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Making Healthy Decisions: the Seven Challenges

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Kristen Program Manager Riverstone

Kristen, right, is Riverstone Counseling’s program manager.

Here’s the scene: a teenager is using drugs or alcohol. They get caught. They’re sent—by their parents or school, or by a court—to treatment, which can be an outpatient counseling program like Riverstone. Often, parents and schools want to see drug-free kids, but this abstinence-only model isn’t proven to be successful.

“It usually leads to the youth blowing out of our sessions without making change, fighting it, or faking it, without actual change happening,” says Counseling Program Manager Kristen Vogel. “When we hammer away the abstinence message, we’re missing something.”

Another Approach:

“People are often more likely to change when they realize they’ll feel better as a result of that change. Instead of trying to convince youth to stop using, we help them uncover why they’re using, and help them find different ways of coping with those problems.”

At Riverstone Counseling, we’re using a treatment model called the Seven Challenges. Backed by the Vermont Department of Health, this evidence-based practice helps youth look at their substance use in a thoughtful and honest way.

“Instead of trying to convince youth to stop using, we help them uncover why they’re using, and help them find different ways of coping with those problems.”

– Kristen Vogel, Counseling Program Manager

A teenager’s job is figuring out who they are in their own identity,” says Kristen. “They’re going to come in with their own awareness of their life, and their own idea of what to talk about.”

When a young person is at the center of their own treatment process, they are learning how to make positive, healthy decisions for themselves.

“At Riverstone, we build a relationship between teenager and counselor to help the young person think thoughtfully about their drug use and how it plays out, and start to make better decisions for their future.”

To work through that process, our counselors use the Seven Challenges model. Plus, all of our staff have been trained on the treatment, so that youth who access other Spectrum programs see the Seven Challenges in those spaces, too.

Riverstone waiting room

At the Riverstone offices in downtown Burlington.

The Seven Challenges:

This treatment model comes from an understanding of youth development, especially brain development, that supports youth to develop problem-solving skills, constructive thoughts about their futures, and an understanding of how their substance use choices affect both of these. It is a health decision-making model that challenges youth to consider the health impacts of their substance use choices, and it helps them develop lifelong skills in making health choices.

For our clinicians, the honesty and trust built through using this treatment model are nothing new. As Kristen put it, “we’ve always been client-centered. We’re each forming strong, positive relationships with young people. We are accepting them for who they are at that moment, making room to build trust in a safe and non-judgmental space, and from there, helping them explore the potential changes they may want to make in their lives. Relationships—what we call strong therapeutic alliances—are really the groundwork for successful counseling.”

But is it effective? Our counselors say a resounding “yes.”

“The process isn’t forced,” adds Kristen. “It resonates with teens because they feel empowered in their sessions, they are the ones taking the lead, and we support them in making progress toward a change they’ve chosen for themselves.”

“We build a relationship to help the young person make better decisions for themselves and their future.”

— Kristen Vogel, Counseling Program Manager

The Seven Challenges complements our counseling practice, which is aligned with our clients and encouraging of family involvement. “The basis of the challenges is honesty,” says Kristen.

And honesty is the basis of our treatment at Riverstone: “we need all of our clients to be honest about what’s going on and to really understand that we want them to feel safe.” In this way, the Seven Challenges framework is helpful for any person who walks through our doors.


To learn more about Riverstone Counseling, or to make an appointment, call (802) 864-7423 x310.

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