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Coaching vs. Therapy: What’s the Difference, and Which One Does My Teen Need?


Life coaching and therapy are often considered to be interchangeable, but this is not the case.

The two specialties co-exist in the mental well-being space and can work in conjunction, however, the services offered and credentials required to practice are distinctly different. This article explains the differences between coaching and therapy, and explains how to decide if your teen can benefit from one (or both) of these services.

What is Coaching?

The International Coaching Federation defines coaching as “partnering with clients in a thought-provoking and creative process that inspires them to maximize their personal and professional potential.”

Coaching is a non-directive, person-centered, client-led experience. The client engages the coach as a supportive, non-judgmental accountability partner to facilitate the client’s expansion of awareness, understanding, clarity, and action around their self-directed goals or desired outcome.

Coaches in the United States do not require specific education, certification, or licensure to practice. Coaching is not a tool used to assess, diagnose, or treat mental health or behavioral conditions.

What is Therapy?

According to the American Psychological Association, “psychotherapy refers to any psychological service provided by a trained professional that primarily uses forms of communication and interaction to assess, diagnose, and treat dysfunctional emotional reactions, ways of thinking, and behavior patterns.”

Therapists have specialized education and require supervision and licensure to practice. Therapists use directive and non-directive methods as part of their approach.

Key Distinctions: The Wellness Continuum

Think of wellness on a continuum with the mid-point as 0, representing normal functioning.

Negative numbers are dysfunctional and positive numbers are thriving.

Therapy addresses moderate to severe dysfunction with the goal of bringing clients back to normal functioning.

Coaching takes “functional enough” and/or functional clients into positive numbers to thriving.

Coaches help clients take a proactive role in their lives, to begin setting and working toward goals to learn to thrive by doing.

Coaching or Therapy (or Both), What Does My Teen Need?

Coaching is not an appropriate space to process past or present trauma. If your adolescent is experiencing mental, emotional, or behavioral distress that is long-standing, persistent, intensifying, or if they have been subject to a traumatizing event, they may be better suited for therapy or other medical care.

Coaching and therapy CAN work together. Coaches do work in partnership with therapists either in the form of shared clients, or under a larger mental healthcare organization. Clients who are well-managed in therapy often seek out coaches to support them in next level development around present and future goals in work, school, or life.

Coaching is appropriate for adolescents experiencing zero to mild levels of dysfunction who are ready, willing, and able to set and pursue self-directed goals related to their growth and development.

Interested in learning more about the differences between therapy and coaching? Check out our accredited life coach training programs and educational resources for more information.

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