symptoms as well as developmental stressors. Some approaches are very structured and attempt to teach hands-on skills, while others are more free-formed, helping clients build insight and awareness into their own lives.

Developmental Needs of Teens and College Students

Teenagers are in a developmental stage of constant transformation—whether it be physical (growth, sexual development), cognitive (formal operations), moral (values and spirituality), or identity (self-image and self-esteem) development. Because of all of these factors, adolescence, and young adulthood are stages in life where mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, begin to emerge. Therefore, counselors must equip themselves with various creative techniques that promote verbal and nonverbal expression in a therapeutic way rather than stigmatizing.

College students also face unique challenges that can lead to mental health issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness in a given year. College students are no exception. They may experience stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues due to academic pressure, social isolation, and other factors. They may also experience unique psychosocial stressors, such as the stress of living away from home for the first time, issues related to exploring and developing their identity as an adult, and peer/relationship conflicts.

Counseling and therapy can be an effective way to help college students cope with these challenges. Many colleges and universities offer counseling services to their students. These services may include individual counseling, group counseling, and workshops on topics such as stress management and mindfulness.

Psychotherapy is a form of mental health treatment that involves talking to a trained professional about one’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Psychotherapy can help people cope with various challenges, such as stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, addiction, and relationship problems. Psychotherapy is especially beneficial for teenagers and college students, who are going through a period of significant change and development.

One of the main benefits of psychotherapy for teenagers and college students is that it can help address symptoms related to mental illness and also help preserve and maintain one’s mental health. For example, many teens and young adults struggle with mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, which can affect their happiness and life satisfaction. Psychotherapy can help them change their negative thought patterns, regulate their emotions, and cope with life challenges. Psychotherapy can also help teens and college students deal with anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, phobias, and panic disorder, which can interfere with their daily functioning and quality of life. Psychotherapy can help them identify and challenge their irrational fears, develop positive coping skills, and increase their confidence. Moreover, psychotherapy can help them manage stress, which is a common problem for college students who face academic and social pressures. Psychotherapy can help them learn how to prioritize their tasks, set realistic goals, and practice relaxation techniques. Lastly, this is a time in your teen’s life when they are starting to explore their beliefs, identity, and values as a burgeoning adult. Psychotherapy can help teens foster self-reflection, identify their values, and explore their identities. Some of the psychotherapy approaches that can help with mental health are cognitive-behavioral therapy, which focuses on changing dysfunctional thoughts and behaviors; dialectical behavior therapy, which teaches emotional regulation and interpersonal skills; and ACT, which promotes awareness and acceptance of the present moment. Psychotherapy can help teenagers and college students achieve greater well-being and life satisfaction by improving their mental health.

Psychotherapy and Impact on Social Improvement: Social Skills, Assertiveness, Social-Emotional Connections with Others

A third benefit of psychotherapy for teenagers and college students is that it can help them improve their social skills by enhancing their communication, empathy, and assertiveness. Communication is the ability to express and understand verbal and nonverbal messages in different situations, and psychotherapy can improve both verbal (using language and verbal expression) and nonverbal communication (gestures, expressions, and body language) abilities. For example, psychotherapy can improve verbal communication by teaching clients how to use clear and concise language. Psychotherapy can also help them improve their nonverbal communication by teaching them how to effectively understand and use appropriate eye contact, posture, and tone of voice. Psychotherapy can also help them improve their listening skills, which involve paying attention, showing interest, and providing feedback to the speaker by teaching them how to use active listening techniques, such as paraphrasing, reflecting, and questioning.

Empathy, which is the ability to share and understand the feelings and perspectives of others, is also a frequent topic of exploration in psychotherapy. Empathy is often broken down into three dimensions: 1) emotional empathy, which involves feeling what others feel; 2) cognitive empathy, which involves thinking what others think; and 3) compassionate empathy, which involves acting to help others. Psychotherapy can help clients improve in all three of these dimensions. For example, emotional empathy can be enhanced by teaching clients to recognize and label emotions in themselves and others. In contrast, cognitive empathy can be taught through learning about perspective-taking and imagining the situation of others. Compassionate empathy can also be enhanced by expressing sympathy and supporting others.

Lastly, psychotherapy can also help clients develop a sense of assertiveness, which is the ability to stand up for their rights and needs respectfully and confidently. Psychotherapy can help clients improve their self-assertion, which involves expressing their opinions, preferences, and feelings, by teaching them to use “I” statements and avoid passive or aggressive language. Psychotherapy can also help them improve their request assertion, which involves asking for what they want or need, by teaching them how to use polite and specific requests and avoid demands or threats. Psychotherapy can also help them improve their refusal assertion, which involves saying no to what they don’t want or need. It teaches them to use firm, respectful refusals and avoid excuses or apologies.

Some psychotherapy methods that can help with social skills are interpersonal therapy, Psychodynamic Psychotherapy, CBT, IPT, and DBT (see above), as all of these have been developed with an interpersonal focus. Psychotherapy can help teenagers and college students build and maintain healthy and satisfying relationships with others by improving their social skills.