Youth Counselor Career

What is a Youth Counselor?

A youth counselor is someone who provides support and guidance to young people who are seen to be ‘at risk’ or who have committed crimes – typically up to and including in their teenage years. Youth counselors can be involved to provide support in a range of issues affecting this population which impact upon their development socially or educationally. Examples of such issues include unstable home lives, bullying, sexuality or body image concerns.

As well as providing support, a youth counselor is also a point of contact for young people to find out about local services and provide a key role in introducing their young clients to specialist services for their area of concern. Youth counselors are found in employment in a range of environments including schools, within the criminal justice system and social services – this leaves them well placed to engage with young people that are experiencing problems or who are seen to be at risk of developing ongoing issues.

What Does a Youth Counselor Do?

Youth counselors provide guidance, information, and some case management for youth ages 11-21 who might otherwise go unsupported. Counselors work on a wide variety of issues with these youth: substance abuse, trauma, social skills, academic underachievement, and family issues.

Youth counselors use a wide variety of professional skills to help their clients. The first and most important technique is to develop rapport with a youth; to establish themselves as a friendly, trustworthy adult who has their best interests and success foremost in mind. Because many youth who are underachieving, abused, or are within the criminal justice system feel persecuted by adults, it isn’t always easy to establish rapport. Trust-building techniques such as careful self-disclosure, thorough review of confidentiality policies, and intentional discussions of transference and countertransference are some of the first-line tools for building rapport with distrustful youth.

Once rapport is established, many youth counselors use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques, which involve collaboratively examining the interplay between a youth’s thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. Many counselors skip over the rapport-building phase in an effort to streamline treatment, but this is a mistake. Without rapport, the youth will benefit little from counseling.

Within the cognitive-behavioral model, it is believed that a change in either thoughts, behaviors, or feelings can facilitate change in the other two categories. For example, if a counselor and youth are working collaboratively and decide to focus on changing the youth’s behavior in a certain academic class in hopes of bettering the youth’s grade, they might focus on shifting the youth’s thoughts about the teacher from negative to neutral.

Youth counselors working with substance abusing youth might use a variety of techniques. Often these techniques require additional or supplemental training from the basic education necessary to become a youth counselor. These techniques include motivational interviewing, specialty substance abuse counseling, and various other county-instituted programs focusing on substance-abusing youth.

Some youth counselors also incorporate family therapy into their treatment if they believe the youth would benefit from it. Other techniques might include art therapy, journaling, and psychodynamic techniques. Collaboration with other adults in the youth’s life is almost always beneficial, but must be done in a way that does not compromise the youth’s confidentiality and therefore trust.

What is a Gang Prevention Counselor?

As the name indicates, a gang prevention counselor works with people who are either at risk for gang involvement or who are formerly members of gangs. Primarily focused on the needs of children and adolescents, gang prevention counselors generally work as part of a larger team or task force to achieve the goal of reducing gang activity and involvement in the community. Gang prevention counselors will also provide services to families whose loved ones are in a gang, as well as to communities who are struggling with gang violence.

Gang prevention counselors approach their work in a variety of ways. Many activities in which gang prevention counselors engage are educationally related. Especially when working with children and adolescents, counselors will focus on helping their clients stay in school. This often includes arranging or providing tutoring services, employment readiness training, building college preparatory skills, and preventing truancies. Additionally, mentorship, life coaching, and leadership training are primary tools that counselors use to help keep kids out of gangs and focused on getting an education.

Traditional therapy is also part of a gang prevention counselor’s duties. Many counselors offer group therapy for children and adolescents. They might oversee psychoeducational groups for clients that are at risk of joining a gang. These groups would focus on building the educational skills outlined above, in addition to strong social and emotional skills that allow clients to effectively overcome the obstacles in their lives, such as poverty, that might drive them to join a gang in the first place. Other types of therapeutic interventions seek to address specific issues that could also increase the likelihood that a young person becomes involved in a gang, such as substance abuse.

Another common duty for gang prevention counselors is to help people develop a stronger sense of community. In this case, the focus of the intervention would include not just children and adolescents, but parents, siblings, other family members, and community members as well. The goal of family and community-based interventions is to build a strong support system for at-risk youth. This might be accomplished through mentorship activities. For example, youth at risk of joining a gang would be paired with a positive adult role model who teaches young people essential skills they need to make steps towards positive growth.

Working with former gang members is another primary duty of gang prevention counselors. In this capacity, counselors provide many of the same services as they do to at-risk youth – there is a focus on education and building a strong support system. However, counseling former gang members might also involve one-on-one or group counseling as well. For example, counselors might oversee a group that focuses on anger management, building social and communication skills, improving decision making, and improving self-control. There would also be an emphasis on developing conflict resolution skills that empower the client to resolve issues without violence.

Why Do We Need Youth Counselors?

Working as a counselor with youth clients can be one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Teenagers are often plagued by internal stressors as well as external stressors which they need guidance in working through. Sometimes these youth have been struggling in school or at home and their families seek out a youth counselor who can help the teenager identify their problems and work through them. Other times youth are sent to a counselor after a major incident such as a crime or threat, in these cases the youth is required to attend sessions with a counselor before they can return to school or home with their family.

Where Does a Youth Counselor Work?

Youth counselors work in a school environment where they talk to students throughout the day about issues that typically face teenagers. Individual students may come to the counselor’s office when they have issues they would like to discuss or when a teacher requests they visit with the counselor.

Other work environments may include correctional facilities that work with teenagers, drug treatment programs or inpatient mental health clinics. It is also possible to be a youth counselor in an outpatient clinic and specifically only take teenage clients. There is a growing need for outpatient counselors who can see patients before and after school hours because many youth counselors in this type of setting require kids to miss class to attend sessions during the school day.

What are the Education Requirements to Become a Youth Counselor?

If you will be working with youth in a clinical setting and providing one to one sessions you will likely need to finish a graduate degree program in counseling so you can go on to become a licensed counselor.  Through your training and education you will learn specific techniques for working with teenagers and the problems that typically bother them on a daily basis.

Most training programs might not have a specific teen or youth degree, but instead you may specialize in counseling practice and go on to finish specific work training in the area of youth counseling. You may be able to take specific classes that relate to child and teen counseling issues.

What Do You Learn in a Youth Counseling Degree?

  • Counseling theory – Most courses begin with an introduction to counseling theory course. This gives participants the basic understanding of the theoretical issues around counseling before they begin to learn more specialized techniques.
  • Different counselling approaches – There are many different approaches to counseling and it’s important the participants know, and understand, the differences so that they can make an informed choice about the approach they want to take in their own practice.
  • Human development – Working with young people of various ages, it is essential that this type of course outlines the developmental stages of childhood. This knowledge helps counselors to use the most appropriate techniques dependant on the age of the child, understand difficulties that might arise at each point of development and be able to identify where development is being affected by a child’s environment.
  • Specific areas for focus – Areas such as family issues, educational issues and sexual issues are all common areas of working for youth counseling. A good degree program will cover each one separately and discuss the challenges as well as the techniques to assist clients in coping with them. Other areas likely to be covered specifically are bereavement, bullying and child abuse so that counselors are well prepared for the issues of their client population.
  • Social and cultural issues – Students may also be taught about the social and cultural issues affecting young people in different communities.
  • Boundaries – Young people can become attached to a trusted adult. Students are taught how to gain the trust of young people but courses may also discuss how to develop relationships in which clients can talk openly, and feel safe in doing so, while remaining professional and appropriate.

What Skills are Needed for a Youth Counselor?

When working with youth it will require some specific skills that not all individuals in the counseling profession will have. Youth clients will often have behavioral issues such as violence. These issues are very overwhelming to new counselors in the field of youth counseling. But experienced counselors see violent outbursts as a chance to help the client identify what is bothering them so badly that violence is the only solution they can see.  Through your training and education may will learn techniques for de-escalating these individuals and helping them identify their triggers for violent outbursts.

Self harming statements and behaviors are another area which youth counselors need to be especially aware of because these types of behaviors are extremely dangerous and often require inpatient hospitalization to help stabilize the client.

Teenagers are a great group of individuals who are in the midst of emotional and physical changes, which can often overwhelm them. It is your job, as a counselor, to help them through this difficult time of their lives.

As a youth counselor it is important that you can maintain your composure in the midst of difficult exchanges with your clients. It is also extremely important that you do not let the behaviors of your client dictate the treatment plan you have for them.

Youth clients can be especially manipulative and your job as a counselor requires you to see through those manipulations. Working as a youth counselor is a hard job that will bring many emotional rewards as you see your clients grow into strong and stable adults.

What is the Salary for a Youth Counselor?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics the average salary for mental health counselors is $43,990, as of May 2014.

Without a license it will be difficult to find adequate employment as many youth counselor jobs that do not require licensing are much lower in pay. Non-licensed counseling jobs often consist of working during the evening hours or overnights. It is extremely important to do your research about the licensing rules in your state while you are still in college so you can ensure you have completed all the required classes and training programs to receive your  counselor license in your state.

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