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Counseling Adolescents: Wisdom from Theology and Psychology

Counseling Adolescents: Wisdom from Theology and Psychology

Counseling AdolescentsNothing seems quite as daunting to parents, youth pastors, helping professionals, or teachers as the adolescent years. Recently I was speaking to a group of parents at my church, and a parent made the comment that it feels as though rearing an adolescent is like parenting an alien life form. Although this statement was quite amusing to those gathered, it was evident that many could identify with the experience of this parent. In my private practice, I often have parents who seek help, saying, “She is a totally different person this week than she was last week. I just don’t know who my kid is anymore.” Even though as adults we have personally been through adolescence, for some reason this unique period of development remains a daunting enigma. Popular media outlets often report on the negative side effects of adolescence, highlighting less-than-desirable behaviors.

Counselors and helping professionals are not immune from this experience. Yet Scripture and science alike point to a Creator who intentionally set apart the period of adolescence to be a unique developmental stage that can be a prelude to a productive and healthy adulthood. Knowing how to meet the therapeutic needs of adolescent clients and help families navigate this unique season of life can be a challenge for helping professionals. The purpose of my chapter on adolescent-focused counseling strategies in Counseling Techniques is to provide you with therapeutic strategies, interventions, and techniques that can be utilized when working with adolescents. In that chapter, you will find an overview of adolescent development and a theological integration of the use of activity therapy, as well as recommendations for utilizing activity therapy with adolescent clients. Brief case vignettes will be used to illustrate different aspects of activity therapy with adolescents.

In this article, you will find a summary of insights into adolescence, and counseling adolescents, drawn from Scripture and science.

Insights on Adolescence from Theology and Psychology

God, in his creativity, set apart certain periods of time in the lifespan that are characterized by specific developmental processes. At birth an individual is completely dependent on caregivers to sustain his life. But eighteen months later that same individual will be walking, talking, and able to feed himself. During late childhood and adolescence, an individual will undergo significant physical, cognitive, and socioemotional changes that qualitatively change the way he views life, makes decisions, and engages in relationships.

From a theological perspective, some of the characteristic features of the adolescent stage are a reflection of how humans are image bearers of God. The writer of Genesis 1:26–27 references human creation, stating that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” Scholars have debated this concept, some saying that only the material aspects of man reflect God’s image and others contending that only the immaterial aspects reflect God’s image. For the purposes of this work, this concept will be viewed as being twofold, that is, that the total being of an individual is created in God’s image (Ryrie, 1999). Man’s physical body, as well as man’s nonphysical attributes, such as his intelligence and ability to make decisions, reflect God’s image (Ryrie, 1999). Balswick, King, and Reimer (2005) propose that across the developmental lifespan, being image bearers of God is lived out in what they term “the reciprocating self,” meaning that “the self that in all its uniqueness and fullness of being engages fully in relationship with another in all its particularity… It is the self that enters into mutual relationships with another, where distinction and unity are experienced simultaneously” (pp. 48–49). As each member of the Trinity is in constant and perfect communion with one another, there is also distinctiveness between each member of the Godhead (Ryrie, 1999).

Further, during adolescence, individuals experience a growing ability and responsibility to make decisions for themselves and be self-directing. The idea that humans reflect God’s image by having agency or the ability to make decisions is reflected greatly in adolescence when teenagers are presented with opportunities to make choices. From childhood to adolescence and onward into emerging adulthood, an individual’s opportunity to make decisions grows and expands to include more facets of one’s life. For example, a toddler has few opportunities to make decisions for herself, but as she grows into childhood, those opportunities to exercise agency grow and continue to grow through adolescence, culminating in emerging adulthood when she quite possibly could be making most decisions for herself. Adolescence is a time when her agency can flourish as she explores her identity. This specific aspect of development exhibits how individuals as image bearers reflect the characteristic of God also having agency (Evans, 1990).

Understanding the Lord’s unique design during each developmental stage informs a counselor about developmentally appropriate practices. In this section, I will explore the unique qualities that characterize the stage of adolescent development.

During adolescence, central tasks of development include identity development and differentiation from parents. Even though differentiation is a developmental task of adolescence, differentiation does not mean isolation or complete independence but rather navigating the changing relational landscape with parents and growing closer in peer relationships (Balswick et al., 2005). Adolescents are learning how to be in community with their parents and peers yet be distinct and differentiated, growing in a greater sense of self-concept.


God created humans in his likeness as image bearers to be creative agents. Because of this innate creativity, utilizing creative expression within the therapeutic context allows for a deep and rewarding therapeutic experience that can bring forth healing on many levels. Adolescent clients are uniquely primed to benefit from therapeutic services that incorporate creative expression and can benefit greatly from this type of therapeutic technique.

Read the rest of the chapter in Counseling Techniques for case studies and practical guidance on beginning the therapeutic relationship with adolescents, how to involve parents wisely and effectively, and tips for successful activity therapy (which is key because “activity therapy is to adolescents as play therapy is to children”).

Article References

  • Balswick, J. O., King, P. E., & Reimer, K. S. (2005). The Reciprocating Self: Human Development in Theological Perspective. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
  • Evans, C. S. (1990). Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology: Insight for Counseling and Pastoral Care. Vancouver, BC: Regent College.
  • Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (2nd ed.). Chicago, IL: Moody.

— Andi J. Thacker, PhD, adapted from the new book Counseling Techniques: A Comprehensive Resource for Christian Counselors, edited by John C. Thomas.

How to Use This Book

Counseling Techniques is a deeply practical new resource for pastors, counseling ministries, and anyone in your church who practices counseling.

An excellent balance of solid clinical insight and readability, this new book is also helpfully divided into three sections:

  1. Understand theory-based counseling strategies such as cognitive-based strategies, spiritual strategies, coping skills strategies, and many more.
  2. Find strategies designed for key populations: children, adolescents, couples, and families.
  3. Discover techniques for a wide variety of individual and family issues including shame, loss, abuse, trauma, domestic violence, and more.

Get the book today to strengthen your counseling ministry.