Strategic Issues in Counseling: Consider the Development of Your Counselee

Female psychologist consulting pensive man during psychological therapy session

I had totally messed up this case. It wasn’t intentional; I had really tried to be helpful gave lots of instruction, listened sympathetically, and assigned homework that I thought best fit the situation. Every week the counselee came to our appointment without any of his homework completed. It was frustrating and I determined that he didn’t really want to change, so I terminated counseling. Years later I found out that this particular individual had literacy challenges that made the homework I gave him exceedingly difficulty, if not at times impossible. Of course, it would have been helpful if he had told me this, but the failure was mine. I had assumed more than I knew. Good counselors know to pay careful attention to the development of their counselee.

People have different capacities and incapacities. Good counseling not only recognizes this but meets them where they are at. Consider a child on the Austism spectrum (which itself includes individuals of varying capacities and developments). Is it true that a child with autism cannot learn? No. Should a child with autism be required to obey his parents? Yes. Are there unique challenges that make obedience difficult? Yes, absolutely. So, how do we help the family in this situation. We meet the child at the level of his development and counsel parents on how to give instructions and require obedience that meets the child at his level. Good counselors know that effective instruction must be consistent with the level of development. Dr. Laura Hendrickson, a psychiatrist, Biblical counselor, and mother of an autistic son has done a tremendous job of emphasizing this principle. She writes:

Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent], and when he is old he will not depart from it” (AMP). I like the Amplified Bible’s version of this verse because it captures the intent of the original Hebrew, suggesting that we are not only to train our child to do the right thing, but that the manner of our training should be consistent with his natural abilities and interests. In recognition of this nuance, some Bible scholars have rendered the first part of this verse simply as, “Train up a child in his way.” This verse captures perfectly the approach I believe we need to take as we seek to lead our children toward wholeness. If we can understand how our children are different, we can learn to craft a teaching approach for almost anything they need to learn. (Finding Your Child’s Way on the Autism Spectrum, 15-16)

The truths are all the same, and yet the application of Biblical truth should be tailored uniquely to the developmental stages of the individual. What is true of those on the Autism spectrum is actually true of everyone. So, with my previous example, I needed to consider why the homework wasn’t being completed. I needed to ask questions to find out if there were difficulties or impediments to it. I needed to more carefully inquire about my counselee’s comfort level in reading. Development matters for effective counseling.

The reality is that no two people are exactly alike. Our brains function differently, we have different abilities and capacities. All our brains are impacted by the fall, but some of us operate outside the range of what is considered “normal.” We need to consider this carefully and craft counsel that, while Biblically faithful, meets people where they are. Sometimes we can help people grow beyond their incapacities. So, had I know about my counselee’s literacy challenges I could have helped. This, however, is not always the case. Dr. Jeremy Pierre notes that we can’t always counsel people out of their limitations, but we can counsel them within those limitations to help them grow. He writes:

For mental and physiological capacities, a counselor or caregiver needs to consider the unique stewardship each individual has been given. They should seek to understand both the capacities and incapacities that make up a person’s embodied condition…Some people’s brains function with the range of normal, and other’s do not. Whether that is a native capacity or one affected by the conditions, the reality nevertheless stands. A counselor should not assume everyone is capable of the same responses at the same pace, as if everyone has the same set of capacities and incapacities…An obvious example of this would be individuals with Down syndrome. A chromosomal condition means that they are given certain mental incapacities. No one can be counseled out of Down syndrome. But people can be counseled to respond in faith according to the capacities and incapacities given to them. For some of my friends with Down syndrome, their capacities to understand and respond to Scripture is high, and their caregivers help them understand what types of behavior or words are honoring to God and what are not. Others with more severe forms will have a much more limited range of possible response. Part of people’s dignity before God is their responsibility before him, yet God knows the limits of their capacity in a fallen world. (The Dynamic Heart in Daily Life, 97-98)

Again, this principle is true of all of us. It obviously applies to those with cognitive and perceptual deficiencies, brain damage, and various physiological conditions, but they are not alone in this truth. We are all at different stages developmental, with different capacities and incapacities. Our brains are all somewhat different, and our functioning is all somewhat different. Our capacities even change over the course of our lifetimes. Good counselors must take this into consideration.

Consider the development of your counselee. What are their limitations? What are their strengths? What capacities and incapacities do you recognize? What questions do you need to ask to gather such information? How do you need to be sensitive to the development of those you are seeking to help? We can tailor Biblical counsel to meet people where they are, giving instruction in ways that are consistent with their development. A person’s development doesn’t change the truth they need, but it will definitely change the manner in which we give that truth.

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