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Introduction to Counseling Children

For children the struggles, the desires, and the hope are no different than for those of us who are adults.

Aug 12, 2020

For children the struggles, the desires, and the hope are no different than for those of us who are adults. It’s not like children need something esoteric. We’re not looking for what’s different with children. The struggles, the desires, and the hope are no different than they are with adults. If you’ve been counseling adults, you can counsel children. You really can! This is there’s not some esoteric counseling-children-field. Of course you want to use language that they can understand, but many of you are parents and you’re used to doing that. You’ve been doing that for for years and years now.

Maya’s Story

Let me begin by telling you about a little 11 year-old-girl, who I’m going to call Maya, that I had the sweet privilege of getting to work with a while back. This convinced me, if I hadn’t been convinced before, that children struggle with the same desires adults struggle with. They are lured by the same lies that adults fall prey to. They find hope in the same source where adults find hope—in our Lord and Savior.

Children, like adults, wrestle with profound thoughts and questions. I was struck by that as I worked with my little Maya. Early in our counseling I asked this precious girl to draw a picture for me of her relationship with God. And the picture she drew was just heart-wrenching. Her picture had four frames. In her first frame, she depicted herself kneeling by her bed to pray to God. In frame two, she showed God responding to her prayer by saying, “Hmm, her? Her prayers don’t matter.” In frame three, she depicted herself searching for answers by reading the Bible, questioning why she couldn’t find the answers. In her final frame, she has a picture of God responding to her Bible study by asking, “Why should I give her answers?”

Now as we discussed this, Maya told me that she didn’t believe that God responded to everyone that way. Just her. She was convinced that she was different. Maya didn’t think she was precious to God. Maya said, “God doesn’t always mean what He says in the Bible.” She came for counseling because she had been wickedly abused, sexually abused by an extended family member. So she’s had suffering in her life at this point, and now she thinks that God doesn’t care about her. He cares about other people. She’s convinced He cares about other people, but she’s also convinced that she’s the exception to that.

She doesn’t think that God always means what He says in the Bible. I told you if you could counsel adults, you could counsel children, but what are you going to do with this? I don’t think you’re probably going to turn to passages that talk about God’s love for her, because how is she going to respond to that? That applies to everybody else, right? It doesn’t apply to her.

You’ve had counselees like that as adults probably too. They believe they’re different. I did conclude that to take Maya to passages that would show her how precious she is in God’s sight probably wouldn’t be very effective. I’m thinking sitting there thinking, “Where am I going to go from here?”

Here’s my next encouragement for you. The answers from Scripture are not too hard for children. Along with other things, I decided to have Maya look at the book of Job with me. Can you believe that? Job. Even as I asked her turn there with me, I am internally saying, “Amy, are you an idiot? Job is not the easiest book for adults to get their arms around, let alone take a little 11 year-old-girl there.” But we went there, and we began to look at Job, who also suffered and didn’t understand what God was up to.

After looking at Job 1, Maya initially observed that like Job, God was letting Satan in her life. But unlike Job, according to her, she was not keeping faith. Maya also stated, “Well, Job got answers.” She didn’t know the book of Job, and she thought that Job got answers, but she didn’t get answers.

After that, we went to Job 3, where Job begins questioning, “What is God doing?” Well, that’s what Maya is doing, right? She was saying, “I don’t understand God. I don’t understand what God is doing. I don’t get it. Job doesn’t understand God. He doesn’t think that he’s getting answers.” Then over the next few sessions, we went on in the book of Job, we spent time in Job 9 and 10, looking at questions that Job asks God and some of the statements that Job made about God.

In Job 9:14-20, we hear Job saying: God won’t answer my questions. (That was Maya’s picture two in her drawing.)

In Job 9:21, Job says: I despise my life.

In Job 9:22, he says: There’s no difference in how God treats the wicked or the blameless.

In Job 9:23, he says: God mocks the despair of innocent people.

In Job 9:25-28, he says: Even if I decide that I’ll act like I’m happy, God will still be against me.

In Job 9:21, he says: Since God has already decided I’m guilty, what’s the use? It’s already decided that I’m guilty. What’s the point?

In Job 9:30-31, he says: Even if I try to clean myself up, God would just make me dirty again.

In Job 9:32-35, he says: If I could go to court and get an impartial judge, the judge would tell God lay off.

Then you get to the beginning of Job 10 and Joe was saying, “I loathe my life. I hate this. I hate my life.” I asked this 11-year-old child to identify where she has similar questions and thoughts. To my surprise, she was able to reframe every single one of those into her struggle. She identified with everything and she could put it in her own words. She got it. It wasn’t just me saying, “You get this, don’t you?” No, she framed it into her struggle for every single one of those things. The answers from Scripture are not too hard for children.

Now eventually, we moved to the end of Job and God’s response to this very godly man. I observed to Maya that God didn’t answer Job’s questions. Job had all those questions and God did not answer his questions. What God did instead was reveal Himself. Then we looked at Job’s response to how God reveals Himself in Job 42:1-3. We hear, Then Job answered the LORD and said: I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Like adults, children need to wrestle with suffering and then be led to see a merciful, sovereign God at work. Click To Tweet

Like adults, children need to wrestle with suffering and then be led to see a merciful, sovereign God at work.

I paraphrased Job’s response in the following way to Maya: “God is at work doing things far more wonderful than I can understand or imagine. I need to trust.”

This is not Week 1. We’ve met for several weeks. We have a good relationship at this point. As part of her homework, I asked Maya to write this on a note card and reflect on that a number of times. If you are counseling with me “a number of times” means a lot of times—maybe 25 times a day. By the end of the week, it’s running through your head a little bit if you’ve done your homework.

When Maya came back the next week, she had done an excellent job on her homework. I had put the phase on a note card and said to put little tick marks on the back every time you do it. She had tick marks all over the back of that card. She had worked hard on it. She had made connections again from Job’s response to her life. God was enlightening her, showing kindness, grace, and mercy to help her understand. That had given her some hope.

And I said, “Well, that worked pretty well. Let’s assign it again.” Okay, I’m not that inventive. I thought, let’s give her the same thing if something works well, so I did and when I did that, Maya said, “Oh, I’m going to make another card because I want to put this one right up next to my bed so that I can see it all the time.”

For Maya, the struggles, the desires, and the hope were no different for her than what they are for adults. Christ is our life. Click To Tweet

She got it. She got it like adults. They need to wrestle with sin and be led to a sovereign, merciful God. These things are not too hard for children. She was a professing believer. That wasn’t all we did in counseling. That’s some of what we did. We also looked at Christ, who was dearly loved by His Father and yet on the cross, cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was dearly loved by His Father and yet His experience at that point is, “I have been forsaken.” Well, that was Maya’s experienced too. “I have been forsaken.” It was just a tiny snippet of our counseling. Even when we stopped meeting, the book wasn’t closed. Maya—like all of us—is a work in process and there are still things that she’s going to need to work on, but God guides us step-by-step. Maya is going to face new things as she gets older and need additional help and counsel from God’s Word. It may be in a formal setting, or it may be in an informal setting, but she’s just like all of us.

For Maya, the struggles, the desires, and the hope were no different for her than what they are for adults. Christ is our life.

When to Counsel Children Directly

Next, we’re going to look at when to meet with a child directly. It might surprise you to hear in a session on introduction to counseling children that I would not normally suggest that you meet individually with children. I would not normally suggest that you initially meet directly with children.

Whenever possible, we want to meet with the parents, because whom has God entrusted this child to? Is it the government? Is it the schools? Is it the church? Is it even the biblical counselor? No, God has entrusted these children to the parents. They’re going to be the ones who are held most accountable and the ones whom God has said He’s going to bless for these children. We want to do everything we can to equip the parents to be able to come alongside and help their children. Always my first preference is going to be to say, “Let’s help the parents if we can.” So why do we even need this session then?

Sometimes it doesn’t work out like that. Our preference may be to meet with the parents, but that’s not going to work in some cases. Some examples would be:

When the parents are abusing the child.

When parents are immature in their walk with the Lord and they need assistance. While we’re getting them up to speed, we want to provide some immediate help for the child. It may take a few weeks or months to get them up to speed and we want to provide some help with the child.

When the parents are not Christians. Isn’t that beautiful, though? That non-Christian parents would give us the opportunity to work with their children. I’ll take that opportunity. I’ll take that opportunity and I hope that will give me the opportunity to work with the parents at some point as I work with their child. And maybe their child sees the light of Christ. Maybe I’m going to get to help the parents be there and then the parents can step into the role that God has designed for them.

When counseling is court-ordered.

Maybe the child and the parents have their relationship is just so bad that if you try to include the parents in your counseling session, you’re going to get stonewalled.

Even though my first preference would always be include the parents, there may be situations in which you can’t do that. It’s not going to work. There are going to be times when we want to directly counsel children.

With Maya, I always had one of the parents in the room with me, and that was one of the reasons I think why it went so well because the parents were invested and they were helping behind-the-scenes. That was a great situation. Our first preference is work directly with the parents. Second preference is work with the child, but with the parent there. And the third preference is to work with the child directly. And it may be that the parents are getting counsel the same time, or they’re just sending their child to you to “fix the child” because they’re struggling and they’re not believers.

The End Game

Let’s think about the end game. This is not going to surprise you to hear at this point that my end game for the children is the exact same end game that I would want if I were working with an adult. Let me think through a scenario here with you this time. I’m going to tell you about Alice.

It’s my first time meeting with Alice. I already have the paperwork for her. I know that Alice’s dad has been arrested for soliciting sex with a 15 year-old-girl. I know that in the days following his arrest Alice’s mom has kicked her husband out of the house. I know that the family is very prominent in the community, and so this has been splashed all over the news media. And I know that Alice is a 4th grade child. That’s what I know going into it. I’ve been asked to meet with Alice by Alice’s mother’s counselor, because her counselor is helping Sarah the mother work through some things, but Sarah’s world has just been rocked, devastated. She finds her husband has been soliciting a 15-year-old girl. Sarah’s counselor was just concerned about getting Alice immediate help. Sarah’s getting help, but she wants to get Alice some some immediate help as well. She asked if I would be involved in that situation. I didn’t know much else about the situation.

I know she’s a fourth grade girl. I know that all these things have happened to her, but there’s a lot I don’t know. I don’t know what Alice has been told by her mother. I don’t know if Alice has had any contact with her father. I don’t know if she’s gone to school and the other kids at school have ridiculed her, have been cruel to her, have mentioned it. I don’t know if Alice is scared. I don’t know if she’s angry. I don’t know if she’s bewildered. I don’t know if it’s all the above. I don’t know if God is anywhere in the picture for Alice. I don’t know any of those things, but here are some things I do know in this situation.

I know that Alice was created by a magnificent God in His very image. I know that the same magnificent God deeply loved Alice and that her little life was precious to Him. I know that He cares in this situation and has cared for a long time—way longer than than I’ve cared, and way longer than I ever will care, and way more deeply than I will ever care. I also know that Alice’s only source of hope in this situation is going to come from God. I know that this magnificent God wants to reveal Himself to her, that He longs to be her comforter, and that His purposes for her are good. I know all that.

I don’t know a lot, but I know that. It’s my job in that situation to be His ambassador. I’m not the one with all the answers. I’m the ambassador. That’s what biblical counseling is, isn’t it? Coming alongside people in the time of need to direct them to the One that does have answers.

My end game for counseling children is this: I want these precious souls to have a hope in and love for God which has stirred up a desire to know and follow Him and a desire to bring Him glory by loving Him with all their heart, mind, soul and strength and to love others as they already love themselves.

That’s been your endgame for every adult you’ve counseled, right? It’s the same. That’s my end goal for counseling children. That’s your end goal for counseling adults.

The specific problem for which they come to counseling is merely the laboratory set up by God to facilitate this process.

These individualized laboratories may seem to have features that are constructed from nature (in other words the child’s biology). Maybe it’s autism, maybe it’s learning difficulties—nature. Maybe that lab has been set up by God to be a physical issue. Or nurture, the child’s environment. Abuse, divorce, things like that. Things that are going on in their environment. But it would be a mistake to believe that those are controlling features. They are not controlling features.

We would talk about sin. But our foremost topic was going to be our Savior. Because in His light, we see light (Proverbs 36:9). Click To Tweet

We’re going to learn about them, but they are not controlling features. Both nurture and nature are all under the hand of an all-wise Creator.In His word He provides everything that we need for life, because with Him is the fountain of life—Christ! He has provided everything that we need for life and godliness. Whether it’s nurture, whether it’s nature, that’s just our laboratory that God wants to use to draw these precious souls to Himself.

As I prepared to meet with Alice, I knew we’re going to talk about suffering. We would talk about sin. But our foremost topic was going to be our Savior. Because in His light, we see light (Proverbs 36:9).

“I Feel Ill-Equipped”

Now, I try to be pretty convincing, but I realize you may be saying, “I feel ill-equipped to counsel children.” I want to try to debunk that for you. I think many of us probably would feel that way when it comes to counseling children. Let’s look at some big picture things.

First of all, we have the same goal. The goal for counseling doesn’t change when we counsel a child, just because they’re 9 or 11 or 14. Our goal doesn’t change. We still want to lovingly help any child that we counsel become a person who loves God, who thinks God is the best, and as a result of that wants to love others. That’s our goal.

We have the same hope. The means of hope and salvation for a child are the same as that for an adult. Our message for counseling doesn’t change.

Let’s talk about specialized techniques, because that’s what makes you intimidated. “There must be some kind of specialized techniques.” You may find that your counseling is enhanced if you have some resources to help you connect to the child. That’s no different than what you already do with adults, you’re just so used to doing it, you don’t know it.

One of the most commonly known schools of counseling children would probably be play therapy. Here’s basically what’s happening in all of those schools of thought in counseling children: Researchers in those fields have worked very hard to identify ways to gain involvement with children, gather data, and give instruction. That’s what they’re doing in those therapies. These researchers have developed tools, which they’ve found to be useful aids to them to accomplish those tasks.

If you’re going to counsel children regularly, you may want to invest in a few of those tools, but they’re not essential. They’re just tools. That may be an excellent way if you’re going to counsel children all the time to show love to those children, but they’re just tools. You’re not dependent on those tools. If you are counseling adults, you’re equipped to counsel children.

Let me illustrate that for you. In your counseling setting, you may use a whiteboard during your session. That’s a tool! If you get stuck in a room without a whiteboard, can you not counsel? That is a tool. In your counseling, you may have your counselee look up various passages in the Bible while you’re meeting with them. You may give your counselees a homework assignment to read—a booklet, or a chapter of a book—and come back and report on that the next week. If you have counseled very long, those are probably all things that you’re very comfortable with. You don’t even think of them as tools.

That’s part of your counseling, and you just flow right into it, but I would hypothesize that when you first started counseling you weren’t as comfortable with those tools. In your early days of counseling, perhaps you wanted to show your counselee that God cares for the brokenhearted. But in the middle of the session, with the pressure of being new and put on the spot with this counselee looking at you for answers, you couldn’t think of one specific reference that God cares for brokenhearted.

You know it’s there! You know God cares the brokenhearted, but you could not think of one specific reference. You’re just stuck. You really can’t ask them to turn in their Bible to look at that with you, because you can’t turn in your Bible without some help in those early days. Or you may have started to draw a diagram on the whiteboard that you have seen somebody at an ACBC conference draw. You thought it would be a great illustration, but you get in the middle of drawing it and you can’t remember how to finish the diagram. You’re just stuck. Or your awareness of the books or booklets out there may have been limited to just a couple of really good ones. Maybe your standby resource was Christ and Your Problems, or Trusting God, or something like that, but it wasn’t very broad.

Well, after you counsel for a while that all changed, didn’t it? Now you’re counseling somebody and you want to tell them God cares the brokenhearted and you ask them to turn to Psalm 34 and you can start unpacking that with them because you’ve done it over and over again. You know to go there, you can draw diagrams, and add pictures to it—pictures that the person who showed it to you hadn’t even thought of. You have a robust library of resources that you assign. You become more skilled. Well, that’s the same thing you’re going to do when you counsel children. At first, you may not have many tools, or you’re awkward with them because you haven’t used them over and over again.

Well, I still want to convince you. Let’s say instead of a child, you had the opportunity to counsel a blind person. Would you counsel a blind adult? You wouldn’t say, “No, I’m not equipped to counsel blind people.” I think most of you would, because you counsel adults. All those tools that we just talked about don’t work. When you have a blind person sitting across from you, you can’t tell them to turn to Psalm 34, you can’t draw a diagram on the whiteboard, you can’t assign them your regular reading for homework.

It doesn’t work anymore. So, what are you going to do? You’re going to have them do an audio book, and you’re going to learn to draw word pictures. You’re going to ask, “How do you read things on your phone?” The blind person has probably already figured all that out.

Have you changed what you’re doing? No! Same hope, same struggles, same heart. It’s going to be the same with children. Over time as you counsel children, maybe your toolbox is going to get bigger. Maybe you’re going to invest in some action figures, maybe you’re going to invest in some children’s games, maybe you’re going to invest in some markers and some crayons, but those are just tools that you’re using to help you with your basic message. Your message is not dependent on any of those tools.

If it were, God would have told you about it in the Bible because He said that He is not going to leave us short on anything. He’s given us everything that we need for life and godliness. If you needed to have all those tools, God would have said in the Bible, “Now, you need to make sure that you always have three action figures when you counsel somebody.” He would have told us that, because He has given us everything that we need for life and godliness.

Out of love for children as you grow over time and do this more, you may incorporate more tools, but it’s not dependent on that.

Key Elements

Let’s go through some key elements. You’re going to be so shocked that they’re the same key elements that we use with adults.

Gain involvement. Someone has said, people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. We’ve probably have all heard that. While I don’t think that that observation is necessarily universally true—if I’m in a car accident leaving here and the paramedics come, I’m not going to question them about, “How much do you really care about me?” I really want to know how much they know. I want them to be able to fix my arm, or save my life, or whatever. It’s not universally true, but I think for most of us we would say we respond a whole lot better to people that we believe care about us.

That’s what we’re doing in gaining involvement. We’re just trying to give the person the opportunity to know that we care about them and demonstrate that. What I’ve found, at least in my life, is that gaining involvement begins with my own heart. Do I really want to love this child or am I so consumed with myself that really when I walk into the counseling room, it’s about me? I’m thinking about, “I don’t know how to counsel children. What are the parents going to think if the child doesn’t change? What if I get asked to testify in court?” At that point it’s not about loving the child, it’s about me. Look for opportunities, for ways that you can show love to this child. That’s what you’re doing. How can I show love?

For me, I try to do that even as I meet the child in the counseling waiting room. Just one application for me of trying to gain involvement and begin to show love to the child is when I meet the child in the counseling waiting room, rather than bending over them to say hello to them, I might scrooch down so that I’m able to look at them eye-to-eye level. I think it’s less intimidating to have an adult who is on your level, than to have an adult who is towering over you. I’m pretty tall so I would tower over most children. That’s just an application of a way that I want to begin to communicate to this child that I want to get to know you. I want to love you and I’m looking for opportunities to show you about the One who really loves you most.

Another thing that I do is I usually give the child the option of meeting with me by themselves or with their parents in the room, if that’s possible. Now, I know that eventually I want the parents in the room with me, but usually when I meet the child, I don’t know what the child’s relationship is like with their parent. They may or may not want their parent in there. If they have a horrible relationship with their parents and if I say, “The parents are coming with us,” I might get stonewalled. We might get nowhere.

Or if they’re very fearful, and I say, “We’re going to meet together by ourselves,” and I take them away from their parents, I may have just made them so fearful that I’m not going to get anything either. I usually give the child the option of saying they want to meet with me alone or they want the parents in the room with them. I’ve had both. Eventually I know in the back of my mind I want the parents in there, but I may not start out that way.

Once you’re back in your place where you’re meeting, remember you’re asking these children to communicate some of the most difficult and humiliating aspects of their lives to you. It may be that this child has been abused and describing what happened to you, a stranger, is going to keep shame on them. It may be that the children’s parents are divorcing, and the child is scared that if she does anything wrong that her other parent is going to leave too. She’s scared to death about that. You’re a stranger, and she’s going to tell you the deepest fears of her heart? It may be that the child is wrestling with his sexual identity, and he believes that if he tells you, you’re going to condemn him.

This is why gaining involvement and showing love to these children is important. We’re asking them to talk about the most vulnerable areas of life. Just like we do with adults, it’s the most vulnerable areas of their life. Few of us feel ready to do that when we walk in and sit down in a chair with a stranger. We’re going to want to proceed thoughtfully.

One of the things I think you’ll probably want to do with children that you may have less need to do with an adult is explain to the child what a counselor does. This child may be thinking that the counselor is like a doctor and wondering if they’re going to the doctor’s office. They may be scared that you’re going to give him a shot. The child may be thinking, “What is counseling? Why do I have to go there? Did I do something wrong? Is this some kind of punishment? Is there something wrong with me? My friends don’t talk about going to counseling, so is there something wrong with me? Is that what my friends are going to think if I tell them? Is it going to hurt? How long is this going to take? How long am I going to be in this room? What am I supposed to say? What am I supposed to do? Can I talk about my family? Should I not say anything? Is the counselor going to tell my parents everything that I say?” They may have lots of questions.

Here’s how one secular counselor set it up. I thought this was useful, so I’m just going to read it to you. The secular counselor said, “At some time during our lives, most of us have things that worry or upset us—things we would like to talk to someone about. It could be something that’s going on at school, like another student in our class or our teacher, or it could be something at home (brothers or sisters or maybe parents who don’t really understand how we feel), it could be that we’re having trouble with friends or we’re confused about how things are going. We may have some thoughts or feelings that would be helpful to discuss with someone. A counselor listens and tries to help the other person work these things out. A counselor tries to think with that person about ways to solve these worries. Your job is to tell me what’s bothering you. My job is to listen carefully and try to help you find ways to solve these problems.” I think we could say pretty much the same thing. We know that the way we’re going to help try to solve those problems is through our Savior. Our job is to listen and to try to help them solve problems. Explain to the child what’s going on. Some will come in having a good idea already, but some won’t, and it’s kind of scary. You also want to gather data.

I’m continuing to try to gain involvement as I start to begin to gather data. I try to begin with easier questions. Even if I know that the child has been abused, that’s not the first question you ask them about. What are some of the easier questions that we might start with for children?

Do you have a dog? Do you have pets?
What grade are you in?
Do you have brothers and sisters?
What’s your favorite color?

Occasionally, I might give little bits of information in response such as, “You like math—wow! Math was always hard for me.” Because it’s a relationship. I don’t make it all about me, but you know, “You’re the middle child, I was the middle child too.” Things like that.

Here’s where a tool could possibly be helpful to you. I’ve never done this, because usually I have children who talk to me, but some children are going to be so fearful that they won’t want to talk to you. These other researchers have created games, where you can play a game with a child and in that context where you’re playing a game—now, you ask some of these questions. It’s goal is to ask questions in an easier way to respond.

They’re not have to sit across from you and look directly at you. You’re doing in the context of playing a game. The game is fun and you’re asking questions. There are tools like that out there on the market for if you’ve got a child who was very scared. You’re trying to get them to warm up and it’s just not working. Then you may want to may want to use a game. Again, that’s a tool. Even when I’ve had kids that were a little bit hard to talk with, I’ve looked for other ways. My fallback is usually drawing pictures before I would pull out a game.

As the children begin to feel more at ease and comfortable in counseling, then I start probably asking some of the harder questions. For example in a divorce situation, after I’ve asked those initial questions, I might move into finding out what it’s like to have a step-parent, finding out what it’s like to have step-brothers and step-sisters and how often they’re around. What is visitation like for the child? What sort of relationship does the child have with the parent who left? Does she ever see him? Is he completely absent? How old was she when all that happened? How was her life changed because of this divorce? Now we’re moving into a little bit harder questions.

Not all children are verbally skilled at answering all your questions. Your counseling session might be shorter. It may not be the back-and-forth like it is with an adult, but you do know how to talk to children and you figure out ways. Use vocabulary that they can understand instead of using the big words—you can do all that.

One of the things that may be tempting if you’re having difficulty in that situation is to make assumptions about the children. Your assumptions might be right based on the background information, but I would encourage you that it’s always best to learn that directly from the children.

If the child is having trouble answering a direct question, I might say something like, “Well, you know if my mom and dad divorced I think I would be scared. I think I’d be scared about what’s going to happen to me. Are you ever scared?” They may not be able to come out initially. If they say yes, then you can ask them what they’re scared about. If they say no, then you can ask them what has helped them not be scared, since I think I would be scared.

If the child has elected to have a parent in the room, sometimes I’ll turn to the parent and say, “Do you have any observations about that? What have you observed?” The parents are usually very willing to tell you what they’ve observed. Once the parent has given me some information, I don’t want it to become me and the parent talking, so I’ll look over to the child and say, “Is that right, what your parent just told me? What other things would you add?”

I’ve gotten some more information, so I know how to keep going. Now I want to go back and re-engage the child. Another way that I use to try to engage children who are struggling is to ask them draw pictures, and I can learn a lot from that. I showed you the picture that Maya drew there at the beginning. I learned a lot from from that picture. Maya was pretty verbal and pretty intelligent, so I might have gotten that verbally from her, but I think I got it a lot faster, and a lot better, and I understood it a lot better by the way she drew that picture. I think for many children, you’re going to find that they express themselves better by drawing. And again, it’s just a tool.

Then I usually ask children and teens if they want to be there for counseling. Here’s why: If they don’t want to be there for counseling, you are fighting an uphill battle. They’re going to try to communicate to you every way they know how without saying it, “I don’t want to be here for counseling. I did not choose to be here. I do not want to be here.” I found that if I’ll just ask them to tell me flat out, that diffuses it. Now I know you don’t want to be here, and then we just keep going. It’s not always going to turn out this way, but often once they know that I know that they don’t want to be there, now they’ll start talking to me. It’s not like if they say they don’t want to be here then we’ll finish and I’ll say, “You don’t need to come back.” I’ve never said that to a child. They’re still going to keep coming, but I think being able to tell me, “I don’t want to be here.” It’s on the table. I know it, and the majority of the time, then they’ll start talking to me after that.

I almost always ask them that toward the beginning of session. Sometimes I’ll get an absolute no. But for some of them it’s a mix. Their parents want them to be there. They kind of want to be here, but are a little bit tentative about it.

Define the problem. No matter what I learn about that child, I want to treat the child as a sufferer first—not a sinner first. In some situations, that’s going to seem very natural. In other situations, perhaps less so. But no matter how much sin you see that needs to be addressed, you can be certain that sin (whether it’s on the part of the child or someone involved in the child’s life) has resulted in suffering. That’s what sin does, it results in suffering. Even in the hypothetical situation where you’re counseling the most terrible, horrible, no good, very bad child who has ever lived, you can be certain that child’s sin has brought suffering. That’s probably your biggest entryway into being able to speak into their lives.

I usually start there and I spend quite a good amount of time there. Whether you’re an adult or whether you’re a child, what I want to do is establish a foundation of how wonderful and magnificent God is. As we go on and we talk about making changes, why on earth would you want to change to be like our Savior if our Savior is really not all that wonderful?

Now you’ve got a counselor saying, “Well, God created you to look like Him.” And if God is not that wonderful, they’ll ask why. I usually try to establish a foundation of just showing how magnificent and wonderful our precious Savior is, and then once you’ve established that, now as you talk about some of these other things, then there’s a reason why you want to do that. It’s not, “Go to church, read your Bible, pray every day because that’s what you’re supposed to do.” No, you would want to do those things because you love the Lord.

I always spend some time there, spend some time on suffering. But we also need to say that even though we see these precious children of sufferers first, they are also sinners. For all of us, our original equipment is desperately wicked hearts. That’s just original equipment. If we’re truly going to give these children any hope, at some point we’ve got to address them as individuals who sin and who live in a world cursed by sin. They’re suffering not only as a result of the curse of sin on their lives, but they have sin in their hearts, guiding their desires, their words, their thoughts. If we don’t recognize children as sinners, then I think that limits the hope that we have to offer.

If we really want to help these precious souls, we've got to address sin as well. Click To Tweet

Psalm 32 makes it very clear that bearing a load of unconfessed sin is crushing. David says, “Your hand was heavy upon me. My strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.” If we just treat them as victims who are suffering and we never help them address sin, what we’ve done is just said, “Go ahead and have God’s hand heavy upon you. Live feeling crushed.” If we really want to help these precious souls, we’ve got to address sin as well.

Proverbs 16:2 makes it clear that all of us view ourselves as the innocent party. We don’t see ourselves as sinners naturally. It’s possible that the children may have some blind spots as you counsel them. We’re also told in Proverbs 16 that God judges our motives, so we want to help these dear children look beyond what’s going on the outside to what’s going on in their hearts.

That’s not something most of us are skilled at—with adults or children.

Let’s say that we’ve got Shaniqua whose parents are divorcing. She’s living with mom and visitation is miserable. She is disobedient to both parents now, so last week Shaniqua’s mom asked her to unload the dishwasher and that turned into a royal battle. Shaniqua just defied her and wasn’t going to do it. So now here she is and you ask, “Why didn’t you unload the dishwasher?” She responds, “Because I was working on my homework.”

You ask, “Well, what made your homework so important?” She responds, “It was due tomorrow.” You ask, “Well, what made that important?” She responds, “I don’t want to be in trouble if I don’t hand it in.”

You think, “I’m not getting anywhere here!” Really at the end of that conversation Shaniqua ought to be commended for being so conscientious about her homework, right? Maybe that was week one. So maybe next week you go at it again.

You ask, “Why was your way better?” She responds, “I was already working on my homework and I wanted to finish it without losing my train of thought.” Again—so commendable. You ask, “Why would it be bad to lose your train of thought?” She responds, “Because it would take longer to do my homework. I might not be able to figure it out again.” You ask, “Why would that be bad?” She responds, “Then I couldn’t finish my homework!” And you are just going around in circles feeling like you aren’t getting anywhere.

You ask next, “Why do you think your mom wanted you to do the dishes right away instead of finishing your homework first?” She responds, “Well because she just wants things done her way.” You ask, “What makes you believe that?” Shaniqua responds, “She just cares if the dishes are done not about my homework.” You ask, “What makes you believe that?”

You’re stuck. You’re so stuck. That’s really what Shaniqua believes—she’s not good at seeing her heart just like adults aren’t good at seeing their hearts. That’s really what she believes, but you’re going to keep asking those questions because as you ask those questions, you’re asking heart questions.

You’re helping them develop skills. I’ve seen this over and over again with adults—when I start asking heart questions, I usually get all those Shaniqua kind of answers. When you keep at it and you keep at it and keep at it, they get better at it. I’m not skilled enough to make that happen the first time I try to go for the heart. It’s usually a few sessions and homework saying, “Tell me what upset you? What made that important?” all those kinds of things where I’m trying to help train them to see their hearts. So it usually takes me a few weeks to get there. My guess is it might take a few weeks with children too.

But it may be that as you keep working at this that you ask a question like, “Why weren’t you willing to do it your mom’s way instead of your way?” And you get this: “Because my mom is too dumb to know what’s best. She wasn’t smart enough to know how to stay married to my dad. She isn’t smart enough to know what’s best for me either.”

Well, I didn’t get that my first question. I didn’t get that my second question. I didn’t get that for a long time. Shaniqua didn’t know it either probably. We’re helping them develop skills.

Give hope. Make sure that you're using the Bible properly when you give hope. Click To Tweet

Give hope. Make sure that you’re using the Bible properly when you give hope. If you’re going to use Psalm 91, please unpack it and explain it. Psalm 91 says, “God won’t let you dash your foot against the stone. He will have his angels lift you up.” If you just give them Psalm 91 or Romans 8:28 they won’t have the complete picture. “Something bad just happened to me. So now what do I think about God?” I am Maya that may be true for everybody else, it’s not true for me.

Give instruction. We want to aim for the heart here. Otherwise, we just end up saying to Shaniqua, “The Bible says obey your parents.” That really isn’t where Shaniqua needs the help right and the hope right now. Yes, she does need obey her parents. Obviously, she needs to obey her parents and obviously that’s a biblical command, but there’s a something a whole lot more going on than “obey your parents” in the situation.

Assign homework. For homework, you might have them journal. You might have them identify three songs that they like and come back and play them for you next week. I’ve had some little girls that like cheering, and I had them make up a cheer for me. They were to come back next week and do their cheer about why they love God. Whatever their interests are, if you can draw that into their homework, you might do that. I don’t have time to unpack all these, but I’m just going to tell you these are helpful resources:

Big Truths for Young Hearts. He does a beautiful job, and that’s on your ACBC Approved Reading list too so you can kill two birds with one stone on that one.

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name. That subtitle is not a lie. The author does a beautiful job in there.

I Couldn’t Love You More. That might be helpful for young children who are struggling because the theme of the book is a parent saying to the child, “I couldn’t love you more.” But there’s someone who does love you more—it’s Jesus.

TheOlogy. I’m not going to take the time to read you the excerpt from that book, but many people have found that’s a very helpful book.

Lies Young Women Believe. The very first lie that they address in that book is “God is not enough.”

Heaven for Kids. That’s helpful for children who have had a death in their family are struggling. My husband and I have read the adult version. We had both read it separately—when he was diagnosed with cancer we decided we were going to read it again out loud with each other. That book made us both think, “I want to go to heaven right now. Take me there now, Lord!” It really helped us with that diagnosis of cancer.

The Peacemaker. Ken Sande has done such a nice work. His book The Peacemaker for adults I think is one of the top five books every every Christian should read. And they have these children’s versions, which are great.

You already know my conclusion, but I’ll reiterate one more time: You can counsel children!