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Counseling Fearful Children

Truth in Love 447

How to go about effectively counseling children who are battling fear?

Jan 8, 2024

Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, I’m delighted to have with me Kelli Dionne. She’s been married to Dr. Dan Dionne and speaks at many of our CDTs. She’s been married to him for 39 years. They have three grown married children, and seven, almost eight, grandchildren. Kelli practiced as a social worker after college and was trained in Biblical Counseling in the early 2000s. She’s been certified since 2013 and received her MABC in 2020. She counsels with Dan at Faith Biblical Counseling Center at Faith Bible Church in Spokane, Washington, working with women, children and families to bring the gospel and God’s truth to bear on the hardships that they face. She teaches the Bible for mom’s group at her church and speaks to women’s groups and she recently published a children’s book for children whose parents have divorced called, “James and His Weird Mad.” Kelli loves spending time with friends and family, cooking, gardening and water-coloring.

This is a tough topic, especially when you’re dealing with children who can express some of the struggles that they have. I want you to just start by describing: “Why is counseling children important for us as biblical counselors to consider?

Kelli Dionne: I have found in the last 10 to 15 years, the demand for help for children has grown in a massive way. Early when I was trained, we didn’t really talk about counseling children. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a need, but it certainly wasn’t a part of my training or at least emphasized. Especially in the last 10 years, the floodgates have opened, and parents are desperate for help. I think subsequently, we, as biblical counselors, need to start thinking, “Lord, what would you have me do?” It doesn’t mean that we do things maybe with the exact same methodology, although I believe we use the basic elements of counseling, but we can learn how to speak to a child in a way that a child can hear us and deliver the gospel and the truth in a way that a child can hear it. I don’t think that we can say no. Our culture is in such a crisis. I think now more than ever, we really have to consider how important it is to reach young children.

Dale Johnson: I think that’s well said, and I’ll use an analogy or metaphor to describe this. In the same way that so many businesses are booming that are reaching the elderly at the moment, our country foreshadowed that the baby boomers were coming. One of the things that we have to see in the churches as families fall apart, the most vulnerable among them are the children and what we’re going to see consistently is brokenness within the family which also leads to brokenness within our children and they’re going to exhibit things like what we’re talking about today in terms of fear. What are some of the things that you see children being afraid of these days, as you mention with a culture that is so skewed and upside down?

Kelli Dionne: Well, I think fear is an emotion and it’s an emotion of uncertainty. So for young children, they are looking for certainty and for security. Think about what our world is like right now. Everywhere they look, people are afraid or mad. Most of the adults that they see are angry, they’re yelling, they’re spouting all kinds of dogmatic things that they believe, and they’re arguing with each other. And for a child that might just have sort of regular fear, suddenly they’re looking around at the adults that are supposed to help them figure out the world and these adults can’t figure anything out. So it magnifies things that kids tend to be nervous about anyway, and so I’m seeing kids that are coming to me with fear and anxiety because they’re afraid to go to the doctor, all the way to “I have been raped and I don’t feel safe anymore.” But we’re seeing it. The sad thing is that our culture is sort of in love with fear and it’s almost drinking the Kool-aid of fear and it’s empowering everyone just being so worked up everywhere and that is making children feel extremely insecure.

Dale Johnson: Kelli, even as you were talking and describing the fear that we see of children and our heart and compassion goes out to those who are the most vulnerable among us. I’m so grateful for folks like you and others in the church where we see this as a huge need where we need to be ministering to these young children who are vulnerable. But on the flip side, Jesus warns with a pretty sharp warning in Matthew 18:6, “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” I think about not just parents. That’s certainly a warning to parents as we think about causing little ones to stumble, but it even causes us as counselors in some way, some trepidation fear and trembling as we engage in the lives of young people. We have to think through how we’re going to engage young people. I’ve even heard you talk a little bit about being fearful when you counsel children. I want you to talk about some of the things that made you fearful as you engaged in counseling children.

Kelli Dionne: When I first started, the very first child I got to work with, the situation was frightening to me. There was violence in the home, the child was violent and I started digging through resources. I was certified at that time and I couldn’t find anything. So that made me fearful right there. “Someone give me a book to read” and as I asked what I was told was, “You write a book.” I thought that’s not what I’m asking right now. “Someone tell me what to do”, which was one of the reasons that compelled me to get a MABC because I felt like I needed more security in what I was doing.

I think we are very psychologized, our whole culture is and so for all of us myself included as a new biblical counselor, I was intimidated by the things that I didn’t know that I thought I better know. I better know everything about child development, I better know everything about any kind of trauma that any kind of child could ever face because I have to give them the right kind of counsel for the right kind of trauma. I would stumble over all of those. You know when you have a window open on your computer and you’re not looking at it, but it’s running the whole time? I think that was sort of the back-end of my brain the whole time, meeting with especially this first child, because I just knew that I wasn’t skilled yet and how to really address what was going on.

So, I don’t think I’m unusual in that regard, especially because we’re seeing so many kids now, I think a lot of us as biblical counselors, and they’ve said it to me, “I don’t counsel children.” I hear that all the time and somebody better. I’m at the point now where it’s not the only kind of counseling I do and actually I don’t counsel a child without their parents unless there’s a serious abuse situation. I will require the parents to be in the counseling session. What the parents are getting is family biblical counseling, that’s not really what they filled out the PDI for, but they want their child to get the help that they need. I am fully convinced that if we do not help their child, they are going to go somewhere else because they don’t care. They want someone to help their child. I have seen it happen in my own church where people have gone outside my church because we couldn’t get anyone to help their child and you know what, they don’t go to my church anymore. We’re doing a great disservice to families and we’re missing gospel opportunities to bring the gospel to bear on healing and hope. We’re fearful, but we can’t shy away from it anymore.

Dale Johnson: There should be an honor and reverence when you’re working with those who are most vulnerable. By the same token, that fear should not drive us in such a way that we neglect to minister in the same way that Christ would two little children, those who are again vulnerable. Now, let’s talk practically. We get into the counseling room and we’re addressing a child who is fearful or who’s struggling in a lot of different ways. What are some of the tools that you use in the counseling room?

Kelli Dionne: I love my tools. I have candy, I have toys. Some of these things I learned when I went back to school and I had some really good teaching about how to engage children. I do a lot in the initial stages to establish involvement with a child. I have a sand tray and I have figures, I have children’s books that I use prolifically, I have artwork, I have Bible verse pages that kids take home and color. I have puppets, I have puffy balls. I like toys. But we start with candy and I usually end with candy, as long as that’s okay with the parents. Those are some of the little things I have in the counseling room.

Dale Johnson: You mentioned the parents several times and I think that’s so critical. It’s a really important piece of the puzzle. Every counseling situation with a child doesn’t mean that the parents are wonderful failures. What it means, though, is we respect and honor the social order that God has given and that we want to engage the parents because they are primarily responsible for discipling this child, for helping this child to grow, to help this child to be disciplined and to grow in wisdom. We’re honoring that and we know the best way for this to happen is to involve the parents. I want you to talk about how you engage parents in the counseling process.

Kelli Dionne: This is something that I love to do. Typically we get a PDI because a parent has already spoken to us. They’ve said, “Something really hard is happening and I need help.” We’ll say, “Fill out the PDI and come on in.” I always meet with the parents first, so by the time I’m meeting with the child, I already know the presenting problem. In that initial meeting with the parents, I talk with them about their value in the life of their child. They are their child’s primary shepherd. They are the ones who are to show their children the gospel and the power of the gospel. I’m just here to help them in that process.

In an initial interview with a child, I will really work hard to make the child feel like they are the center of that appointment. However, they don’t stay that way. So what I mean by that is I will go out, I address them first. I talked about candy with them. Truly, I do, because I already know what they like, because Mom and Dad told me that already. I guess we have to be careful when we talk about candy and children, but really we all have food and treats that we like that make us remember happy days or happy vacations. I’m just tapping into that because I want that kid to know that coming to see me isn’t going to be like going to the doctor. We go in, we have candy, we get in the sand tray, we get to know each other. However, how I engage the parents, if I know the parents well, I do not do the spiritual instruction of the child in the session.

For instance, Psalm 23 is a big psalm that I use with kids. If Dad is there, which is my preference, I have Dad read the psalm. I have Dad do the praying because Dad is the spiritual leader of the family. So if I’m teaching a principle that’s got some biblical truth in it, which hopefully I’m doing all the time, I’ll teach the principal and then I’ll say, “Dad, what do you think about that? How would you teach that to him or her?” Because I want that child’s instruction to actually be coming from their parents. The problem is they’re all very upset about whatever the event is and so I’m just stepping in, coming alongside to say, “Mom and Dad, you actually can do this before the Lord, you have everything that you need. I’m just going to hold your hand and show you how to do it.”

Dale Johnson: I mentioned something at the very beginning of the podcast, a book that you’d written and what that told me is that you accepted the challenge at some point, that someone gave to you, that there aren’t resources. So by the Lord’s grace, you wrote this little children’s book to help in this area, to add to the literature that will help others who have the same questions. I want you to mention that book and talk a little bit about how that came about and introduce our audience to it.

Kelli Dionne: My book is called “James and His Weird Mad,” but the subtitle is “Biblical Help for Children of Divorce.” I wrote it to really get a tool in the hands of biblical counselors so that when a counselor is in the room with the child, they have something to use while they’re walking alongside that child. I use all the great biblical counseling children’s books, I use them all. I assign them as homework. I want this to be something that Mom and Dad can take home.

So, it’s the story of James who wakes up feeling weird and he can’t quite figure out why he feels weird and it’s actually because he’s really angry because his mom and dad are divorced. The other books that I found gave very worldly solutions to how he should get comfort from the fear that he felt. One summer, Dan and I were on vacation, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t find any books that I thought were biblical enough and I just said, “Lord, maybe I should write one.” And, to be honest. I sat on a beach and I wrote it on a tablet and took it home and then spent a year reading it to kids and getting it edited and working with an illustrator and we’ve got the story of James and learning about Joseph and all of the hardship and trauma that Joseph endured. And if God could help Joseph, God could help James because I believe we need to show children that God is good and God’s people want to help him and God has all the answers that that child needs in His book. And so I want to drive children to His book so that they can learn how great He is.

Dale Johnson: Kelli, what a help and encouragement. I pray that so many of our counselors will take your challenge as well and they’ll engage the most vulnerable among us. It’s a worthy investment, we’re investing in the next generation to make disciples and we need to take on that task. It’s our responsibility, as those in the church, to make sure that we’re caring well, supporting families, equipping them to do that work of the ministry to grow their children in wisdom, discipleship in the Lord the fear of the Lord and I’m grateful for the work that you’re doing and now encouraging others to do the same.

Helpful Resources:

James and His Weird Mad by Kelli Dionne

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