The Business of Practice

Dealing with Difficult Clients in Therapy

While most clients seek help with an open mind, there are times when therapists find themselves faced with difficult clients. These challenging individuals can pose unique obstacles to the therapeutic process, making it crucial for therapists to understand the types of difficult clients they may encounter and develop effective strategies for managing them. In this post, we explore the different types of challenging patients in therapy, discuss how to remedy the challenges they present and determine when it is appropriate to consider ending the therapeutic relationship. Additionally, we will touch upon the complexities of working with forensic patients, police officers, and individuals who enter therapy due to external pressures.


Dealing with Difficult Clients in Therapy

Types of Challenging Patients

The prevalence of different types of challenges in therapy sessions can vary. The frequency of encountering resistant, silent, confrontational, or overly dependent clients depends on factors such as the therapist's practice area, patient population, and therapeutic approach.

Resistant patients are clients who often exhibit a strong reluctance to engage in therapy or change their behavior. They may be defensive, evasive, or openly resistant to therapeutic interventions. This resistance can stem from fear, insecurity, or a lack of readiness to confront their issues. Dealing with these clients requires patience and the ability to build trust gradually.

Resistance in therapy is relatively common. Many clients may initially exhibit resistance as they grapple with the fear of change, confronting difficult emotions, or adjusting to the therapeutic process. Resistance can be associated with various issues, from anxiety to past trauma. Techniques such as motivational interviewing, empathetic listening, and gradual exposure therapy can be valuable in addressing resistance.

Silent patients rarely contribute to the therapy session, leaving the therapist to wonder about their thoughts and feelings. Facilitating meaningful progress with such clients can be challenging, as effective therapy relies on open communication. Encouraging them to open up and express themselves is a crucial task.

Silent clients who struggle to open up during therapy sessions are encountered less frequently but are not uncommon. This challenge may be related to social anxiety, communication difficulties, or a lack of trust in the therapist. Therapists can utilize open-ended questions, active listening, and creating a safe and non-judgmental environment to encourage these clients to share their thoughts and feelings.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is a patient who is overly vocal but often in a hostile and aggressive manner. They may criticize the therapist's methods, question their competence, or challenge the therapeutic process. Handling these clients requires maintaining a professional demeanor while addressing their concerns constructively.

Although less common than resistant clients, confrontational clients appear in therapy. Their behavior may be associated with anger management problems, personality disorders, or therapeutic alliance difficulties. Therapists may benefit from using techniques like assertiveness training, conflict resolution strategies, and setting clear boundaries to manage confrontational clients.

Lastly, some clients rely excessively on the therapist for emotional support and guidance. While it's natural for clients to seek guidance, these individuals may become dependent, expecting the therapist to solve all their problems. It's essential to establish healthy boundaries while providing support.

Clients who become overly dependent on their therapist for emotional support and guidance are also encountered, albeit less frequently. This behavior can be linked to attachment issues, personality disorders, or severe anxiety. Therapists can utilize techniques like setting clear boundaries, fostering independence, and gradually reducing support to address excessive dependency.

It's important to note that these categories are not mutually exclusive, and clients may exhibit traits from multiple categories. Additionally, specific disorders or issues may contribute to these challenges. For example, personality disorders like borderline personality disorder may be associated with aggressive or overly dependent behavior. The success of interventions and techniques will depend on the client's unique characteristics, presenting issues, and the therapist's expertise in effectively handling these challenges. Personalized and flexible approaches are often necessary to address clients' diverse needs in therapy.

Unique Cases

Forensic patients are court-ordered to receive therapy due to their involvement in criminal activities. These clients often present unique challenges, such as resistance to therapy, as their presence stems from legal obligations rather than a desire for personal growth. Therapists working with forensic patients must navigate these challenges by maintaining clear communication with the legal system, focusing on rehabilitation, and addressing the underlying issues contributing to criminal behavior.

Forensic patients may resist therapy due to the legal obligations tied to their treatment. Unlike clients seeking therapy voluntarily, these individuals may lack intrinsic motivation for change, necessitating creative methods for engagement. In addition to addressing resistance, therapists must conduct risk assessments to ensure safety, collaborate closely with the legal system, delve into the root causes of criminal behavior, assist in reintegrating patients into society, and navigate ethical dilemmas.

Safety and security are paramount in cases where forensic patients pose a risk to themselves or others, requiring therapists to implement safety protocols and crisis intervention strategies. Establishing a therapeutic alliance can be challenging due to the legal circumstances surrounding these clients, demanding patience, non-judgmental attitudes, and empathy. The collaboration with the legal system entails effective communication with probation officers, judges, and lawyers, ensuring compliance with court orders and providing necessary progress reports. To address the diverse backgrounds of forensic patients, therapists must be culturally sensitive to cater to their unique needs and challenges appropriately. While these challenges are intricate, effective therapy can lead to rehabilitation, reduced recidivism, and positive changes in the lives of forensic patients. Successful navigation of these complexities requires clinical expertise, communication skills, and a strong understanding of therapy's legal and ethical aspects in a forensic context.

Police officers or other emergency service professionals may require therapy as part of their mental health support system, especially when they have experienced traumatic incidents. These clients may face the additional pressure of returning to work quickly. Therapists must balance the officers' need for support with the duty to assess their fitness for duty, all while addressing potential stigmatization around seeking help.

Assessing the fitness for duty of police officers often involves a combination of psychological assessments, interviews, and evaluations that focus on various aspects of their mental health, emotional stability, and suitability for the demands of the law enforcement profession. While the specific measures and procedures may vary by jurisdiction and law enforcement agency, there are some standard assessment measures and techniques used:

  • Some law enforcement agencies use the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-2-Restructured Form (MMPI-2-RF) or a similar personality inventory to assess personality traits and psychopathological conditions. 
  • The Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Peace Officer Psychological Screening Manual serves as a comprehensive resource that offers guidance throughout the entire process of psychological evaluations for peace officer candidates. It covers various aspects, starting from the selection and training of screening psychologists, and extends to procedures for determining the suitability of candidates. The primary aim is to provide clarity and support in conducting pre-employment psychological evaluations for peace officers while adhering to federal and state regulations and professional standards. 
  • Psychologists may conduct risk assessments. These evaluators assess risk factors for potential misconduct, including domestic violence, substance abuse, and other personal issues that could impact job performance.
  • Promoting Wellness, Resiliency, and Suicide Prevention Practices in Police and Public Safety Psychology is paramount. Implementing evidence-based strategies, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and critical incident stress management (CISM) training, can enhance resilience, reduce stress, and prevent suicide among these professionals. 
  • Assessing Bias in Police and Other Public Safety Candidates involves critically evaluating applicants for impartiality, fairness, and adherence to ethical and professional standards. Identifying and mitigating potential biases that may impact their performance and decision-making in high-stress situations is essential, ultimately contributing to delivering equitable public safety services.
  • Given the potential for exposure to traumatic events, officers may be evaluated for signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or other trauma-related disorders.

Sometimes, clients enter therapy because a third party, such as a partner or parent, is forcing them to seek help. While these clients may not initially be motivated to change, therapists can work to engage them in the therapeutic process, gradually helping them recognize the benefits of therapy for their well-being.

How to Remedy the Challenges

Each type of challenging client may require a different approach. Customizing therapeutic approaches to the unique needs of each client is critical.

  • Resistant clients require therapists to work on building trust and rapport before diving into more profound issues. 
  • With quieter clients, gentle encouragement and patience can help open the lines of communication. 
  • The overly vocal client may benefit from discussing their concerns openly.
  • The dependent client may need help in developing self-reliance.

Practical communication skills are paramount when dealing with difficult clients. Therapists should actively listen, validate their clients' feelings, and provide constructive feedback. Creating a safe, non-judgmental space where clients feel heard and understood is essential.

Setting clear boundaries is crucial in managing challenging clients. Therapists must maintain professionalism and avoid being emotionally entangled in the client's issues. Additionally, therapists should practice self-care to prevent burnout and maintain their well-being.

When Is It Time to Cut Ties?

While therapists strive to help all clients, it may become clear that the therapeutic relationship could be more productive. In such cases, it's essential to consider ending the therapeutic relationship, but this decision should not be taken lightly. Here are some indicators:

  • If a client consistently fails to progress despite the therapist's efforts, it may be time to reevaluate the therapeutic approach or consider termination.
  • If a client's behavior poses ethical concerns, such as threats of harm to themselves or others, therapists are responsible for taking appropriate action, which may include terminating the relationship.
  • Sometimes, the therapist-client relationship may be marked by irreconcilable differences or conflicts that impede progress.


Dealing with difficult clients in therapy can be a challenging aspect of a therapist's work. Therapists can navigate these challenges with professionalism and compassion by recognizing challenging clients, employing tailored approaches, and maintaining effective communication and boundaries. However, when it becomes evident that the therapeutic relationship is no longer productive or poses ethical concerns, therapists must carefully consider the decision to end the relationship, always prioritizing the well-being of their clients.

Relevant Trainings


Latest Business of Practice posts

Browse Business of Practice

Navigating the No Surprises Act and Good Faith Estimates

The No Surprises Act, signed into law in 2020, aims to protect patients from unexpected medical bills by requiring healthcare providers to provide

Deciphering the Influence: Manipulation in Mental Health Context

For mental health professionals, understanding the complexities of manipulation is crucial in navigating therapeutic relationships and promoting

Understanding the Healing Potential of Biofield Therapy in Mental Health Practice

In recent years, there has been a growing interest in holistic approaches to mental health care that complement traditional therapeutic modalities.