Over the last 5+ years, I worked with children, youth and adolescents in a wide range of ages from as young as 5 years old to 19, with my private practice narrowed in between ages 8-15. I’ve worked with kids from a variety of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, and family make-ups (i.e. single-parent homes, blended families, bio-parents), as well as variety of trauma-related histories with some cases involving child protective services.
Generally, I find working with kids can be quite fun because there is often a kind of anticipation and somewhat of an expectation (on the part of the children) that not only will I be able ‘help them’ but their predisposed confidence in the helper that is both latent and sure. This isn’t always the case, however. Some children and adolescents want nothing to do with therapy or therapists. In general, I can appreciate that but it is usually this demographic that makes me wish more and more for revival of local churches and para-church ministries like Young Life or Focus where these struggling kids can be reached for the good.
I am starting a brief series on Counseling for Children. Being that I work with children in foster care and in my private practice, I felt it might be beneficial to share a few things I’ve learned on this topic. In his short series, I hope to address the following: (1) How to determine if your child needs counseling; (2) How to provide counsel for kids; (3) How to integrate different modalities (i.e. art, books, music); (4) How to address parenting techniques and styles.
HOW TO DETERMINE IF YOUR CHILD NEEDS COUNSELING
This is perhaps one of the most daunting question parents consider. Since this is such a deep question I will provide another blog addressing this in more detail with additional resources. In the meantime, here are three broad questions to help guide parental/guardian thinking as we consider a child’s needs for counseling. I will address these in the form of questions.
ONE: WHAT ARE THE CURRENT SAFETY-RISK FACTORS?
By safety-risk factors, I refer to anything that may be construed as a safety concern for the youth. It is not uncommon for children even younger than 10 years old to have thoughts of dying and death, and who can be quite graphic in their verbalizations about death and dying. After imminent risk-factors are assessed, documented, moderately eliminated and controlled, then it may be prudent to consider finding a good family counselor who is able to conduct a clinical interview to help determine, as best as possible, specific issues that need to be addressed.
If you are a parent, try not to be discouraged if your first clinical interview results in a referral for outside support. Better to have a therapist provide the best referral they can, than to be months into counseling only to find the therapist wasn’t really understanding the issues or qualified to support your family.
TWO: WHAT ARE THE TRUE DYNAMICS OF THE RELATIONSHIPS AT HOME?
Behind this question reveals a variety of dynamics in the home that can shed light on the many concerns a parent or guardian may have when they feel their child needs counseling. For instance, sometimes depression in a child seems to spring up out of nowhere but after several sessions with a parent or both, we discover that mom and/or dad may be doing things that inadvertently reinforce negative patterns, leaving a child to feel helpless, angry and depressed.
This isn’t to be taken in an absolute sense. That is to say, that parents are the ’cause’ for their child’s mental health concerns. We must be careful and wise to realize that the firstborn may be a go-getter, confident and strong, while the second-born may be more meek and mild in their approach. How a parent relates to their children plays a major role in how a child internalizes whether their ‘personality’ is accepted or not.
With that said, there are biological factors that may contribute to depression.
“Researchers believe that — more important than levels of specific brain chemicals — nerve cell connections, nerve cell growth, and the functioning of nerve circuits have a major impact on depression. Still, their understanding of the neurological underpinnings of mood is incomplete.”http://bit.ly/whatcausesdepression
In my work with children, virtually any degree of disruption to the ideal pattern of attachment development to their biological parents can lead to a delay in executive functioning, set-backs in optimal development of emotional regulation, and difficulty establishing appropriate peer relationship according to age and overall biopsychosocial development.
The goal of the second question is simply to begin the process of honesty as best as possible about how parental dynamics which may be directly affecting a child. It would not be uncommon or uncharacteristic for some kind of counseling work with parents to go along side that of their children.
THREE: WHAT DOES THE CURRENT SUPPORT SYSTEM LOOK LIKE?
One of the most important factors following a thorough understanding of familial dynamics is the support system that will remain in place long after counseling is over. I make it my goal to help build-up my clients to be strong enough without me but only to the degree that their current support systems are able to step-in and do their part. On one-hand, I challenge, nudge, push and spur on my client toward growth, development, maturity in using their support system. One the other, I sometimes try to do the same to the support system for the child (usually only if I have access to them). As a professional counselor, however, I realize full well that not everybody has access to a sustainable support system; not everybody has access to a familial system who looks out for the good and well-being of the children I see in counseling.
This is the heart-breaking reality, but as a counselor operating within a christian worldview, this is usually one of the best opportunities to begin providing more direct spiritual guidance for children and families. An invitation to an age appropriate group function for youth can be extended or an invitation to participate in church gathering where new relationships are considered.
As a counselor operating in a Christian worldview, the Christian community is, in my view, the ideal environment for re-establishing sustainable support systems that will last beyond the counseling endeavor.
Counseling children, teens and adolescents is a great privilege. Children need help and some need it more than others. When a counselor operating from a Christian worldview is able to stand in the gap to support and serve the youth in our community (our neighbors) via counseling, I believe we offer a bright and hopeful prospect for future kingdom building that can begin in the most unlikely of places.
DISCLAIMER: No content on this site, regardless of the date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct mental health advice from your physician or qualified professional.