The Heroic Journey Can Support Most Approaches

There are lots of different theories and styles of counseling as well as settings.  The heroic journey is the fundamental story of change, so it can support almost any counseling approach.  It’s just a matter of adaptation.   

The heroic journey is a myth that almost all cultures have used throughout time to teach their members how to create a life or a community, so it is extremely adaptable.  It is the fundamental story of change, but it plays out in unique ways for each individual, so it is not prescriptive.  It is for adaptation.  And it is a great structure for a wide range of conversations.

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start”


The Heroic Journey is Inherently Ennobling – That Matters

This is particularly important for teenagers in a diminished state.  They can find immediate relief in seeing themselves on a heroic journey.  Because it’s a journey, they can also realize that the negative feelings experienced are not forever – and not a sign that they are failing. 

Struggling, failing, feeling depressed, disconnected, confused, hopeless or disillusioned are all parts of the journey.  They are not happy parts, but they natural parts of the journey – and not the whole journey, which is critical.  There are also times of excitement, success, connection, things falling into place, etc.  It’s a rollercoaster.

For teenagers and their adults in general, seeing themselves as being on a heroic journey counters the sense of simply being caught between childhood and adulthood – no longer being a child and not yet an adult – “inbetweenity.”. 

The journey is a noble one and naturally draws on their best – courage, resilience, the ability to learn a lot fast, developing a new identity, forming lots of new relationships and building a wide range of competencies.  Adolescence is literally a noble quest.  We just don’t tell them.

“Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react.”

John Maxwell and

It’s About Being the Author

At the heart of the heroic journey is the challenge to become the author of a life.  That is also what the teenage years are about.  Leaving behind the dependence of childhood to go forth into the unknown of adolescence and be tested and grow – in the process taking on the responsibility and power to become the author of a life.  That is a 10-year process, it’s not easy, teenagers are often ambivalent about it, and it has lots of ups and downs.

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”


The Basics – Challenged and Tested in Order to Grow
Notes and Guiding Questions

We grow outside our comfort zones when challenged and tested.  Teenagers have this experience in more ways than anyone else.  The good news is that it is about growing and becoming.  The bad news is that it is on so many fronts for ten years.

There are Three Core challenges

There will  naturally be counseling opportunities with each core challenge and teenagers need support in each. 

  1. Forming an identity as a young adult.  “Who am I?’  “Am I worthy?”
  2. Developing more mature relationships – with parents, peers and romantic partners.  “Where am I connected?”  “Who cares about me?”
  3. Building a wide range of competencies.  “Am I capable of taking care of myself – of being successful?”
  • “Where is my client struggling most right now and how can I support them there?”
  • “For which challenge is my client best prepared or doing well and how can I reinforce that to provide some balance for them?

There are Three Different Types of Test

Just knowing that there are three types of test helps and being able to see how those tests are playing out with strategies for dealing with them is invaluable.

  1. Letting go of the old ways of childhood
  2. Discovering and mastering the ways of being a young adult
  3. Dealing with being in-between childhood and young adulthood – “inbetweenity”
  • What parts of childhood is my client holding onto – letting go of?
  • Which competencies of young adulthood is my client developing well – having trouble with?
  • Which competencies would make the biggest difference in the near future if developed well?
  • How is “inbetweenity” playing out?  Anxiety vs. excitement? Confidence vs. doubts?  Feeling connected vs. disconnected?  Etc.

Teenagers are Tested on Five Levels (PIESS)

Teenagers are thrown into their journey (they didn’t ask for it) and faced with a lot of tests that can play out on a lot of levels.  Sometimes just mapping those tests can shift the focus from what isn’t going well (focus on the teenager and struggles) to the nature of the journey and what to expect (the journey is the problem, not the teenager). 

  1. Physical tests
  2. Intellectual tests
  3. Emotional tests
  4. Social tests
  5. Spiritual tests
  • “On which level(s) is my client being tested now?”
  • “On which level(s) might I make the greatest difference?”
  • “Are there others that I can engage to help on levels where I do not have the leverage?”

“I asked for wisdom... And God gave me problems to solve. I asked for prosperity... And God gave me brains and the strength to work. I asked for courage... And God gave me danger to overcome. I asked for love... And God gave me troubled people to help. I asked for favors... And God gave me opportunities. I received nothing I wanted. I received everything I needed. My Prayer has been answered”

Anon., of Islamic

Your Potential Role Re: the Journey

This is about what your role “could” be – not what it “should” be.  It’s an option.

You can be a guide on the journey if that helps avoid skepticism or preconceptions about “counselors.”  The  teen journey is long, complex and challenging, so guides are extraordinarily useful, if not essential – just as they are for jungle treks and other ventures into the unknown. 

Teenagers often see “counselors” as adults whose job it is to fix them.  Better to see a counselor as a guide on a noble journey – someone to challenge and support them as they take on the challenges and tests and deal with the rollercoaster experience.

There are also other figures naturally encountered on the heroic journey, for example helper, healer, “wise man” or “wise woman” or simply one who has gone before on their own journey.  So, the journey offers a number of ways to frame your role, if desired.

What Guides on a Journey Can Do

This varies with every teenager, but there are some strategies that are common that a guide can tailor to the situation.

1. Lay out what to expect – what’s natural in the teen journey

Having the “big picture” as well as knowing some of the specifics helps get out of feeling little and lost and provides ground for being more of the author vs. victim.  (See the sections on the 3 challenges and what to expect on the journey)

2. Clarify how it’s playing out

Increasing awareness increases the ability to influence the experience even at its toughest – particularly if it can be placed in the context of the journey and what to expect. (There are worksheets for many sections that can support awareness and conversation)

3. Help determine what to do about it

Strategies for dealing with the challenges and tests can be provided or co-authored or facilitated.  Sometimes teenagers need direction, sometimes they need to discover how to respond with a more experienced person and sometimes they need to figure things out on their own with some facilitation. (See the section on managing the journey – what to do about it)

4. Facilitate connecting to support

“Heroes don’t go alone.”  They never have in the myths and we don’t succeed on our major journeys of change without some support.  This is particularly true for teenagers, who come to this ten-year journey with little experience.  Creating a support web is often critical and can include individuals, organizations, extended family, groups/teams, communities, etc.  It often takes a lot of guidance to get a support network in place.  (Addressed in the sections on what to expect on the journey and how to manage it)

5. Focus on Strength and support the development of perseverance and resilience

Teenagers often overlook their own strength or over-inflate it.  They can also overlook strengths that are developing or underestimate the importance of each step in the mastery process.  Perseverance and resilience are essential on the journey and can be developed quite well with support.

6. Respond in crises

May be just a matter of increasing the intentionality and intensity of the first four strategies.  Crises can be threatening and dangerous and they can also provide opportunities for breakthroughs.  They come in all kinds of forms, so there is no recipe for dealing with them.  However, with the exception of physical threats, the journey model can provide a foundation for alleviating immediate stress as well as setting healthy direction and hope.  For example, the concept of a natural journey can help diminish the sense that “this will never change and there is no hope.”  All journeys have painful points, some much more than others, but the all have a future beyond the pain and that simple realization can make all the difference.  Suicide is the exception and there are two sections on suicide in the Specials section.

Using the journey you can also put the crisis in context in terms of the big picture and normalize it.  For example the crisis may about relationships (one of the three core challenges) and you can normalize that as it is a challenge for everyone (even if it doesn’t look like it).  There are also relationship skills that can be brought to bear.  And, if the student is doing well in either of the other two core challenges (identity and competencies), you can highlight that. 

Of course, if they are struggling with all three challenges, you can acknowledge that and let them know that you and they will have to work that much harder, but it’s doable and there is a path.  We grow through our struggles and they will be able to see their ability to persevere develop – as well as their resilience.    

Obviously, in crises the more connections with other helpers, the better.  Those helpers can be peers, trusted adults, professionals, family members, bosses – or organizations, groups, teams, etc. 

Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.


Working With Individuals, Families or Groups


The roles noted just above can all be adapted for working with individual teens.  Although the journey is a unique experience for every teenager, almost all teenagers can relate to the challenges and tests as well as the rollercoaster experience and other aspects of the journey.  That provides fertile ground for discussions that help them understand their experience and figure out ways to manage that experience.  Working with a counselor on managing their journey can benefit almost any teenager and it can be “make-or-break” for some.


Parents can benefit greatly from understanding the journey their teenager is on, the particular challenge of the changing relationship with them and their potential roles in the journey.  Simply remembering that it is a long journey – and a noble one – with lots of ups and downs, can make a major difference.  Siblings and extended family members may also be involved in some settings.


Groups allow teenagers to (1) see that they are not alone on the journey; (2) understand that it is a fundamentally shared experience, but unique in how it plays out for each teenager; and (3) find ways to challenge and support each other.

Groups can also help parents (or teachers) learn and help each other – understanding what’s going on and that they aren’t alone in the challenges they face, what they can do, how they can support each other, etc.

Teenagers Helping Other Teenagers

This is where some serious magic can happen.  Teenagers can make an extraordinary difference in each other’s lives, particularly if they see each other as companions on a common journey and are supported in helping each other.  Helping teenagers help other teenagers can be empowering for teenagers in both the helper and helped role. 

Some of the magic can happen when teenagers realize that they can be in both roles -receiving help from other teachers and also helping other teenagers.

A Note on Suicide

If suicide is an issue, there are two articles in the Specials section one for those who have a suicidal friend and one for those feeling suicidal themselves.

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says…I’ll try again tomorrow.

Mary Anne