*Editor’s Note: this is Part 3 in a series on how you—yes, you—can help bring wise and kind counsel to a young person’s life. For Part 1 (“Do You Have What It Takes?”), click here, and for Part 2 (“The ‘Big 3’ Characteristics”), click here.
The following traits/characteristics are also very helpful for the person counseling with teenagers. Remember that you do not have to possess all of them, but the more of them you can incorporate in your life, the higher the probability will be that you will be a successful counselor to teens. This list is not meant to be exhaustive and you are encouraged to discover other traits that teens find helpful in those who counsel them.
A Good Listener
Someone has said that this is especially true for the effective counselor. Active listening is an essential skill for the one who wants to successfully work with youth. The road to the heart is through the ears. A good listener should be able to restate back to the teen the content and feelings behind his statements without judging them, adding to them, correcting them, or leaving anything out. This does not mean that the counselor merely acts like a parrot and just repeats verbatim what the teen said, but is able to capture the content, feeling, and meaning of the teen’s statements and restate them in his own words in such a way that it communicates a total grasp of what the teen is thinking and experiencing.
“Adolescents do not readily lay out their thoughts and feelings even for a compassionate counselor. Counselors who build a therapeutic relationship with adolescents do it the old-fashioned way: They earn it. An adolescent’s real concerns are often closed off and opened only by continued and careful listening.”
Teens share their stories not only by the words they use, but also by how they say it, by what they choose not to say and by what they find painful to say. If you will really listen, you will be alert to these unspoken messages as well.
“Teens share their stories not only by the words they use, but also by how they say it, by what they choose not to say and by what they find painful to say.”
It is a rare teen who will make an appointment to talk to a counselor and who will actually open up and begin talking about the core issue that is bothering them. Usually the teen wants to “test the waters”, so to speak, before actually getting to the real problem. In this way, they are able to gauge whether or not the counselor is trustworthy and will actually be helpful to them or merely be another adult who thinks he has all the answers before really listening.
“Trying to solve a young person’s problem before the problem is fully understood is a common therapeutic mistake. It takes patience and time to unwrap the salient features of a teenager’s problem. Like a complex jigsaw puzzle with hundreds of interlocking pieces, a young person’s struggle cannot be solved in a matter of minutes.”
While our lives and work schedules all seem to be busier than ever, the effective youth counselor knows that they must make time for young people when a crisis arises. We must communicate our availability to them. Caution: It is possible to be physically present with a teen, but not really “with them.” “Physical presence must be coupled with an emotional focus for the availability to be meaningful and helpful.” Availability must also be coupled with approachability. There are a good number of youth workers who pride themselves on spending lots of time with their students by visiting them on campus, taking them out for cokes after school, and attending many school social functions. While they may be physically present, they are not truly approachable, because certain aspects of their personality keep the students at arm’s length.
“While our lives and work schedules all seem to be busier than ever, the effective youth counselor knows that they must make time for young people when a crisis arises.”
A Sense of Humor
It has been said that “laughter is the best medicine.” There is something very therapeutic about a good, hearty laugh. Recent medical studies have pointed out the physiological benefits of laughter. “A study done at the University of Maryland Medical Center suggests that a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at stressful situations helps mitigate the damaging physical effects of distressing emotions.” The incorporation of humor in a counseling setting is a developed skill that requires good judgment, timing and sensitivity. The correct and timely use of humor with a teenager can open up dialogue and create huge insights into the teen’s world.
But, a word of caution: humorous intentions can be misinterpreted. A teen might misconstrue the use of humor as a personal put-down or as the counselor not taking the teen’s problem seriously. Proceed with caution, but don’t be afraid to use humor when you have deemed it appropriate both to the situation and to the individual teen involved.
Anyone who wants to counsel teens should follow the physician’s rule of thumb concerning treatment. I would summarize it in this way: Do no harm. If what you are doing helps, keep it up. If what you are doing doesn’t help, stop it. If you don’t know what you are doing, don’t do anything.
When I find myself scheduled to meet with a neurosurgeon who is going to be operating on my back to remove a ruptured disk, I don’t really care if the receptionist tells me the doctor has the greatest sense of humor. It is of no great interest to me that he can hit a 3-point shot four out of five times on the city league basketball team. The fact that he has a wonderful tenor voice in the church choir is of no importance to me. There is only one thing I want to know if this guy is going to be cutting open my back—is he a competent surgeon? Because if he isn’t, nothing else matters!
Parents and teens have a right to expect competency from us, too. This doesn’t mean that you need a Ph.D. in clinical psychology before you listen to a depressed teen’s story, but it does mean that you must know your limitations. It is of paramount importance that you are able to recognize when the issues are so severe that a referral is needed and you can do so with confidence.
“It is of paramount importance that you are able to recognize when the issues are so severe that a referral is needed and you can do so with confidence.”
There are a number of good resources to help train the willing worker on the essentials of counseling youth. You are encouraged to take appropriate college courses and to attend as many weekend seminars as you can in order to sharpen your counseling skills. If you aren’t in a position to be able to attend a college class, there are a number of counseling training courses available through the internet and on DVD.
Spiritual Sensitivity and Vibrancy
The Christian counselor who wants to influence teenage lives in a positive way must be firmly grounded in the faith and have a vibrant and growing relationship with Jesus Christ. A knowledge of God’s word serves as the foundation for all counsel. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding” (Proverbs 9:10). The skilled counselor will utilize a variety of psychological methods and techniques, but all of them must be tested, not only scientifically and pragmatically, but primarily against the written Word of God.
“Being a Christian does not give a counselor some mystical power for healing people’s psychological brokenness. It does, however, bring him or her into conscious spiritual living. Being a Christian opens us to the possibility of living our lives at a higher level of personal integration. Spiritual and psychological energies can be focused together for more effective counseling. . . Being a Christian does not guarantee being a good counselor. But being alive to spiritual reality within yourself can help you assist young counselees in their spiritual and psychological growth.”
Nothing will kill your effectiveness as a counselor more than a violation of confidentiality. When something that was revealed in the sacred confines of the counseling session is then used as an illustration in a sermon/lesson or a “prayer concern,” the young person feels betrayed. It doesn’t matter if the counselor believes the information has gone public, the counselor should always protect the privacy of the young person by not sharing with others what was told to them in confidence. “A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret” (Proverbs 11:13).
Having said that, you need to know that the confidentiality rule is not absolute. In fact, there are times when the professional counselor is required to break confidentiality by law. Even if you are not bound to the same rules and requirements as a professional counselor, it would still be helpful to follow the same guidelines. Confidentiality is to be broken is cases of: 1) physical or sexual abuse; 2) suicide, and 3) homicide (the intention to physically harm another person). A professional consultation is not considered a violation of the confidentiality rule. This is where the counselor is not sure on how to proceed with the troubled teen and consults with another professional about the facts of the case, while keeping the identity of the client confidential.
“Confidentiality is to be broken is cases of: 1) physical or sexual abuse; 2) suicide, and 3) homicide (the intention to physically harm another person).”
The youth counselor is bound to encounter situations that do not require them to break confidentiality, but believes that it would be in the best interests of the teen to do so. Situations like teen pregnancy, drug addiction, date rape, etc., cry out for parental involvement. In cases like this, I try to gently guide the teen to an understanding that this information must be shared. I offer to provide a safe environment for the information to be shared or even to share the information myself if the teen is too scared. In doing so, the teen does not feel like confidentiality has been broken because they have had a voice in the process and it did not take place apart from their knowledge.
“The best counseling will come from our taking the position of humble dependence upon God for His enlightenment and wisdom, in the work of counseling.” I am reminded of the words of Jesus in John 15:4-5: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” Keeping this truth in mind will prevent us from thinking that we, as counselors, have all the answers. We must still seek to draw upon all of our training and experience in the counseling area and consult with others when necessary, but ultimately, we need to acknowledge our limitations as imperfect vessels and continually seek God’s wisdom.
 Les Parrott III, Helping the Struggling Adolescent (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), p. 35.
 Les Parrott III, Helping the Struggling Adolescent (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), pp. 46-47.
 Rich Van Pelt, Intensive Care: Helping Teenagers in Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), p. 33.
 Brigid Delaney, “The Benefits of Laughter,” CNN, June 4, 2007, http://www.cnn.com/2007/HEALTH/06/04/pl.laughter/index.html.
 Keith Olson, Counseling Teenagers (Loveland, CO: Group Books, 1984), p. 8.
 Graham A. Barker, and Clifford J. Powell, From Woe to Go: A Training Text For Christian Counselors (Bloomington, IN: Balboa Press, 2014), p. 49.
Excerpted from Gary Zustiak, Intensive Care: A Manual for Nonprofessionals Who Work with Hurting and Broken Youth. Used with permission.