Adolescent vs. Adult Mental Health Counseling

At first glance, adult and adolescent mental health counseling may seem the same. After all, both involve a mental health professional, the client processing events. emotions and collaborating to create goals and solutions to problems. How, then, are they different?

There are numerous ways that adult and adolescent mental health treatment are unique and catered to each age group. Read on to find out the distinctions in adult vs. adolescent counseling.

Form of therapy

Most adults partake in psychotherapy or talk therapy. Typically, this looks like a conversation between adults in an office setting. The client is guided by the therapist and the two explore memories, thoughts and behaviors.

Although most therapy with children and adolescents includes some talk therapy, it generally also incorporates play therapy, art or music therapy, parent-child interaction therapy, animal-assisted therapy or other modalities.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, adolescent counseling relies on a combination of verbal therapy and behavior-based therapy to best understand kids and help them understand themselves. Including treatment that is active or varies each week can also be more engaging for younger clients.

Modes of interaction

There is more variety in counseling for adolescents to account for shorter attention spans. A counselor will generally share more stories and add in personal anecdotes to spark conversations and relate to the child. A counselor may be more animated and use more humor or creativity to engage the client in adolescent counseling.

Adults participate in therapy by answering questions and collaborating to brainstorm logical solutions. Adults tend to be more aware of the therapeutic process and have expectations about how to interact in sessions as well.


One of the clearest differences between adult counseling and adolescent counseling is the modifications for differing developmental milestones.

Therapy for adolescents takes brain development into consideration. The high plasticity of a teenage brain impacts intellectual and emotional behavior. According to Brain Development During Adolescence, major areas of a growing brain that may be addressed in therapy include self-confidence, relationship security, identity, independence, self-control and social skills.

Stages of life

Many mental health professionals consult psychologist Erik Erikson’s developmental stages to inform their practice with different age groups. His theory states areas of primary interest corresponding to specific developmental periods in life.

According to Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, adolescents are focused on creating identity but can encounter confusion in the process. They weigh societal expectations, their upbringing and their values at this stage.

Adults, on the other hand, are wrestling with intimacy and isolation, and later in adulthood are dealing with the quest for purpose. Following Erikson’s theory, clinicians will vary their practice to correspond to these stages of life.

Guidance for younger clients

Due to differences in adolescent and adult cognitive ability, it’s more likely that counseling will include more guidance for adolescents. According to an article in Developmental Psychobiology, adolescent brains have immature impulse control, often resulting in risk-taking behaviors.

Moreover, adolescents are more prone to seek immediate gratification, have a lower capacity for self-regulation and are fueled by peer approval, states an article in Developmental Review.

Thus, in counseling, a mental health professional is more likely to encourage safe decision-making in sessions. For adults, therapy grants greater liberty to the client in making their own decisions, even if they are unhealthy decisions.

Processing emotions

Younger children often struggle with accurately verbalizing the emotions they are feeling. Adults are more cognizant of their experiences and can often connect a stimulus with the resulting feeling on their own.

Children generally respond better when given examples of scenarios that would cause a certain emotional response as opposed to calling to mind nuanced emotion words. Children are also more likely to demonstrate emotions through behavior than to state their feelings. For this reason, play and interactive forms of therapy are often employed.


The terminology mental health practitioners use will differ greatly between sessions with adults in children. Words like trauma, meta-cognition, transference, dissonance and the like may be easily taught and become normal vocabulary for an adult in treatment. Working with adolescents requires simple vocabulary to avoid miscommunication.

Common topics

The topics during sessions will typically vary for adolescent vs. adult counseling. Below are some common subjects for each.


  • Marriage, divorce or relationship issues
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Work-related stress
  • Substance abuse
  • Health concerns or chronic conditions
  • Intimacy-related concerns


  • Anxiety and depression
  • Self-harm
  • Disordered eating
  • Bullying
  • Anger control
  • Independence
  • Family dynamics
  • Identity

Starting counseling

Though adult counseling and adolescent counseling differ in their implementation, both have the same end goal: alleviation of negative symptoms of mental illness and improved quality of life.

If you have considered starting counseling services for yourself or a loved one, Mazzitti & Sullivan Counseling can offer you the right treatment. Mazzitti & Sullivan provides counseling for the whole family in a safe and welcoming environment. When you’re ready to get the help you deserve, call 800-809-2925.