Termination of Counseling

In this module, you will learn about the process of terminating the counseling relationship. When any relationship ends, including a counseling relationship, there are many emotions that those individuals involved in the relationship may experience. The Termination Stage is the final stage of counseling, but is just as important as the initial phase of counseling. How you close your counseling relationship can have a significant impact on your client’s view of his or her experience in counseling and the likelihood of their practicing what has been learned in counseling after sessions have concluded.

As Masters students, you will participate in Practicum and Internship placements that will provide you with the opportunity to establish, cultivate and terminate effective counseling relationships with many individuals. Termination of these relationships often proves to be one of the more difficult aspects of training for students because the duration of your relationship with clients is determined more by the timing of your academic semester than by the needs of the client and the achievement of mutually determined goals. Termination is often required before you or the client feel ready (forced-termination). This somewhat artificial aspect that is inherent in the training process can lead to a myriad of emotions for both counselor and client that must be acknowledged and worked through by both individuals.

**In some cases, the “end” of counseling is not always the end, and follow-up is deemed appropriate by the counselor and client to serve as a check to see if change has been maintained and to allow for clients to revisit old issues or work on new issues at a later date. For the purpose of this module, it is assumed that follow-up is not an option for counselors-in-training who are participating in temporary counseling placements.

In This Module

Moving Toward Termination of Therapy

Ideally, termination occurs when the goals that are mutually agreed upon by the counselor and client have been achieved, or the problem for which a client has entered into counseling has become more manageable or is resolved. However, as Masters students, you will learn during your Practicum experience that it is relatively unlikely that you will have been able to work through all of the stages of counseling with your clients during the span of one semester, especially when you may only be at your site one or two days a week. Oftentimes, it can take the majority of your time at the site to establish a trusting connection with clients so that they are willing to open up to you about their issues. You may have resistant clients who are mandated to see you, or clients who volunteer to engage in the process with you but who bring so many concerns with them that it is difficult to decipher what needs to take precedence. Getting them to a point at which they are comfortable with you might bring you close to the end of the semester, at which point you are already thinking about having to end the relationship you have worked so hard to establish.

Termination is the final stage of the counseling process but is not something that should be broached during your last (or next to last) session with a client. Doing so does not allow for the proper amount of time for counselor and client to process what termination means, how the client will handle the conclusion of the counseling relationship, and what follow-up contact or transitioning needs to happen for the client. Termination should be among the first topics that you and your client discuss. Kramer (1990) clearly articulates this when he writes: “The therapist must be clear from the first contact, unless there are mitigating circumstances, that the intent of treatment is to help the (client) function without the therapist.” As a counselor, you are ethically bound to communicate to your client how long you will be available to counsel them, to discuss openly the timeline of your relationship, and to make appropriate referrals or recommendations at the conclusion of your relationship. It is a stage of counseling that clients need to be prepared for and counselors need to address early on in the counseling process to avoid abandonment.

Here are some helpful guidelines for effectively moving your clients toward termination:

  • Remind clients of the approaching ending of the sessions with you. This should be done at least 2-3 sessions prior to the final one. This provides you an opportunity to ask clients to talk about relationships that have ended in their past, how they have ended, and how that might affect the end of this counseling relationship. You can also ask clients what they would like to focus on during their remaining time with you. A question to ask prior to the final one, which may help to prepare clients for the reality of the end, is “If this were our last meeting, how would that be for you?”
  • If you and your client are not limited to a certain number of sessions, you have the option of spacing out your last few meetings. This is a good way to wean your client of the relationship and foster in them a sense of confidence in their ability to handle things without seeing you on a weekly basis before the relationship abruptly ends.
  • Review the progress that you and the client have made during your sessions. Very often, clients will forget the advances they have made, or neglect to give themselves credit for their accomplishments. Doing this with them can instill confidence and provide them with a positive perspective on what counseling helped them to do. Ask your clients what they learned, what they intend to do with what they have learned, what they found helpful about their sessions and how they felt about their participation in the process.
  • Allow clients to talk about their feelings surrounding termination. They will likely have many emotions to work through and time should be spent acknowledging and processing them.
  • Be aware of your own feelings surrounding the termination process. It is normal to feel many emotions when ending a relationship with your clients. Acknowledge your feelings, your ambivalence about termination, etc. Always keep in mind that your ultimate goal as a counselor is to “put yourself out of business.” If you are good at what you do, people will not need to continue to see you for help. They will have the tools to help themselves.
  • If possible, have an open-door policy. Once termination has ended, clients may want to return a few months or years later to refocus or to “check-in”. This is often impossible in the training setting, but something to keep in mind for your professional career.
  • Review the tools and skills that clients have acquired through the counseling process. These tools will be critical in helping clients be self-sufficient in handling problems that might have previously brought them to counseling. If there are additional resources that you feel your client would benefit from for continued personal growth, make appropriate referrals and make your client aware of them.

Types of Termination


  • Definition: Forced-termination is termination of the counseling relationship before the work of therapy has been fully accomplished. This will be the most common type of termination that you will face as a Masters student. As a counselor in training, your clients are individuals who have typically been seeing someone else. You are given what you could call a rotation during which you take over as their counselor, and upon your departure, the individual is transitioned back to his or her regular therapist. In some situations, you may meet with clients who are not receiving services because there are simply not enough professionals to offer service to meet the needs of the site. In these situations, transition may not always be possible.
  • Anticipated Reactions: Clients typically feel anger toward the counselor, perceiving the end of the counseling relationship as abandonment. This may occur even if you make termination a topic of conversation throughout your counseling sessions. It is most likely to occur if you do not mention termination until very close to your intended departure from the relationship. Clients may feel anxious at the thought of having to handle things on their own without the support they have found in your relationship. Other reactions from clients might include sadness at losing a relationship upon which they have come to depend, or indifference at the end of the relationship. These emotions are oftentimes easier or more comfortable to express that anger or separation anxiety. Always keep in mind that how other relationships in the client’s past have ended will very likely affect his or her reaction to the end of your counseling relationship. Unresolved issues surrounding past relationships can be played out in the termination process, but if you handle the process ethically, sensitively, and honestly, you are in a wonderful position to provide your client with a healthy end to a productive relationship that they can look back on positively and feel comfortable with.
  • Counselors also experience many emotions when forced-termination occurs. Guilt is a very common emotion for counselors to feel when they initiate the termination stage. Forced-termination, by its very definition, means that the counseling relationship is ending prematurely. After spending so much time encouraging your client to be trusting, open and honest, one must now abruptly sever that connection. This can leave counselors feeling as though they are abandoning their clients just as good progress could have been made, and can lead to a sense of feeling responsible for whatever might happen to the client as a result of the end of the relationship. For many counselors, a sense of frustration exists at not having “finished the job” or achieved the goals set out by the counselor and client. Counselors-in-training often struggle with a sense of omnipotence, or the feeling that they are the only one who can understand or help the client. On the other hand, it is normal to feel a sense of impotence, or the feeling that the relationship was not at all helpful to the client and that the client will be helped more effectively by a different therapist. When working with a client for only a short period of time, it can be difficult to see if any progress was made, especially if the client is not communicating any improvements to the counselor. In such cases, it is important for counselors to work to become comfortable with that feeling of “not knowing.” It may not be for some time that a client himself realizes if and how a counselor has been of help. And as a counselor, you may never know. Counselors may feel a sense of loss and sadness at not being able to see their clients anymore, and other may feel a sense of relief. This relief often leads to guilt about being glad to move on from the counseling situation. It is very important to acknowledge your own feelings as you proceed through the termination stage of counseling.

Client-Initiated Termination

  • Definition: Client-Initiated Termination can occur in a number of situations. A client may initiate termination when it is determined that the goals that he or she set out to accomplish have been adequately met, or when he or she feels that problematic symptoms have been reduced or eliminated. If the counselor agrees that goals have been met and the timing for termination is appropriate, termination can be a comfortable, pleasing experience for all involved. There may still be a sense of loss at not seeing the client on a regular basis, but this is often outweighed by a sense of happiness in knowing that the relationship was positive and productive and helped the client make progress.
  • Anticipated Reactions: In some cases, clients may initiate termination of the relationship if they do not feel comfortable with the counselor or do not feel that they are ready to fully engage in the counseling process. In such cases, counselors often feel a sense of insecurity in their ability to effectively connect with and counsel clients, guilt about “losing a client”, and possibly relief at being rid of a relationship that they were uncomfortable with. In this case, it is very important for counselors to process their own feelings about the end of the relationship and how it might affect future interactions with clients.

Counselor-Initiated Termination

  • Definition: Counselor-Initiated Termination can occur when the counselor sees that the client has made progress toward achieving goals, notices a reduction in or elimination of symptoms, sees that the client has gained enough insight to deal with future recurring symptoms and has resolved transference issues, and determines that the client has the ability to work, enjoy life and play. Once the counselor has determined that there is little left to continue working on in therapy, it is time to introduce the reality of termination to the client. Counselor-initiated termination is also your ethical duty as a counselor if you determine “an inability to provide professional service” to your client. If this is the case, it is your responsibility to make appropriate referrals and to obtain the professional training that would enable you to work with similar clients effectively in the future.
  • Anticipated Reactions: Sometimes, clients will resist the termination process. After all, they have enjoyed success, in part, due to a relationship with their counselor. Ending that relationship can be frightening. The client may insist that more time is needed to work on the issue(s). A plethora of additional problems may suddenly arise, and sessions may be missed in an attempt to draw out the process or avoid termination. The client may become suddenly angry at the mention of termination in order to create distance between client and counselor, and, in some cases, the client may prematurely end therapy of his or her own volition.
  • Counselors may also resist the process. If a client has enjoyed success, in which you have played a part, it is easy to want to maintain that relationship. As a counselor, you are receiving positive feedback, feeling needed and appreciated, all of which provides you with confidence and a sense of self-worth. Letting go of that to allow your client to function independently can be difficult. It is important to recognize the positive work you do as a counselor, but this should not lead to your maintaining a relationship that is no longer serving the client.

It is important to remind you that not all clients will exhibit the emotions outlined as “typical.” You must understand your clients’ reactions to termination in relation to their overall experience in the counseling relationship, taking care to acknowledge cultural and historical influences. For example, an Asian client is far less likely to exhibit anger and separation anxiety at termination than a client of European origin might be. This caveat is simply to remind you to pay appropriate attention to factors that might influence how your clients react or appear to react to the termination stage.

Termination of Group Counseling

Many of the same skills necessary for termination of individual counseling relationships are necessary for terminating counseling groups. Group leaders must be aware of their own timeline for the group, communicate that timeline to group members and know when to initiate the termination stage. Very often groups will have a set number of sessions, so the conclusion of the counseling relationship can be anticipated. This, however, does not necessarily make the process of termination any easier on group members.

As in termination of individual counseling, there may be feelings of sadness or anxiety over the ending of the group. Participants often become reliant on the group for support and advice and can be fearful at the reality of that support being removed. Once termination has been introduced, members may pull back, or disengage themselves slightly from the process in an effort to protect themselves from the emotions surrounding termination.

Some of the things that group leaders can do to increase the chances of ending a group successfully include:

  • Reinforcing the progress that was made during the course of the group.
  • Offering suggestions to group members about ways in which they can successfully incorporate what they have learned into their daily lives.
  • Helping group participants brainstorm and anticipate problems that may arise when the group has concluded.
  • Allowing time for constructive feedback from group members. This includes feedback for the leader as well as feedback for other group members.
  • Assisting participants in processing their feelings about termination and helping them resolve any unfinished business.
  • Educating participants about additional resources that are available to them as supports once the group has ended.
  • Making oneself available should the need for individual counseling or consultation with group members arise.

Tips for Successful Termination

To increase the likelihood of successful termination with your clients, take heed of the following suggestions:

  • Discuss termination with your clients early on in the counseling process.
  • Establish clear goals with your clients so that progress toward those goals can be recognized and completion of those goals is apparent.
  •  Respect your client’s desire to terminate if it is client-initiated, but be confident in expressing concerns if you feel termination may be premature.
  • Keep your relationship professional and do not let it stray into the realm of friendship.
  • Communicate to your clients that they can return if need be.
  • Help clients to review the success they have had in counseling.
  • Allow clients to discuss feelings of loss surrounding termination and process your own feelings surrounding the process, as well.

Helping the Helper Deal with Termination

As counselors-in-training, you are in the unique position to be able to utilize your site supervisors and on-campus supervisors and professors as resources when dealing with the issues surrounding termination. As you have read above, counselors deal with many emotions as the counseling relationship ends, and these emotions must be acknowledged and worked through. Supervisors are there to provide you a place to communicate your feelings about ending your relationships, about the discomforts of closure and the feelings you will experience about your own abilities as you leave counseling relationships behind. This is often one of the most difficult stages of training for students who are struggling to feel competent while feeling completely overwhelmed.

It is also important for you to discuss your experiences surrounding termination with your peers. You will find that you are not alone in feeling the way you do about ending your relationships with clients, and this camaraderie can make a world of difference when you are in the infancy of becoming effective helpers.

The Value of Feedback

Eliciting feedback can also help counselors through the termination process. As discussed earlier, counselors do not always know if they have been effective in helping a client, especially if the relationship was forced to an end by the close of a school semester. One way to make termination a reality and offer clients the chance to give feedback and reflect on their experience with you is to have them fill out some kind of informal evaluation. This will be done to some extent when you and your clients discuss terminating your relationship, but offering an opportunity for clients to express things concretely on paper for you both to keep can be a good way to summarize the experience for you both. If you are so inclined, you could document the progress you have seen in your clients and offer that written expression to them for their future reference and reminder.

Sample Feedback Form Questions

For each of the statements below, circle the option (Never, Sometimes, Usually, or Always) that is closest to how you feel.

  1. I feel like (your name here) really listens to me and understands what I am saying.
  2. I feel comfortable and safe when I meet with (your name here). I feel like she cares.
  3. I feel like meeting with (your name here) has helped me sort out some of my feelings.

For each of the statements below, circle the option (I disagree, I’m not sure if it helped, It helped a little, or It helped a lot) that is closest to how you feel.

  1. I feel like meeting with (your name here) has helped me talk about my feelings.
  2. I look forward to seeing (your name here) and talking about what is going on in my life.

Additional questions:

  1. What do you like about coming in to talk with (your name here)?
  2. Is there anything you don’t like so much about coming to talk to (your name here)?
  3. How do you feel about (your name here) leaving and not meeting with him/her anymore?
  4. What, if anything, will you miss about your time with (your name here)?
  5. Do you have any additional feedback about your time with (your name here)?

Positive Endings to the Counseling Relationship

One thing that is often appropriate to do for clients, particularly if you are at a school setting, is to leave clients with something material that will remind them of your relationship and the successes they experienced as a result of engaging in that relationship. There are many creative ways to do this.

Below you will find two suggestions for concluding individual counseling relationships:


Purchase a bag of marbles, filled with swirls that make each one different. You could give each client a marble and communicate how they, like the marble, are unique and special. They can keep this marble with them to serve as a reminder that someone thinks of them that way and as a reminder of their positive relationship with you and the progress they made.

Survival Kit

Using a box, a Ziploc bag, or any other container you choose, select various items that represent something about that client, or a lesson that the client learned through the counseling process. For example, a Life Saver candy could represent the people for the client has been a “life saver” in the past. A rubber band could serve as a reminder of the importance of being flexible. A toothpick could remind your client not to pick on him or herself for the little things. A Band-Aid could represent the need to take time to heal wounds. A stick of Carefree gum could remind your client to take time out to play and enjoy life. You get the drift. You can get creative with your Survival Kit and it is a great way to leave your client with something tangible that reminds them of you, and reinforces the skills you have worked on with them throughout your relationship. Can you think of other keepsakes that would be appropriate for you to give to your clients?

Below are descriptions of two creative ways to provide closure during a final group counseling session:

Anonymous Notecards

One fantastic method I have seen used to conclude a group has been the use of notecards passed around the room and filled out by group participants. Each person is given a blank notecard. They write their name across the top and pass it to the person sitting to their right. That person then writes something that they learned about or from the person to their left. They could also write what they think of that person, as long is it is something constructive and/or positive. Once they are done, they pass the card to the right and that person writes their comments on it. By the time the card makes its way around the circle, the owner of the card has received feedback from everyone in the group but does not necessarily know who wrote what comment. He or she is then asked to read aloud the statements that others in the group chose to write about them. This is a wonderful way to help group members hear and own the positive things about themselves that others recognize in them after sharing the group experience. The cards are for them to take with them as a reminder of the process.


This is a great way to provide visual representation of how each person in a group has an effect on everyone else in the group. Take a ball of string or yarn, large enough that it can be tossed from person to person to create a web. Have everyone stand in a circle and give one person the yarn. They are to hold on to one end of the yarn and offer up something about what they learned in the group or from a particular group member. Once they have made their statement, they hold on to the one end of the yarn and toss the ball to a fellow group member across from them. They make a comment about something they learn, hold on to the yarn so that they are creating a line between themselves and the person who threw the yarn to them, and they then toss the ball to another member across from them. Each member makes a statement and tosses the ball to a fellow participant, all the while holding on to the piece of yarn that comes from the person who went before them. Once everyone has spoken, you will see that a huge web has been created that symbolizes the connection that group members make with one another through the group counseling process. This is an excellent way to show how everyone is connected, affects one another, and how the things that each member brought to the experience have sustained the group.

Additional Resources

  • ACA Code of Ethics: Termination and Referral (A.11.)
  • Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy by Gerald Corey. 2001.
  • Becoming A Helper by Marianne Schneider Corey and Gerald Corey. 1998.
  • Practice Issues for the Beginning Counselor by Harold Hackney. 2000.
  • The World of the Counselor: An Introduction to the Counseling Profession by Ed Neukrug. 1999.
  • Ethnicity & Family Therapy, 2e, Edited by Monica McGoldrick, Joe Giordano and John K. Pearce. 1996.