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Aug 05, 2013

Too Young to be your counselor

Tuesday was the last day of my practicum. I couldn’t believe it was over! Time had flown by and I had spent 400 hours between counseling clients, researching, reading, and discussing cases. Right after I left my site, I met with my individual supervisor at my school to discuss my experience. One of the questions she invited me to reflect on was the highs and lows of my practicum. After mentioning a few highs and lows she asked me, “What about the woman who said you were too young to be her counselor?” I had completely suppressed that incident from my memory.

A few weeks into my practicum a woman about fifty years old told me in the middle of our first session that I was too young to be her counselor. I was both shocked and disappointed because she had expressed having felt really comfortable with me during the intake assessment and I had felt a connection with her during the first half of our session. Suddenly, she was telling me that she didn’t want me to take it personal but her problems were related to her age and she wanted to see someone older. I reflected, “You think I’m too young to understand you” and added, “.. but I understand, these sessions are about you, and I want you to feel comfortable and get the most out of them so I will check if a therapist your age is available to see you”

Throughout the day, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How many clients were going to think that I was too young to be their counselor? I googled counselors that have had similar experiences and I didn’t find anything. I started to wonder how many jobs was I going to be denied from for being “too young”. Would age influence other people’s perception of my competence? After all, it is often said that experience comes with age. Luckily, later that day I was scheduled to see my individual supervisor.

My supervisor shared some experiences when her age was brought up in sessions along with an analogy that she often uses when there’s nobody to refer a client to. Her analogy consisted on asking her clients to imagine they had a broken leg and giving them the option to be treated either by someone who also had a broken leg or a specialist with the necessary training. Most clients say, “The specialist”.

As not all clients will agree, it was important for me to understand that a counselor will not be the right fit for all clients. While this is a no brainer, as a beginner counselor I knew this in theory but not in practice. Being rejected by a client for the first time hurt. However, I learned that this will not always be the case. In the future, some of my clients may benefit for my young age or other skills that are unique to me, such as being bilingual, and who knows maybe someday someone will tell me, “You are too old to be my counselor” 
Alejandra Delgado is a counselor-in-training at the University of Florida. She volunteers as a Crisis Line Counselor and works as the School-Based Program Specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Florida. 

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  1. 4 Theresa Weaver 15 Jan
    I have been counseling for 20 plus years now and reading this brought back a memory of a similar situation. I began telling clients and students that feelings/emotions don't know age
  2. 3 Aysha 04 Jul
    Hello Alejandra.
    Being young and having a petite frame, I was wondering the same thing before I started with my practicum. I was a bit anxious about such a situation coming up, but feel much better after reading that it is fairly common and to know that someone went through similar stuff and it is not that disastrous a feeling. Thank you :)
  3. 2 Senaá 12 Feb
    I know this is an old post, but I had to comment - because I think a fresh point of view might be helpful for both sides’ sake. I was just looking for other people’s experiences on being uncomfortable with a counselor or therapist so drastically younger than them, myself; because I’m confronting that very issue at the moment. And this is the second post I’ve found where therapists discuss their side, and everyone in the comments (also therapists) are nodding in agreement with them. So - if I may present a client view, to consider…and I’m sorry, but I do find it a little bizarre that people whose job it is to be insightful, are so horribly missing the point.

    While for some, it surely is the case - for many others, this problem with the age gap is not projection, deflection, making excuses, engaging ageism, etc. There is validity to the age concern. The broken leg vs. trained specialist analogy is worthless here, btw.

    If I am consulting a pharmacist, a nutritionist, a gym instructor, a financial advisor, or the like…even a doctor, in many cases - I could care less how old you are. Indeed, all that matters is that you have the knowledge, the training - and are thus, competent to do the job. In some fields or circumstances - being “fresh out” or young, can actually be a great advantage or preferred. However, as a midway point: while experience certainly isn’t always a guaranteed indicator of competence, or good fit - I find it incredibly disingenuous for anyone to act all shocked and appalled that it is a key...or just nagging - concern for some clients. Certainly how important, is influenced by various factors - but the armchair or book learning, isn’t the same as field experience; and more experience very often does mean that you hone and become better, more well-rounded…diversified. There’s a reason employers tend to look for experience, too. It’s quite practical and I think, just common sense, in general. Resumes are a thing, for a reason. Again - it’s not the only factor, and may not always even be the most important; but it is a valid concern, that more or less - weighs something. The more serious the matter, the more important experience becomes. Also - the more personal and intimate the matter - the more important a lot of things become.

    When it comes to matters of mental health - you can’t get much more personal and intimate, than that. And especially if your issues are heavier, long-laid, more sensitive and complex. Seeking a good fit is already challenging and nerve-racking for all the well-known reasons. You are talking vulnerability, time and energy investment, and risk of a worsened state if it doesn’t work out. So everything weighs much more, and yes - you look for experience. Seasoning. Maturity. And if you’re 35, 45, 55, or whatever - and carrying all this…finding yourself sitting across from a 21-year old, can feel like “Um…No.” - or simply, "I'm sorry - I just can't." If you’re that 20-something, how would you feel...having quite a serious and mature matter on your hands - being sat in front of an 11-yr. old, and told that they can help you? Even if it were potentially, in some way, true - would it not give you considerable pause? If you're honest, it would at the very least, feel awkward and unnerving - if not like a joke. Depending on the circumstances - even, insultingly. Just like some people prefer a certain gender for their OBGYN, or feel more comfortable with a particular tattoo artist - some people just feel better suited with someone closer or older, in age.

    It’s not that your youth makes you worthless, or less-than; no one with any sense, would say that. It doesn’t mean you haven’t earned where you are. But it may mean you won’t be a good or best fit, in some scenarios. And we all run into that for various reasons, at some point in our lives. So instead of seeing yourself as the victim, and feeling hurt over it - realize that it’s just par for the course of life, which reflects nothing horrible onto you. Try to really understand what that might actually feel like, to be on the other side of it. Not everyone will have difficulty with a substantial age gap - but I bet it’s quite common; and those who do genuinely have a hard time with that, shouldn’t be demonized or trivialized. No - you can’t help your age; but neither should you be all shocked and chagrined, that in certain situations, or for a certain period in life - it’s going to be a valid, or at least understandable factor, sometimes. If you can’t empathize with this, now - then when you do get older…and especially if you’re unfortunate enough to acquire some deep trauma - maybe then you’ll understand. I suspect that as you earn that experience and seasoning - you won’t mind noting the difference it makes, yourself. By the way - I'm 39.

  4. 1 Felicia 26 Jul
    I had my first session last therapy doctor is 30 and i am 59 years old...i lost my father recently and step son and now having my 86 mother to deal with...losing parents at my age and other problems is just life...he might be trained and i do not hold it against him but hasnt had life experiences of someone my age...i understand doctors have to start somewhere but i believe a therapy mental which i asked still had his parents etc has no clue or has experienced what older patients have live thru...maybe on some level but not with me...just my opinion 


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