Every Choice You Make Makes You: The science of Teenage Life Coaching

by Nora Moriarty and Emma O’Brien

Life Coaching offers many opportunities to make a difference in the life of a client. The opportunity to make that difference during teenage years helps to address future effects of self doubt and limiting beliefs. Nora Moriarty and Emma O’Brien discover how the coaching approach must be changed to be effective with young adults.

Youth workers offers a safe and supportive space for young people who struggle with more formal/structured learning settings, working with them using a range of mediums that inspire them to live meaningful and empowered lives. We are funded to work with young people from the age of ten up to twenty five. In recent times, one of the mediums being introduced to this field is life coaching.

This paper sets out the journey taken and lessons learned when delivering life coaching sessions to a younger audience. The context is a youth work setting; working with vulnerable young people from areas of disadvantage. The training was adult orientated as teenage life coaching is in its infancy in Ireland and no youth focused training was available. The two life coaches were youth workers, each with over ten years’ experience in their field. 

Initial Observations

As a professional youth worker who had just qualified as a life coach, I very enthusiastically set about introducing life coaching to my practice. My colleague, on another team, had also trained and together we liaised to ensure the highest quality service was offered on both teams. Initially I worked with a number of individual young adults aged between eighteen and twenty three, NEETS (Not in Education, Employment or Training) who engaged well with the process. They enjoyed having that space that was theirs, and flourished as they were given time and space to explore areas in their lives and work towards improving them.

However, while working with them, I realised that identifying actions was sometimes not enough. They were willing and enthusiastic about carrying out a task/goal, but frequently did not have the information, skills or resources to independently complete it. Therefore in addition to identifying the goal and the steps involved in attaining that goal, high levels of practical support was also required on the ground to work through these tasks. As far as practicable, I attempted to support them by giving them the minimum help required to successfully complete the task and the amount of support required differed with each person i.e. providing ‘instrumental help’ (Pajares & Urdan, 2006). If I didn’t assist, the task didn’t get completed because the person didn’t have the capacity or confidence to do so alone.

I felt concerned that I was over-stepping as a coach and ended up researching online to ascertain the practices of other life coaches working with younger clientele. Reassurance came from a number of publications; from Tait & Wosu (2013) who discussed the importance of taking demographics, personal and family  circumstances into account, not just the age of the person, which can skew expectation; from Lindgren (2011) who highlighted significant differences that needed to be factored in when life coaching young people, specifically the amount of practical skills support required by young people who were carrying out something for the first time.

“I felt concerned that I was over-stepping as a coach…”

When working with younger teenagers a number of other considerations needed to be taken into account. Unlike those over eighteen (who have autonomy over the decisions they made in their lives), younger children didn’t. They had parents and school to take into account. Stages of development and maturity (Tait & Wasu, 2013; Lindgren, 2011) also needed to be taken into account as did the style and duration of facilitation (Grant, 2014) who advocated carrying out shorter fun sessions that young people look forward to. Teenage life coaches who explore a situation from a young person’s perspective (Milner & Bateman, 2011) can more successfully understand their headspace. Young people have to want to engage in the process. Parents or teachers may make the referral; but unless the young person is invested or interested, they will not engage or benefit in any meaningful way.

Adapting A Youth-Friendly Approach: bringing it back to basics

Accidentally one day, I found that a tried and tested youth work technique (having a game of pool) while talking through the GROW technique, took the intensity from the situation and allowed the conversation to flow more fluidly (prior to that, the conversation had been lack lustre, sitting on the sofa, where the young person was paying it lip service but not actively engaged). The young person was able to enjoy the session more and participated more enthusiastically in the conversation while focusing on the game at hand and not solely the discussion. After the session, I reflected on the reasons for the turn-about and decided to integrate other youth work techniques to life coaching. In another session, using a values list from the manual, I spent most of the time explaining each of the values to the young person, who couldn’t pronounce some of them and didn’t know what the words meant.

Again, this reiterated that the resource wasn’t suitable for a younger audience. My colleague was having similar issues. She and I took time to create a more youthful version of the tools in the resource manual which had a transformative impact on our services’ life coaching with teenagers.

In addition to adapting the resource, my colleague and I read up on delivery styles and research indicated youths are more influenced by peers than by adults and learn better in a more interactive group setting with peers (Lindgren, 2011; Grant, 2014; Brown & Grant, 2010; Leech, Green & Grant 2011). They get support and positive reinforcement from peers, helping each other reduces isolation whilst experiencing gratification and there is more pressure to be accountable when achieving goals, especially if others demonstrate progress (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2001; Brown & Grant, 2010).

We were concerned about confidentiality in groupwork (Brown & Grant, 2010) so in addition to stressing the importance of confidentiality in the group contract, we offered short optional individual follow ups to group sessions which offered a time and space to share more private information or concerns. When setting up a group, we invested time and attention to each of the participants, in relation to the group dynamic to ensure that there was a diversity of skills and confidence, an openness and trust amongst the participants, a mix of pro-social abilities, that tasks were divided to ensure equal engagement, learning opportunities and commitment/buy-in. Both research (Pajares & Urdan, 2006; Hergenhahn & Olson 2001, Brown & Grant 2010), and our experiences on the ground, identified that the more attention the group dynamic was given in advance, the more successful (or not) it would be. Indeed, we also found the reverse to be the case, when offering an open sign-up course.

We designed an 8 week course; each session 1.5 hours and focusing on important life skills that life coaching offers (goal setting and critical reflection, limiting beliefs and positive energising thoughts, resilience, life maps etc). Young people engage more in any process that they enjoy (Grant, 2014), feel valued and heard and where they are learning and developing while having fun. Therefore we consciously set the tone; using a colourful youth room, rather than a school room (Grant, 2014), and use a range of flexible delivery styles to ensure the young person’s comfort. Some young people are very at home sitting, chatting and using worksheets. For others, with short attention spans, poor vocabulary, articulation skills or confidence, we used activities that allow for movement and action, that were more visual, that used colourful worksheets (with pictures and less words or picture cards) to explore an issue. Playing a game can reduce the intensity of a conversation and hold the attention (Ratner & Yusuf, 2015) of some teenagers who would not otherwise engage.

Examples include ANTs cards, an effective resource to question limiting beliefs (Burns, 1989), two-person art challenges to explore communication, or technology (YouTube/Ted Talks etc) to explain concepts (resilience, stress, mindfulness etc) and serve as reminders when shared. As well as sourcing them online, we also created some, with some of our young people.

“Using technology to check in with young people between sessions increases their accountability and commitment”

Adolescence is an exciting yet fearful time where young people experience many ‘firsts’. They need to become open to trying new and different experiences to discover who they are and what they enjoy most (Kelly, 2015). Life coaching is an effective tool to discuss concerns and work through alternatives. It facilitates chunking, a life skill that breaks ‘large objectives into smaller, manageable pieces to ensure success’ (Grant, 2014, p. 71) which in turn helps them experience a series of small successes and stay motivated. The benefit of training youth workers as life coaches, is that complimentary programmes can be carried out to enhance the young person’s skills. Learning to weigh up and analyse situations or create change can take time (Martin, 2016; Galinsky, 2010 & Grant, 2014). For some young people identifying a friend that they can be accountable to during the week can help motivate them (i.e. someone who will exercise or join a club with them).

In our experience, young people can forget the tasks they had agreed to carry out, or lose the paper they were written on. A reoccurring issue for teenagers was trying something that doesn’t work out then waiting until the next coaching session to think about an alternative. Using technology to check in with young people between sessions (Lindgren, 2011), increases their accountability and commitment, and can facilitate discussion on trying an alternative action if the first action didn’t work out. This must be with parental consent and within child protection policies set out by the organisation. Otherwise, carrying out a task can become a long and arduous journey.

As a life coach, one of the highlighted needs that emerged was on developing coping strategies and building resilience. There was a lot of self-doubt and lack of belief cloaked in an ‘I don’t care’ attitude. It was important to mindfully interpret experiences so that teenagers can learn to more critically problem solve and look for other explanations (Galinsky, 2010 ). They need to link effort with reward and understand that skills develop over time and with perseverance (Dweck, 2006) and challenge themselves to keep trying. When working with those who had higher levels of need, learning to read their feelings and emotions and challenging low or debilitating moods that could prevent them from fully investing in their goals and actions, and quitting at the first hurdle (Bandura, 1995; Covey, 2008) became very important, particularly for those who have low agency and self-efficacy beliefs. Encouraging them to reflect so that they were able to assess situations more critically helped problem solve more analytically (Bandura, 2006; Galinsky, 2010) but this, often, was a slow process. For me, discussing and valuing the efforts made as opposed to the outcome created valuable learning opportunities. Teenagers are very clued into the amount of effort they expend so being honest, recognising genuine persistence and accomplishment when earned (Whitmore, 2009; Seligman, 2006; Dweck, 2006) meant that the trust and openness in the coaching relationship developed.

Adult life coaching sessions tend to be an hour in length. The optimal time for teenagers is less, 30 to 40 minutes, normally (Ratner and Yusuf, 2015) but I found additional short solution focused life coaching work can enhance the learning e.g. if a life coach is in the right place at the right time, e.g. a two-minute session with a fourteen-year-old in Drop In who works through a problem (a fight with a friend) that had just arisen, quickly finding a solution, rectifying the issue and move forward, and using the experience as a processing tool at the next session.

The Value of Reflection:

Having a colleague to carry out regular reflective practice became the lifeblood of the our teenage life coaching experience and how it developed. It was a very energising and enriching two years. I was carrying our my masters and the research on teenage life coaching was instrumental in informing our practice. It was not without its challenges, my colleague and I were on different teams, in different areas, and our funding lines differed (mainstream and Garda Youth Diversion Project) which meant we were working with young people with different needs and risks. However, her expertise and input, her passion for the work, her support and unwavering belief in the potential of this way of working with young people has been inspirational. We have much to do; the resource needs to be finalised, piloted and evaluated. But we are well on the way and our motivation is each and every young person who trusted the process, who are mindfully living their lives, making choices, discovering who they are and what they value, and daring to belief in themselves and their dreams.


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Nora Moriarty is a manager in Crosscare’s Youth Service. She has 10 years experience with teenagers in both Youth Work and Youth Justice. In 2015 she trained as a Life Coach with Kingstown College and focused on developing a more youth tailored approach as her focus for her Masters in Education & Training (DCU, 2018). Emma O’Brien has been a youth worker for 15 yrs, running “The beat” Youth Cafe in Dún Laoghaire where she facilitates workshops in mindfulness, mental health, leadership, the creative arts and provides one to one teen life coaching. She also trained as a Life Coach with Kingstown College and is currently participating in their Advanced Diploma in Mental Health and Wellbeing Coaching. Emma and Nora are in the final stages of developing a eenage life coaching programme which they will shortly be piloting and rolling out within their organisation