Tag Archives: Human Development Across the Lifespan

Human Development Across the Lifespan

The emotional and social health needs of Gen Z

By Lindsey Phillips January 10, 2022

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Members of Generation Z — typically defined as those born from the mid-1990s to the early 2010s — have little to no memory of a life without smartphones or access to the internet, which is why they are often dubbed “digital natives.” They have also grown up in a world where social media, political polarization, racial unrest, school shootings and climate change are ever-present realities. 

All of that turmoil and uncertainty is affecting their mental health, with 70% of teenagers across genders, races and socioeconomic status reporting anxiety and depression as major problems among their peers, according to the Pew Research Center. A report by the American Psychological Association found that Generation Z is 27% more likely than previous generations to report their mental health as fair or poor. On a brighter note, they are also more likely than older generations to seek mental health therapy or counseling, with 37% of Gen Zers reporting having worked with a mental health professional.  

Roshelle Johnson, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and clinical director at Light and Power Counseling in Phoenix, works with a number of Gen Z clients who are struggling with anxiety or depression. Recently, she received three calls from parents whose children had just attempted suicide. “That spoke to me about how hopeless our young people are feeling,” she says. 

Addressing anxiety

Nichole DeMoya, a licensed mental health counselor and qualified supervisor in Florida, finds that many of her clients are in a constant state of worry. Her teenage and college-age clients commonly voice concern about future careers, school shootings, financial security, climate change and societal unrest. These clients are “very worried about the future because things are so unstable for them right now,” DeMoya says. She doesn’t dismiss their concerns; instead, she helps them learn to shift their focus to the present and on what they can control. 

DeMoya also considers the individual client’s home and school environment to see if they are adding additional layers of stress. She recalls working with a 12-year-old girl who struggled with anxiety. During one session, the client revealed she was scared that a foreign country was going to bomb her city. In learning more about the client’s home environment, DeMoya discovered that the girl’s father watched the news around the clock, and this was contributing to her anxiety. 

“She was starting her day already in that fight-or-flight [mode], already in a heightened state of anxiety,” says DeMoya, a clinical director at River’s Edge Counseling, a group private practice in Jacksonville, Florida, that specializes in treating trauma. “And then she went to school where she didn’t feel safe because school shootings are an ever-present threat.” 

DeMoya wasn’t able to help the client challenge her anxious thoughts because everything the client was being inundated with told her she should be anxious. So, DeMoya spoke to the parents and explained how the news was negatively affecting their daughter’s mental health. The father had been oblivious to this and was supportive of helping ease that stressor in his daughter’s life by no longer watching the news around her. That simple change made a big difference, helping the girl to regulate her nervous system and start her day on a positive note, DeMoya says. 

Jayna Bonfini, an LPC at Associates in Counseling & Wellness in McMurray, Pennsylvania, works with several teenage girls who experience anxiety and have histories of self-injury. By engaging in self-injury, they are taking their emotional pain and distress and turning it into a physical act, Bonfini says, so she uses dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) techniques to help them learn how to better regulate their emotional distress.

“Sometimes clients will use negative coping skills to escape painful emotions because it feels like it’s the easiest way to handle them,” Bonfini says. She instead helps clients learn healthier coping strategies with DBT skills. If a client is sad, for instance, they may isolate themselves from others. Bonfini may have the client use the DBT skill “opposite action,” which encourages them to choose the exact opposite of what their emotions tell them to do. So, instead of isolating, the client would go out and engage with others or perhaps even address the situation that is causing them distress rather than avoiding it. This approach helps clients build mastery over their emotions, she adds. 

Lauren Bellenbaum specializes in working with youth ages 10-24. She ensures that her clients leave counseling with a few practical skills they can use when they have a panic attack or feel extremely anxious (such as when they have to give a speech in class). “This generation … really want[s] skills,” she says. “Talk therapy is great, and they do need that too, but they also want to come out of sessions with some practical skills … [and] practical, straightforward advice.”

Bellenbaum, an LPC, often discusses different sensory skills that clients can use to help ground themselves when they feel anxious. For example, intense sensory experiences, such as eating sour candy, smelling essential oils, using very cold water, doing high-intensity exercise or engaging in paced breathing, can decrease anxiety, she says. She often advises clients to keep grounding objects nearby in case they find themselves feeling anxious throughout the day. Other sensory skills clients may use to help decrease anxiety or stress include having a calming Pinterest board or pictures to look at, a soothing Spotify playlist to listen to or their favorite blanket or sweater to wear. 

Improving interpersonal relationships 

Many of Bonfini’s clients seek counseling for anxiety, and social anxiety in particular. It is common for many young people to dislike phone calls, but Bonfini once worked with a client whose phone phobia was so intense that it prevented her from making necessary calls, including to the financial aid office at her college. Bonfini built an entire session around preparing the client to make this call, including practicing what the client would say and engaging in some deep breathing and interpersonal effectiveness skills with her. And then they made the call together.

“They have this impending sense of doom if somebody says, ‘We need to talk,’” notes Bonfini, an associate professor of counseling at University of the Cumberlands. “It’s this whole anticipatory anxiety that they all get, [wondering,] ‘What’s coming? What’s coming?’” 

Bonfini, who presented on supporting Gen Z’s mental, emotional and social needs at the American Counseling Association’s 2021 Virtual Conference Experience, also finds that friendships are difficult for several of her Gen Z clients. They often make casual connections with people online or at work or school, but that is different from a deep, personal form of friendship, Bonfini says, and that is where they struggle. 

Online friendships further complicate their ability to make and maintain meaningful relationships. Many of Bonfini’s clients say they mainly socialize online while they are alone in their room, which can be lonely and isolating for them, she says. Some of her clients even prefer online relationships, she adds, because when they have a problem, it’s easy to block this “friend” or create a new avatar and move on.

Bonfini, co-editor of the second edition of Casebook for DSM-5: Diagnosis and Treatment Planning, observes that Generation Z as a whole lacks many of the social skills that previous generations learned through face-to-face interactions. She finds DBT techniques helpful for teaching these (and other) clients interpersonal effectiveness, conflict resolution skills and ways to communicate their needs. 

Bellenbaum, owner of Transform Youth and Family Counseling, a group counseling practice in Grants Pass, Oregon, also finds DBT useful in helping clients learn a variety of skills, including emotion regulation, distress tolerance, mindfulness and interpersonal effectiveness. These skills are important for this generation, she says, because they often struggle with healthy communication and conflict resolution. One DBT skill she often uses to help clients communicate more effectively is DEAR MAN, an acronym that stands for the behavioral strategy of Describe, Express, Assert, Reinforce, be Mindful, Appear confident and Negotiate. This strategy supports clients in expressing and getting their needs met and in telling others “no” in a respectful way, thereby increasing the likelihood of a positive outcome. 

Bellenbaum also makes use of role-plays in session to help with interpersonal issues. A client may be having conflict with a friend, for instance, and isn’t sure how to address or handle this difficult situation. So, Bellenbaum has them act it out in session. She would play the role of the friend and have the client practice using their skills to approach the friend and have a conversation about their conflict. This makes it easier for the client to have the actual conversation later in person.

Johnson, a licensed independent substance abuse counselor, and Amber Samson, a licensed clinical professional counselor in Maryland, have both found that members of Generation Z sometimes have trouble differentiating between friends and acquaintances (terms that are often conflated because of social media) or recognizing healthy versus unhealthy relationships. There can be an expectation for this population to be “friends” with everyone they talk to online or in person, notes Johnson, who runs an anxiety management group for teens. They have followers on Instagram and friends on Facebook, she says, and this can lead to them being hurt when some of these acquaintances fail to meet their expectations or aren’t there for them. 

When a client refers to someone as a “friend,” Johnson asks the client to tell her more about the relationship. If, for instance, she learns that this friend is someone the client met online and plays video games with, she explores with the client what friendship means and how not every acquaintance is a friend. 

Johnson explains the concept of friendship using a dartboard illustration, with the inner target in the shape of a heart. She points out how the dartboard has different rings, which represent different levels of friendship, and how not everyone in the client’s life can fit in the inner circle or bull’s-eye — that area is reserved only for close, personal relationships. She finds this exercise particularly helpful with teenage clients, who are typically still figuring out these relationship dynamics.

Johnson encourages clients who are struggling with social anxiety after returning to in-person education to find a club or group that caters to their strengths. One client she worked with enjoys watching indie movies, so they joined a movie club at college. The group isn’t large — just four or five other students — but it’s a great way to meet others with similar interests and safely practice social skills, Johnson says. 

Relationships can be hard enough without adding in the complications of social media. One negative social media post can sometimes ruin a person’s day, so Bellenbaum often teaches clients how to cope and handle distress when things are outside their control. 

If someone made a rude comment about the client on social media that caused them to have an automatic negative thought such as “It’s true; I am a horrible person,” then Bellenbaum would use cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) to help the client identify, challenge and replace the negative thought with a healthier, more realistic one. But if the client is upset, angry and embarrassed about the mean comment, then Bellenbaum might teach them distress tolerance and distracting skills using DBT. This strategy allows them to tolerate difficult emotions and feelings so they can get through the rest of their day until they are in a space where they can get help or process their feelings. 

Samson, a therapist at Choice Clinical Services in College Park, Maryland, works with Gen Zers, millennials and people of color. She observes that members of Gen Z often struggle with interpersonal boundaries, largely because they have grown up in a digital world where they are constantly connected and expected to communicate with others. She advises her clients to take breaks from social media and engage in activities they find relaxing. Samson has noticed that if her clients dedicate some of their day to relaxing by themselves, then they typically feel better and have the energy to be available and interact with others. 

Some Gen Z clients may find it difficult to start a conversation with their counselor, Samson adds. They may not know how to explain or even identify what they are feeling, so she goes back to the basics and helps educate her clients on identifying feelings by using the feelings wheel. The wheel contains words identifying basic emotions in its middle and branches out to more complicated aspects of these feelings on the outer perimeter of the wheel.

Being authentic 

DeMoya, a certified child and adolescent trauma professional, stresses the importance of being authentic with this generation. “As therapists, we have to move away — as I think we are — from the disconnected, Freudian approach where we just put on our glasses, have our clipboards … and don’t engage in a more relational way,” she says. “You have to be willing to put the clipboard down.” Although there is nothing inherently wrong with taking notes in session, DeMoya says, it can sometimes be a barrier to developing a closer connection with Gen Z clients. 

This generation often wants to know more about the counselor they are working with, and as Bonfini points out, they are likely to have Googled the clinician before the first session. Bonfini recalls being taught as a counseling graduate student not to self-disclose with clients, but she has learned that some limited disclosure helps build rapport with this population. Her clients often ask if her high school or college experience was similar to theirs. She shares with them the ways it was different, such as not having a smartphone and having to make sure that she showed up on time to meet friends or else she would miss them. But she also normalizes and validates common adolescent experiences such as feeling uncomfortable in one’s own body, navigating romantic relationships and being unsure of what’s next after graduation. 

Being authentic also includes working collaboratively with this population to determine their treatment plans and therapeutic goals. Bonfini likes to use motivational interviewing to build rapport and let her clients know that she is working in partnership with them. She often requests that they rank and rate various mental health issues they may want to work on in session. And she asks them, “When will you know therapy is over? What does that look like for you?” This process not only lets the client know that counseling is a partnership but also provides her with useful information about the client’s core issues and treatment goals. 

Today’s counselors must also be willing to learn more about the world these digital natives inhabit. “If you want to be an effective therapist and connect with youth, you have to know social media,” Bellenbaum asserts. Bellenbaum familiarizes herself with current social media trends and has Instagram, YouTube, TikTok and Facebook accounts to help her better understand this culture and what her clients reference. She doesn’t play the video game Minecraft or games such as Dungeons & Dragons or Magic: The Gathering, but she’s aware of what the games are because younger populations often play them. Knowing about current social media trends will help clinicians better understand the challenges this generation faces, she says. 

But counselors don’t necessarily have to be familiar with all the latest trends to build rapport with this population. It’s great if you are, DeMoya says, but what’s more important is showing up authentically in session. 

Making counseling more friendly for Gen Z 

Counselors can also adjust their clinical environment to make it more welcoming for Gen Z individuals. One simple change is to offer electronic communication options for making initial contact with the counselor or setting up an appointment. Bonfini has found that Gen Z clients are less likely to reach out via phone, and when they do call, they don’t say much beyond “I want to make an appointment” or “Call me back.” Secure messaging platforms, text messaging and online forms allow clients to go into more detail and explain why they are seeking counseling, their current schedule and the best way to get in touch with them, she says. 

Bellenbaum uses the app Talkroute, a virtual phone system, for her business because it allows clients to call and text her business line for scheduling purposes. Bellenbaum can also access this app on her laptop or phone, which makes it convenient for her as well. In her client intake packet, she stresses that texting is only for scheduling issues because she cannot guarantee confidentiality through text, but she likes having this option because she knows Gen Z clients are more likely to text than to call. 

Bellenbaum mentions the importance of counselors having office décor that clients can relate to. She has tailored her space to the Gen Z age group by having modern décor with comfortable chairs, blankets, pillows and inviting colors. She also keeps fidgets and snacks in her office in case clients want them. Bellenbaum says her clients often notice and comment on how they like her wall color or décor.

DeMoya’s goal is to create a therapeutic environment that feels like two friends hanging out in a living room. She invites clients to bring in their own coffee or snacks, and she also keeps drinks and snacks in her office. She tells clients to sit where they feel most comfortable — whether that’s on the couch with their feet up or on the floor — and DeMoya will join them in sitting on the floor if they ask her to. 

Bellenbaum also knows that, as digital natives, Gen Z clients prefer electronic forms over paper ones, so she has made all her paperwork electronic and uses an electronic health record. In fact, she doesn’t even keep a filing cabinet in her office. “A big piece of working with Gen Z [is using] … what works for them,” Bellenbaum says. 

If clinicians use a lot of paper worksheets and homework assignments, there is a good chance the forms will be lost or not filled out, Bellenbaum says, so she finds electronic copies more useful. She also suggests counselors get creative in how they incorporate electronic therapeutic techniques. For example, she may ask clients to keep a thought journal on a note app on their phone, and she often recommends that they use apps such as Calm or Headspace when they are working on mindfulness techniques. When she has assignments for clients, Bellenbaum may give them an electronic worksheet, have them take a picture of a worksheet on their phone or email them a link to a counseling exercise because she says they are more likely to engage with the activity if it can be accessed electronically. 

Samson also uses therapeutic apps with her clients. For instance, she sometimes recommends that clients who are struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder use the GG OCD app, which converts CBT techniques into short games that challenge intrusive thoughts and promote positive self-talk. 

DeMoya has learned that many Gen Z clients prefer counseling approaches such as mindfulness and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) that allow them to be in the moment targeting specific issues. When doing bilateral stimulation as part of EMDR, DeMoya gets creative to keep these clients engaged. For example, she gives clients who are musically inclined drumsticks, sets a metronome and has them drum to the beat, or she may have a client use boxing gloves and punch left and right for bilateral simulation.

“Generation Z is all about experiences,” DeMoya says. “If you can make the counseling [process] … something that touches all of their core senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, smell — and you can create something that is an experience in the counseling room, that’s how you’re going to get a whole lot of momentum from them.”

“They’re so stimulated in every area of their life,” she adds. So, “the counseling session has to be something that engages them in multiple, different levels.”

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Considering developmental and generational factors

Counselors know Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development well, and they often think about how a client’s life stage (say as a teenager or emerging adult) might be affecting their mental health. But should counselors also consider the generation that a client belongs to? 

Amber Samson, a licensed clinical professional counselor in College Park, Maryland, thinks counselors should consider both. From a life-stage approach, counselors can reflect on what it was like to be an adolescent and emerging adult and how they are thinking about issues socially, she says. And from a generational perspective, counselors “can see the unique challenges that Gen Z clients face with communication and the constant access they have to their peers, which heightens the judgment and pressure they feel at this age.” 

Jayna Bonfini, a licensed professional counselor in McMurray, Pennsylvania, and a counselor educator, agrees that it’s important for counselors to be aware of how generational factors affect clients’ mental health and development. Drawing from psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory of development, which argues that human development is a transactional process in which surrounding environmental context shapes an individual’s development, she points out that one’s sociopolitical time influences one’s development. Every generation faces different environmental and societal factors, and Bonfini argues that with increasing technology and climate change, Gen Z is dealing with a lot of issues and crises that previous generations didn’t have to think about in the same way.

At the same time, counselors must guard against pigeonholing clients based on “membership” in any particular generation. “A big hurdle that we can all get into as humans is looking at the next generation and automatically putting them in boxes [e.g., boomers are selfish, millennials are entitled, Gen Z is antisocial], and it [often] comes into the counseling session,” says Nichole DeMoya, a licensed mental health counselor in Jacksonville, Florida.

DeMoya encourages clinicians to be aware of their generational biases and to make sure that they do not intrude on their work with clients. It’s easy to criticize, blame and label, she notes, so Gen Z clients often want to know if they have credibility with their counselor and if their worries and concerns are going to be taken seriously.

 

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Lindsey Phillips is the senior editor for Counseling Today. Contact her at lphillips@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Growing percentage of American adults are living single

By Bethany Bray December 1, 2021

A growing share of American adults are living the single life.

The Pew Research Center found that in 2019, 38% of American adults between the ages of 25 and 54 were not married or living with a romantic partner. This number has increased significantly in the past two decades, with only 29% being unpartnered in 1990. While this population includes individuals who are divorced, separated or widowed, an increasing portion have never been married.

The number of married adults fell from 67% to 53% between 1990 and 2019, and the percentage of people who were cohabitating with a partner rose slightly from 4% to 9%. Also, the share of adults who have never been married jumped from 17% to 33% during that time period.

Men are more likely to be unpartnered than women, Pew reports. However, the one exception to this rule is among Black women, with 62% of Black women and 55% of Black men living without a spouse or romantic partner.

Overall, the race and ethnicity breakdown for Americans ages 25 to 54 who were unpartnered in 2019 was as follows:

  • 59% of Black adults
  • 38% of Hispanics
  • 33% of whites
  • 29% of Asians

This evolution of Americans’ living arrangements has also laid bare the financial and other disparities that exist between coupled and single adults. Pew found that adults who live without a partner earn less (on average) than coupled adults, are less likely to finish a bachelor’s degree and are more likely to be financially unstable or unemployed. Single adults’ median salary is $14,000 less than coupled adults, Pew reports.

These statistics create many questions for the counseling profession, including the emotional and relational needs that might arise among single individuals, says Katherine M. Hermann-Turner, an associate professor in the Department of Counseling & Psychology at Tennessee Technological University whose doctoral cognate was in couples and family counseling.

“Many counselors are likely seeing unpartnered clients or family members of unpartnered individuals for services, but what do we know about the stressors of this demographic? … The first step is [for counselors to have an] awareness that this is a growing demographic,” says Hermann-Turner, a past president of the Association for Adult Development and Aging, a division of ACA. “My antenna as a counselor, particularly someone who operates from a systems perspective and relational-cultural theory framework, goes to the potential increased need for emotional connection for unpartnered individuals rather than the economic stressors faced by this demographic.”

In addition to the financial and economic disparities, Pew also found that unpartnered adults were more likely to be living with their parents than adults who are married or cohabitating. Thirty-one percent of unpartnered men and 24% of unpartnered women lived with at least one parent in 2019, which is much higher than that statistic for partnered adults (2% for both men and women).

Hermann-Turner notes that this information raises further questions about what clients who fall into this demographic might need when working with a professional counselor.

“Are these individuals substituting the support of their family of origin for partnership or reliance on external systems of support (i.e., romantic partnership)?,” she asks. “If so, why is this the route for many individuals given the typical complexity of a family system? Is this evidence of an earlier lack of career guidance? Underdeveloped relational skills? If so, how can we as counselors begin to intervene earlier and develop these skills in a younger population? Should we be reconceptualizing family counseling to include an emphasis on adult children and their parents? … I am intentionally avoiding the ‘chicken or egg’ argument and pondering the possibility that enmeshed family systems have intentionally stunted one child’s ability for emotional independence as a way to serve the needs of the parents.”

Olga Strelnikova/Shutterstock.com

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What do you think? How might these demographic shifts affect the work counselors do with clients? How should the profession adapt to help clients and meet their needs?

Add your thoughts in the comment section below.

 

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Read more from the Pew Research Center: https://pewrsr.ch/3DeLtrm

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Starting post-college life in a pandemic

By Bethany Bray August 3, 2020

Spring 2020 college graduates have emerged into a world turned upside down by COVID-19. The job prospects and post-college lifestyles these graduates were imagining for themselves just a few months ago are today largely nonexistent.

Unprecedented seems to be the buzzword of the season, notes Roseanne Bensley, assistant director of New Mexico State University’s (NMSU’s) Center for Academic Advising and Student Support. The coronavirus pandemic has affected everything from relationships to career planning for new graduates.

“It’s not one part of their life, it’s every part of their life,” Bensley says. “Employers have uncertainty and don’t know, day to day, when things will lift. … No one has enough information to give answers. This is new territory for employers and job searchers.”

However, Bensley would like to add a second buzzword to the class of 2020’s lexicon: resiliency. As she points out, these students, many of whom had to unexpectedly finish their senior year coursework online, can claim an advantage when it comes to adaptability and comfort with technology.

Because of COVID-19, “New jobs and new ways of doing business are opening up. This is going to cause a new wave of change, and [employers] may not be going back to the way it was,” Bensley says. “These students are ahead of the curve. … They will be resilient with what they’ve learned.”

At a loss

Licensed professional counselor (LPC) Patricia Anderson recently worked with a new college grad who was experiencing a resurgence of anxiety this past spring during the pandemic. The young woman had switched jobs, and the restrictions associated with COVID-19 meant that she was unable to meet any of her new co-workers in person. Her entire hiring and onboarding process had been completed via video and electronic communication. She had also recently moved into her own apartment and begun living away from her family for the first time.

The client was stressed out, anxious, and struggling with her self-confidence, recalls Anderson, an American Counseling Association member who has a private practice in the Georgetown section of Washington D.C. In working through her feelings in counseling, it became clear that the young woman — an extrovert by nature — was experiencing grief over the large-scale absence of social connection, both at work and in her personal life.

During the pandemic, the client had stopped using an online dating platform. This resulted in her experiencing a sense of loss regarding opportunities to meet people and a decrease in the confidence she normally gained through interacting with dates and new relationships. Anderson worked with the client to establish a self-care plan that included making time for hobbies and exercise, as well as maintaining social contacts and reconnecting with friends with whom she had lost touch.

Anderson also focused on boosting the client’s confidence and equipped her with strategies for keeping her self-talk from becoming self-critical. In addition, Anderson helped the client recognize that what she was feeling was grief, which can arrive in waves. Together, they connected some of the client’s feelings to family-of-origin issues that were contributing to her stress.

Anderson also helped the client focus on the reality that her current situation wouldn’t last forever. “We talked about things she can look forward to in the future: going back to online dating, figuring out a new normal, looking forward to meeting colleagues face-to-face, planning a trip, and working on another business opportunity,” Anderson says. “Time spent away [from dating] had eroded the confidence she once had and had kicked up her anxiety. Staying ‘in the game’ can be beneficial for some [clients]. It’s a way to get to know themselves and push themselves socially.”

Many of Anderson’s clients are young professionals, current college students or recent graduates. Throughout the spring and summer, many of these clients have been wrestling with feelings of loss, she says. This includes the loss of rites of passage such as graduation ceremonies and in-person celebrations, the loss of internships and immediate job prospects and, for some, the seeming loss of entire career plans.

“Their world and their [sense of] structure have been upended, and they’re not really knowing which direction to move in,” Anderson says. “Some days, they feel like, ‘OK, I got this,’ and then other days, they have doubts about ‘Where am I going?’ The floor dropped out of what they thought was going to happen. … They have anxiety over the fact that everything got pulled out from underneath them, and now they don’t have a road map.”

It is vitally important that counselors first help these clients process their feelings of loss before trying to guide them to reconsider their job options or life path, Anderson says. Among the most consequential actions counselors can take are to listen to, validate and normalize the emotions that these young adults are feeling in the wake of COVID-19.

“Be with the client where they are,” Anderson says. “If they’re unable to go with a job that didn’t happen or was rescinded, really sit with them in that space before opening up and looking at the possibilities of ‘what else?’ It’s difficult to do that until they know that you understand them and where they’re coming from.”

All feelings of loss should be treated as real and valid, Anderson says, even if clients themselves express guilt over feeling that way or dismiss those feelings as being trivial when the world is facing weightier issues. For example, some graduates may still be dealing with disappointment that they missed out on a final chance to take a spring break trip with friends or weren’t able to study abroad because of the coronavirus. Counselors should reassure these clients that it is OK to have these feelings and then give them space to talk about it, she emphasizes.

“[Help them] know that they’re not alone and that it totally makes sense to struggle right now. They also may be scared at feeling unsettled, which may be a new feeling for them,” explains Anderson, who does contract work for the QuarterLife Center, a Washington, D.C., therapy office that specializes in working with young professionals in their 20s and 30s.

In addition to normalizing feelings, Anderson has been providing clients with psychoeducation on self-care, the nonlinear aspects of grief, and the importance of maintaining social supports and a structured daily schedule. She checks with clients to ensure they are staying connected with friends and family via technology and that they are equipped with coping mechanisms such as meditation and self-reflection exercises. She also asks if they are eating well, engaging in physical activity, getting outside, and taking part in other wellness-focused activities.

As Anderson’s clients talk in sessions, she listens for hopeful language that might indicate they are ready to rethink their futures. “I try to help them broaden their scope a little, if they’re ready for it. I let them talk about what they need to talk about, but then spend some time looking at other pieces of what else might be possible. [I] try and get them out of their heads just a little bit,” Anderson says, “because if I [as a client] always thought I was going to be a dentist, and come to find out that I’m not going to be a dentist, I have to grieve. But at the same time, maybe there are some things that free me up about not being a dentist.”

“If you can create a trusting relationship with a [client],” she says, “they know that you understand them, and we can explore all kinds of things, whether they [previously] seemed unrealistic or not.”

Rethinking career plans

Flexibility must be the watchword for recent graduates who are looking for jobs, says Lynn Downie, associate director of career and professional development at Presbyterian College in South Carolina. In her work with undergraduates and alumni of the small, rural college, Downie is finding that those who had a “hard and set, defined path” in mind, such as entering the health care or hospitality industries straight out of school, are struggling most.

Those who are currently seeking jobs can benefit greatly from the guidance and encouragement provided by a counselor, says Downie, who recently finished a two-year term as president of the National Employment Counseling Association (NECA), a division of ACA. “Give them reassurance that things haven’t changed completely. Highlight [the idea] that pathways to a particular goal aren’t always the same. There are other distinct pathways,” she says.

Downie is helping her clients identify workarounds as they adjust their perspectives to become more flexible and less discouraged by rejection letters or the idea of taking a job that might not have appealed to them previously. Some of her clients have readjusted their career plans to take entry-level or short-term work in positions or fields they wouldn’t have considered six months ago. Others have pivoted to opportunities in national service programs such as AmeriCorps.

Downie, a member of ACA, also reminds recent graduates that they just need to find a fit for right now. That doesn’t mean their long-term career goals have to change. “Help [these clients] realize that they’re not making a choice for the rest of their lives when they choose a job, or [especially] their first job,” she says. “Their life is going to be full of all kinds of pivots. Some are planned and some are unplanned and forced. There is a big arc from 18 to 65 or retirement age. … You can [still] have aspirational goals that are for down the line.”

Downie has worked with several business students who had hoped to go into health care administration, but because the industry is so in flux currently, there aren’t many administration jobs open at the entry level. With these students and graduates, Downie has focused on ways that their administration skills could be used in alternative settings, such as nonprofit, community development or public health organizations. Another tactic is taking lower-paid medical aide or assistant jobs in settings that are currently short-staffed (such as nursing homes) and that do not necessarily require special certification. As Downie points out, even working as a contact tracer as part of the COVID-19 virus response — a job that didn’t exist six months ago — could help these new graduates gain experience.

Similarly, a job in pharmaceutical or medical sales could provide these graduates with valuable exposure. “They would still be interacting with those in the medical field, instead of applying for jobs that don’t exist,” she points out.

Bensley notes that going with a “Plan B” job in a field or setting that a graduate didn’t originally intend to work in can demonstrate to other potential employers that the graduate possesses a good work ethic and thinks outside the box. She also urges students and recent graduates to widen their searches to consider temporary, freelance or even gig work instead of focusing solely on full-time employment.

“[A first job] may not be professional, but it’s work, and [the individual] can be introduced to people through that work,” Bensley says. “It also tells a [future] employer that you’re a hustler and not waiting for the golden egg to show up.”

When counseling clients who are rethinking their career plans, Downie finds it helpful to have them identify a theme they feel drawn to and then consider various types of work that fit that theme. For example, a graduate who enjoys building relationships can use that skill in any number of job settings. They might start out in sales but advance to building teams as a manager or even pivot to cultivating client relationships as a professional counselor.

“Find a theme for your life — that one thing you cling to, what you’re good at,” Downie tells her clients. “You can work on that in all types of settings. A core skill can translate into different fields, and sticking with it will give you a sense of continuity and purpose.”

Networking during a pandemic

Bensley often tells students at NMSU to think of how professional athletes are handling the pandemic: Their season may be on hold or even canceled, but they’re continuing to stay in shape.

“Just because the competitive side of their sport has stopped, they’re not watching Netflix for 10 hours a day. They are still keeping their skill set up, working out, training and preparing,” Bensley observes.

That same philosophy should apply to career planning during the pandemic, she emphasizes. Now is the time for job candidates to put even more energy into enriching themselves and expanding their professional networks.

“Don’t limit your strategy to just sending out résumés and waiting for a response,” urges Bensley, an instructor for the global career development facilitator credential through NECA. “While employers may have slowed down their original hiring plans, it does not mean that a candidate should also slow down. If anything, it means you might need to work harder at following employers on LinkedIn, reviewing their homepages and [thoroughly] reading job postings to determine if you have the skill set that employers require.”

Bensley suggests it is also the perfect time for recent graduates to flip the usual dynamic and reach out to interview professionals who are already working in their desired field. Job seekers can identify contacts through LinkedIn or other networks and ask if these professionals have 20 minutes to talk about their job or industry.

Bensley urges students and recent graduates to start with professors and mentors whom they already know or have worked with. They can then use those connections to secure introductions to other professionals in their desired field. Those professionals can recommend still others they would recommend connecting with, and so on, in a widening circle, Bensley says.

Professionals are especially open to such requests right now because many are working from home and are free from in-person meetings, conferences and business travel engagements. In many ways, motivated students and recent graduates currently have a “captive audience,” she says.

“This shows curiosity and a desire to learn about your craft, gets your name out there, and helps you evolve and have insights on what they [professionals] consider to be important,” Bensley says. “If an employer said, ‘We really value teamwork,’ there’s a hint: Everything [you might say in a job interview] should be focused on teamwork. Instead of saying, ‘I did X,” say, ‘We did X.’ That can be the small percentage you need to get ahead — understanding the value system of the employer because you’ve talked to them about it.”

Forward vision

As counselors offer support and reassurance to recent graduates and young professionals struggling to adjust to personal and professional lives upended by COVID-19, here are some important points to keep in mind:

>>  Focus on listening. Downie urges counselors to slowly ease in to therapeutic or career work with these clients. She often opens her sessions with a question: “What do you want to talk about today?” With so many concerns currently weighing on these clients, their answers might be unexpected and diverge entirely from the topics they have discussed in session previously, she says.

“Give them the floor to talk about whatever they want. We [counselors] always have to be good listeners, but now as we’re isolated, there’s a real temptation to give advice,” Downie says. “What is needed now, during this crisis, is to listen — listen more and not give advice. That’s been essential. Students who were slow to open up to begin with now need additional time to be comfortable. We need to build [therapeutic] relationships but also step back and allow for quiet. Right now, there’s so much chatter, [clients] need time to catch their breath before speaking.”

>> Consider the whole picture. College students and recent graduates may unexpectedly find themselves living at home and navigating family stressors, Downie notes. Regardless of the presenting issue that brings these clients to counseling, counselors should ask questions that will help them understand clients’ situations in full. Downie says she has worked with students who have needed to finish college coursework while sharing a computer with family members or to conduct their entire job search on a cellphone. Others found themselves scrambling to secure temporary work — long before they expected to start a career — to supplement household income because their parents had been laid off.

“When students went home and courses went online, family structures were being upended,” Downie says. “It took an emotional toll. … The level of stress has been enormous, even from day one” of the pandemic.

Some students and recent graduates have expressed feeling pressure from parents about their job searches or life choices (even if parents haven’t necessarily voiced those concerns) that they wouldn’t have felt living on campus. Counselors should be mindful that living at home adds an entirely new dynamic to these clients’ experiences, Downie says.

Administrators at Presbyterian College, including Downie, split up the student body roster and called every student to check in through the spring semester. This endeavor confirmed a saying that Downie had been hearing from colleagues: “We’re all in the same storm but not in the same boat.” The needs and stressors that students were experiencing varied widely, depending on their circumstances, she says.

“Really quickly, I realized the truth of that saying. For some, doors opened that weren’t there before. There were some who found themselves with new opportunities, yet their best friends were experiencing a very different [reality],” she explains.

>> Make clients the authors of a story in progress: Tina Leboffe, an ACA member and a counselor pursuing licensure under supervision at a therapy practice in Douglassville, Pennsylvania, uses narrative therapy with clients, many of whom are college students concerned about finding a job after graduation. “I see my clients as the meaning-makers in their own lives. When working with loss [related to the COVID-19 pandemic], I feel that it is important to walk with the client as they tell the story of their experience, while supporting their exploration of what they want this loss to mean for their life story. This can look like allowing space for the client to be present in feeling the emotions caused by loss and also to look forward at what they want their lives to look like as a result of the loss,” says Leboffe, an associate addiction counselor.

“When working with a client to refocus and reimagine their future, we can listen as they add context to their story,” she says. “Despite the setting of their story shifting, the client is still the author. We can support our clients as they integrate a new reality into their life story by asking questions that refocus on the client being the expert of their life. As counselors, we might not be able to change the job market, but we can guide our clients in an exploration of what they want their life to look like given the changes that have occurred. We can assist them in identifying decisions they want to make in the face of change.”

>> Seize the opportunity to explore identity: Leboffe and Anderson both note that while this is a time of stress and upheaval for young clients, it can also afford opportunities for personal growth. Counselors can help support and encourage that process.

“This is a good time for them to learn about themselves, learn about what their values are and what is important to them. … [It is] a time to explore their internal world and let them find out what their 22-year-old self is like,” Anderson says. “How are they with stress? How do they handle ambiguity? How are they capable and able to move forward and readjust in such a difficult time? Giving them space to talk allows them to process [these things].”

“In my experience working with young adults and recent grads — and being one myself not long ago — I have found that this time in their lives can be filled with identity exploration and transition,” Leboffe says. “They may be faced with new levels of independence and responsibility that can evoke questions like ‘What do I want my life to look like?’ or ‘Who do I want to be?’ This can be important to keep in mind as we work with or parent recent grads because it can serve as underlying context to help us be empathetic to their lived experiences while they are developing their sense
of identity.”

>> Remember that productivity is relative. Anderson has found it helpful to remind young clients that even though they’re spending much more time at home, they may need to temper their expectations about productivity.

“This shouldn’t be a time when you plan to be super productive. That’s hard to do when you’re going through something so emotional and so taxing,” Anderson tells clients. “It’s not a time to learn six new languages, clean your entire house or finish a major art project. Instead, focus on what works for you. What are things that calm you and help you [that] you can do routinely? Be less hard on yourself. At the same time, it’s a great time to try something new if you have the motivation to.”

>> Build confidence. Bensley urges counselors to focus on the positive when communicating with college students and recent graduates during the pandemic. “The No. 1 thing we can do for clients is help build their confidence,” Bensley says. “The tone of my emails has been, ‘Hey, you’ve got this. I’m cheering you on.’ I’m trying to use my language to be that [needed] encouragement, even if they don’t ask for it or seem to need it.”

>> Take them seriously. Transitioning to adulthood is hard enough without the added concerns and stresses of COVID-19. Validation from a counselor is pivotal during this time of life, Anderson says.

“Take their concerns seriously. We know in general that people will land on their feet and things will turn out OK as they make their way in the world. [But] they need to be held in the emotional space where they are right now,” Anderson says. “Moving into adulthood is really hard. It can be a very tumultuous time — and one that promotes growth.”

“[These clients’] struggles and needs are serious,” she continues. “Figuring out dating, jobs and social stuff — it’s all important. Stay with them in their space and create that [trusting] relationship. Know that their concerns are valid, even if we have all the confidence in them in the world that they’re going to figure this out. They really are worried that they’re not going to figure this out in the right way. And that’s valid [because] they haven’t been here before.”

 

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Entering the counseling profession amid COVID-19

Graduates from counseling programs certainly aren’t immune to the stresses and uncertainties that 2020 graduates in other fields are facing.

Darius Green graduated from James Madison University (JMU) with a doctorate in counselor education in May. Green says that he and many other counseling graduates feel the pressure of finding jobs that can provide financial stability “rather than being able to choose what positions best fit [our] personal and professional goals.”

I do not come from a background of financial privilege, so this rose to the top of my priorities,” says Green, a member of the American College Counseling Association, a division of ACA. “I [have] noticed a mix of success and difficulty among some of my peers in the job search process. For those who started early and found a position that matched what they were looking for, the process seemed easy. For my peers who had not been able to start searching early or just had not found the ideal position, there seemed to be more difficulty. … I struggled with finding a position that I wanted and carried out my job search longer than I had planned.”

This summer, Green is living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where JMU is located, holding down both a full-time instructional faculty position with JMU’s Learning Centers Department and working part time as a counselor with the ARROW Project, a community mental health organization roughly 30 miles away in Staunton.

Green hopes that in this time of crisis, professional counselors who are already established will remember the role they play as advocates for the profession and will look out for new counseling graduates trying to enter the field.

“I think that counselors who are already working can be aware and sensitive to how stressful being in such a position [graduating during a pandemic] can be. I also feel as if counselors can advocate within their agencies or communities to do our part in making sure that existing opportunities are made known to recent graduates,” Green says. “That could include reaching out to counseling faculty members to share information or even connecting with colleagues who may know of new counseling graduates in need.”

“One thing that I would want [counselors] to keep in mind is that not everyone has connections to others in the counseling profession and other mental health fields,” he continues. “Some students come from backgrounds that may have lacked opportunities for networking or that may not value the mental health professions. I think it would be important to pay particularly close attention to those students so that they do not fall through the cracks or face another layer of oppression.”

 

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Bethany Bray is a senior writer and social media coordinator for Counseling Today. Contact her at bbray@counseling.org.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Counseling Connoisseur: Autumn lessons in turning inward and letting go

By Cheryl Fisher November 27, 2019

“At first we do not know what deeds or misdeeds, what destiny, what good or evil we contain, and only the autumn can show what the spring has engendered; only in the evening will it be seen what the morning began.” —  C.G. Jung

The leaves rustle in the trees as the wind grazes the tops, now bleeding color from the stems. Golden, russet and brown shades color the tips of the horizon as the seasons move from summer to fall. The earth begins to bring its energy toward its center as it prepares for the cooler months.

I begin my rituals of nesting. I cover the herbs and berry plants with straw and fill the feeders—assuring my feathered friends will have seeds and full bellies. Salads and light fair are replaced with soups and stews. The house is filled with the alchemy of savory and sweet spices.

I don shawls and pashminas and shuffle around in fleece-lined footwear. The shift toward autumnal consciousness brings quiet and an inward focus that is forgiving of extra pounds hidden under tunics and capes. I welcome the harvesting and gathering by all creatures as we prepare for the often-dreaded winter months that lie ahead.

Nature’s seasons offer guidance and are witness to the phases of change in our human experience. The first half of our lives—the spring and summer of our youth and young adulthood fade into the beginning of the second half—an autumnal middle adulthood that can offer peace and solace as we learn to turn inward. Just as the last of the leaves gently fall to the ground, we learn to let go of that which we no longer need. We let go of judgment and self-loathing, external validation and the defenses of the ego of youth.

The arrival of autumn

Our early years are characterized by quick growth and the establishment of our own separate identity. We build our sense of self from numerous factors: I am female. I am tall. I am a writer. I am a helper. I am a hard worker.

Once we have established our place in the world—one that centers on our individuality—a shift in perspective occurs. Autumn has arrived and we begin to look for greater meaning.

In “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for Two Halves of Life,” Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest and founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, says that the shift [to the second half of life] “… feels like a return to simplicity after having learned from all the complexity.” According to Rohr, life’s second half offers the understanding that peace and tolerance far outweigh an air of judgment and righteousness. Knee jerk reactions are replaced with contemplation and discernment. We begin to welcome the wisdom gained from many years of experience and coaching from others. We have started to cultivate our own sense of internal guidance and others may look to us for mentorship. We may recognize a sense of power — a force acting from within that we know is not our ego, and we begin to trust it.

 

A time of change

As we enter our middle to later adulthood, we may find judging people more difficult and that accepting people as they are is more in keeping with our heart’s desire. We no longer have to prove that our ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic group is superior to another. We have a greater understanding of our narrative and the mistakes we’ve made and are more able to view the errors of others in the context of humanity. According to Rohr, “Creating drama has become boring!”

During this time, we may begin to see love as something to be offered unconditionally, rather than given only for what we receive in return. Erik Erikson theorized that in middle adulthood — by his definition a span encompassing the ages of 40 to 65 years old — people begin to develop concern for others that extends beyond self and family. He called this need to nurture others—particularly the next generation—generativity. Erikson believed that this desire to give back to the world is so strong that if we are unable to contribute to the greater good, we feel a sense of failure and “stagnation.” Alfred Adler wrote extensively on the value of Gemeinschaftsgefuhl, or social interest — extending beyond oneself to creating a useful lifestyle. As counselors, we can help clients identify their gifts and find ways to make offerings to the world.

A different compass

According to Rohr, the first half of life is constructed through “impulse controls; traditions; group symbols; family loyalties; basic respect for authority; civil and church laws…”

However, in the second half of life, rules as a basis for action give way to authenticity and power directed from an internal moral compass. With age comes the understanding that there can be a difference between what is legal and what is moral. For example, there was a time in the not-so-distant past when it was illegal for black Americans to eat in the same restaurants as white Americans. While this was the law, it certainly challenges my moral compass. Throughout history, many activists—such as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Mother Teresa; Mahatma Gandhi; and Jesus Christ—have broken the laws of their time to move society toward higher moral ground.

The test of time has provided us with the experience of knowing to pick our battles. No longer feeling the need for competition and keeping up with the Joneses, we are able to enjoy just being in the general dance. We feel at peace more often with what is, and we appreciate things the way they are in the moment. We look to simplify our lives—making space for relationships and pleasure. Much needed playtime re-enters our calendars that have suffered years of overcommitment. We turn inward and welcome the peace.

As we work with clients who are transitioning from the summer of their youth to the autumn passage of middle adulthood, we can remind them of their strengths and the gifts they have cultivated throughout their lives. We can promote their generous offering of time and talents in service to their communities. We can help them identify their beliefs and values, and challenge the dissonance between their internal moral compass and the life they live. We can encourage their inner dialogue and the wisdom that they possess. As counselors, we can promote these changes by offering affirmation of their strengths and the beauty of coming into one’s own self in a way that is authentic, liberating and powerful.

Perhaps this is what the poet Jenny Joseph intended to capture in “Warning,” written in 1961 when she 29.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

 

 

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Cheryl Fisher is a licensed clinical professional counselor in private practice in Annapolis, Maryland. She is director and assistant professor for Alliant International University California School of Professional Psychology’s online MA in Clinical Counseling.  Her research interests include examining sexuality and spirituality in young women with advanced breast cancer; nature-informed therapy; and geek therapy. She may be contacted at cyfisherphd@gmail.com.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Understanding the gap: Encouraging grad students to work with an aging population

By Neha Pandit August 20, 2019

It often feels like an uphill battle to be attending graduate school, working, sifting through large amounts of data about practicum (and then internship) placements, and weighing options all at the same time. As a graduate counseling student, there are recurrent moments of panic and thoughts of What am I going to do? Where should I apply? and the unavoidable, multifaceted What if … ?

As someone who has advised graduate students, supervised future counselors throughout their clinical training process, and practiced for over a decade myself, I try to break this process down into questions such as: What do you hope to achieve? What interests you? What type of work do you see yourself doing when you graduate? These questions illicit responses that span from the specific (e.g., “I want to work with kids who are struggling with an addiction”) to the more general (e.g., “I want to get experience doing actual therapy”).

Many clinical training directors will tell you that what we less frequently hear is counseling students who say they want experience working with older adults. When I suggest that this is a growing field with extremely diverse opportunities — from setting (hospital, community, private) to format (individual, family, group) — what I often get in return is a perplexed look, a head shake, and a facial expression that seems to suggest anxiety. This is accompanied by a statement to the effect of, “I’m just not comfortable counseling an old person. What could I possibly say to them that they haven’t already heard?”

 

Uncertain about the uncertainty

The reasons behind this uncertainty are not simple. First of all, what does being an “old person” or “geriatric” even mean? Society most often measures these constructs in terms of years. According to the World Health Organization, the beginning of “old age” typically hovers somewhere between 60 to 65 years old, coinciding with average retirement age in many cultures. But even this age range is slowly shifting upward as we live longer and healthier lives. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2017, 15.6% of the U.S. population was 65 or older. By 2030, this number is estimated to grow to 25% of the population. The Stanford Center on Longevity estimates that 10,000 Americans turn 60 every day.

Given the many opportunities to enhance their clinical skills with such a large and diverse population, how can we understand the hesitation that counseling graduate students may show toward working in organizations that aim to provide services to those over 65? Is the hesitation connected to an internal fear of the unknown — growing older themselves or thinking about loved ones aging and not being ready to face those prospects? Or does it involve assumptions made about people based on age? In speaking with students and fellow counseling supervisors, I think it has to do with a combination of those two reasons.

We all get nervous about working with unknowns, of course. Applied to this situation, the origins of this uneasiness seem obvious: Graduate students have all experienced being children before, but few of them have experienced being old. When a shared reference point is not available, assumptions are all too often generated from stereotypes. The same holds true with words such as “old,” “geriatric” and “elderly.” The problem is that the almost automatic images associated with these descriptors — and with presumptions about fragility, sickness, and resistance to change — are not appropriately reflective of older adults in general.

Given the inevitability of aging and the astounding need for more counselors with geriatric training and experience, I often wonder what we can do to challenge such inhibitions and encourage more students to pursue opportunities to work with older adults.

 

Challenging myths

It is vital to this discussion to debunk age-related myths. This involves challenging the veracity of automatic links and images that students may generate related to the mental and physical well-being of aging adults.

One way to accomplish this is by discussing the basic statistical concept that the variability of differences within a group is much greater than the variability between groups. Said another way, it is more likely that a graduate counseling student will have more in common with an older person than it is for a group of older adults to have a lot in common with each other. This concept should already be a learning objective that is core to any multicultural counseling class. Ensuring that graduate counseling classes that focus on matters of diversity also include exploration of what aging does and does not mean could go a long way toward breaking down uncertainty that is based in incorrect automatic images and assumptions rather than in reality.

Scientific and technological breakthroughs mean that what once seemed to be inevitable byproducts of the aging process are no longer homogeneously applicable. Here are two examples of myths with associated reality checks:

 

Myth: Old people are fragile and are probably ill.

Reality: Some diseases, infections and conditions that were not understood or treatable 50 years ago are now completely preventable or treatable at any age. The National Institute on Aging states that the average age of onset of many chronic illnesses (for example, arthritis and heart disease) has increased incrementally by 10 years over the past 80 years. This means that people are staying healthier for longer and have freer will to control environmental factors that can facilitate good health.

 

Myth: Old people are set in their ways and don’t want to change.

Reality: Personality characteristics usually remain stable over time. Someone who was generally resistant to change over the course of his or her life is likely to remain resistant to change. However, the converse is also true: Someone who generally welcomed change over the course of his or her life is likely to continue to welcome change.

 

Getting personal

Normalizing the fear of the unknown, identifying experiences that may affect this, challenging the rationality of assumptions around aging, and having frank discussions about the universality of “experience” are all pivotal to encouraging graduate students to work with an aging population.

By “universality,” we are not just referring to the inevitability that, with luck, we will all get older. Rather, it refers to the reality that we are all subject to similar challenges and emotions that can arise at any point in our lives. For example, relationship difficulties, depression, anxiety, trauma, illness and loss are life challenges that a 5-, 25- or 75-year-old can face. Therefore, a 5-, 25- or 75-year-old could benefit from treatment.

Erik Erikson recognized this lifelong process of continuous development, growth and reflection through the “integrity versus despair” stage in his theory of psychosocial development. According to Erikson, around age 65, individuals begin to profoundly reflect on the meaning in their life thus far. Someone who is able to find this meaning and look back on life with few regrets moves toward integrity. If, on the other hand, individuals feel they have wasted their time and are full of regret, they will be more prone to despair. Meeting the developmental needs of older adults as they negotiate this critical phase elucidates a common clinical issue that both current and future counselors will always face: perception of meaning in life.

We want our counselors-in-training to mature in their reflective capacity skills and to strive to understand internal variables that they may bring into sessions. By the time they are in the classroom with us, most graduate students have had the experience of seeing loved ones age, and those who have not could be anxious about the certain reality of having this experience at some point in the future. This gives counselor educators and supervisors the opportunity to explore with students how their reactions to these inevitable realities are collective in nature and how they are shared by many people, regardless of age. A counselor-in-training with good reflective capacity can harness the associated emotions and funnel them into an invaluable therapeutic tool: empathy.

 

Recommendations and tips

As mentioned earlier, the diverse options for working with older adults better enables us to match student interests with appropriate placements. I had a student who was interested in getting clinical experience with family therapy and older adults in hospital settings. The student was able to find a placement in a hospital working with families in which one of its members had been newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Another student had strong interest in getting experience working with addictions. The student was able to find a placement at a methadone clinic and was assigned a good caseload of older clients who were in recovery. My point is to communicate to students that the variety of placements available for working with older adults mirrors the diversity of today’s older adult population.

The passage of time inevitably brings change and, with that, different challenges and fluctuations. As counselor educators and supervisors of future practitioners, it is our responsibility to challenge and prepare graduate students to tackle these issues. Whether it’s a student seeking guidance or a person seeking counseling, assisting in increasing their reflective capacity, adaptation or coping with these challenges and changes is core to what we do as educators and practitioners. Regardless of how old the person sitting in our office or classroom is, engaged learning can happen in countless forms, as can growth through stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

 

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Neha Pandit is an assistant professor at Robert Morris University, working mainly in the master’s counseling psychology program. She also has more than 15 years of clinical experience and is currently working at a practice in Wexford, Pennsylvania. Contact her at pandit@rmu.edu.

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.