Does Biblical Counseling Really work with Kids?

April 5, 2017

Garrett Higbee

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Garrett Higbee

My wife and I have a burden for the next generation of youth growing up in a much different world than we did. We are parents of three children between the ages of nine and sixteen. I am a former child psychologist. This has stirred up in me a strong desire to see biblical counselors take a more serious look at how we can help kids and their parents navigate a very distracting and disturbing world using a biblical worldview. Biblical counseling can help our kids not fall victim to the rampant fear, perversity, and despair that is all around them. Even more, it can equip them to be world changers for Jesus Christ.

There is a great opportunity in this area, and some have begun to address some of the gaps in training and resources. Unfortunately, the effort does not come close to meeting the need. I would like to start a conversation and issue a challenge so that in the next decade biblical counseling will have both resources and training that equips parents and speaks into the lives of children of all ages. Today, I would like to address three deterrents that may have hindered the development of better counseling techniques and tools for working with children.

1. Biblical Counseling of Children Really Equals Parent Training.

One deterrent to counseling kids is the underlying suspicion it is ineffective. In my 25 years in biblical counseling I have heard this question multiple times: “Can’t I just work with the parent(s)?” Sometimes it comes more in the form of a statement: “It is a waste of time to counsel kids; it is parents we need to help.” Certainly, the best practice is to work alongside the parents, but this is not an “either/or proposition.”

The younger the child, the more the parents need to be involved in the sessions, and even with a teen, parental involvement is important. But that does not mean that the counselor should ignore the young child or speak as if the teen is not in the room! It is important to engage young children with the gospel and its practical outworking in the family. It is respectful and winsome to engage teens—even if they are rolling their eyes and thinking they would rather have a root canal than be in your office. (Humor is a huge asset in my work with youth.) In my experience they respond well, feel more heard and respected, and buy into the change process sooner when their lives and hearts are directly addressed. Parents are often amazed at the response.

Biblical counseling with children and teens can be effective, and it cannot be reduced to parent training. To be sure, it requires some understanding of their development, and it requires skills in explaining concepts in age-appropriate language. Above all, it requires a love for children like that of Christ’s.

2. Aren’t The Parents Primarily Responsible to Disciple Their Children?

Another deterrent to counseling kids is that we don’t think it is our job. There is truth to the claim that God would have parents be the primary voice of sanctification in a child’s life. But what about the child who is stuck in a sin pattern, suffering in a trial, or confused about his or her identity? We should be effective coaches for the parents, but we also can speak directly into a child’s life at a very formative time.

In addition, we often ask advocates to come into the counseling process. We do the “heart surgery” in the counseling room, and the advocate mentors the child between sessions. We expose the idols in the parents’ lives and in the child’s life. We encourage Christ-like growth, correct poor theology, and reconcile conflict, while an advocate acts as a strong mentor who provides a safe and supportive voice in the child’s life. This allows the counselor to support the parents more directly, to bridge the generation gap, and to help the parents learn how to connect with their child and tailor their discipleship.

3. I Do Not Have Training in Working with Kids, and Honestly I Am Not Sure I Want to!

A third deterrent is the lack of the skills needed to work with children, particularly with adolescents. We need to raise up more skilled biblical counselors to do just that.

While I believe it does take some training, having a kind heart, asking good questions and having patience are a great start. Another great step is using stories to make the Bible come alive for them so that they can understand its relevance for their lives. Finally, kids love to shock us or test us. Your sense of humor, your unflappable faith, and your heart-filled prayer will go a long way toward keeping them engaged.

Where do we go from here?

Ultimately, these deterrents highlight a need for robust training and resources. While we do not have to be child development experts, we do have to learn some basic ways to interact with children in the counseling room. We also need to equip those who have a huge influence on our children. While the work has already begun on many levels, we need more written resources on how to counsel children well.

Thus, I ask: Who is creating biblically sound resources on child development? Who is designing counseling materials that are age-appropriate and are easily understood? Who is developing creative and practical methodologies that can touch children’s hearts? Who is willing to collaborate in developing these materials so we don’t reinvent the wheel? Who has the experience and is ready to teach the skills needed to equip youth workers and counselors who work with different age groups?

Please join me in prayer and consider engaging in this conversation. Together we could amass or create more resources and develop better training. Our kids need it, our movement would benefit from it, and I believe the Lord would be glorified through it for generations to come.