Some 21st Century Dilemmas of a Counsellor

Jasna Levinger-Goy

Jasna Levinger-Goy identifies some emerging features of the 21st Century and wonders how well prepared we are as counsellors to work with them

The counselling profession has dealt with the influence on human development of social factors in various shapes and forms for a very long time. Many an author has talked about the influence of both the family and wider society. Socio-economic factors, social standing and social values are only a few of such factors that have been taken into consideration in exploring the way humans are. The influence of both the nuclear and the extended family has been thoroughly explored, as has the influence of parents, other carers and siblings. The significance of early formative years has been identified and explored by many authors, including for example Klein (1960), while the role of carers is well documented in Attachment Theory (1997). Early patterns of behaviour acquired within the family, ‘reciprocal roles’ (Ryle & Kerr, 2002) as exhibited throughout life have all been examined too.

Not all authors agree in every respect, but most acknowledge the importance of those influences. One of the more recent theories, emphasising the interplay of mutually interdependent ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ elements, has been put forward by Wilber (2007). He talks about the ‘Four Quadrants’ that refer to the interior self manifested in subjective consciousness (Upper Left), physical state/body and behaviour (Upper Right), relationships and communication (Lower Left) and finally culture, society and other external factors (Lower Right).

However, the 21st Century has introduced some ‘new’, rather specific factors, not much talked about or explored, and belonging mostly, to use Wilber’s terminology, to the Lower Right and Lower Left Quadrants affecting the whole being. These newly emerging influences seem to confuse my clients, but they probably confuse me even more. My intention here is only to name some of them and pose questions to which I hope colleagues might have some answers.

The ‘new family order’ is one area where changes have occurred and affected our clients. An increasing number of clients, especially the younger ones, come from families where parents have had multiple partners. The divorced/separated parents desperately try to find ‘the ideal partner’ and the children are often placed in the middle or are side-lined throughout that process, with very little or no support. They suddenly acquire new siblings, half-siblings and even ‘non-siblings’. It is not uncommon for a family to include a child and/or children from previous marriage(s) into which a child and/or children are then born to the parents in common. When that family splits and partners re-marry, some children leave and more children are introduced. A step-parent now, for instance, might take with him or her one’s half-sister or brother, and might then also acquire a child or children that their new partner brings from their own previous marriage(s).

Yes, I suspect I have lost you by now. But you can well imagine how lost one of my clients was when she realised that she missed the person who had ceased to be in her family, to whom she had become attached and with whom she had had a relationship which language has not yet found the word for – my client’s step-father’s second wife’s daughter from her previous (now dissolved) marriage. This is something Tony Parsons mentions in his novel Man and Boy (1999) when he talks about social changes that have brought about new family relationships with which the language could not keep up; hence, he says, there are no terms for them yet. Are we as counsellors prepared for that? How do we deal with issues generated by such social changes?

The general ‘bewilderment’ in wider society, as Forman calls it, is also a factor that needs to be taken into consideration. As he says: “… society has become so diverse, with so many worldviews, languages, nationalities, religions and ethnicities represented that individuals remain somewhat bewildered despite their development.” (Forman, 2010:233). How does a counsellor ‘normalise’ such bewilderment?

Another, not insignificant, factor of influence is the celebrity and the so-called ‘material’ culture, again rather widespread among our younger clients. This might have been present before, but my impression is that it has become more influential now thanks to its accessibility via Internet and mass media. New values, the ‘material culture’, have now become the be-all and end-all for a number of young people. In families where parents and step-parents are busy pursuing ‘material affirmation’ and ‘personal happiness’ children are given little support and guidance, and not much in terms of role models. As Timimi points out: “… whilst the majority of parents in society are doing their best, one of the impacts of such a value system (ie “aggressive form of capitalism of the 1980s”) is that adults became more “childified” and children become more “adultified” – in appearance and behaviour.” (Timimi, 2010:23) So, which reciprocal roles do we counsellors address and from which perspective do we approach our young clients?

Yet another factor, significantly present among younger clients, is the influence of virtual reality. Actual communication is replaced by, for instance, mobile phone SMS ‘language’ which is the combination of letters, symbols and numbers, all enabling the communicators to be as brief as possible. The language of such messages is a depleted language, stripped of its wealth, of its expressiveness; it is reduced to the minimal exchange of facts, if that. So, when with clients how do we differentiate between those unable and those unwilling to communicate? Are our clients’ brief, monosyllabic replies due just to the habit of sending these short messages or reluctance to engage, or something else?

Social networking sites also seem to have replaced the social contacts of yesteryear and addressing issues stemming from that might be problematic for we counsellors not very familiar with that kind of communication. Social skills have changed; interaction has changed. The number of Facebook friends, for instance, can amount to hundreds. What is the meaning of a friend in such contexts? Are there two lots of friends: virtual ones and real ones? How is the on-line row resolved? Do all of us counsellors understand these new notions of friends and conflicts?

These questions have puzzled me for some time now and they seem to be relevant to our work. Maybe we will not come up with specific, definitive answers, but I believe it is important that we acknowledge the existence of these dilemmas. The mere posing of these questions might be a good beginning.


Dr Jasna Levinger-Goy, MBACP has a PhD in Sociolinguistics from Zagreb University (1988) and an HE Diploma in Integral Therapeutic Counselling from Anglia Ruskin University (2011). As a linguist she has worked as a university lecturer most of her professional life. Now a counsellor she has a private practice and also works, mostly with adolescents and adults, at Centre33 Cambridge (youth counselling), and Cambridge University Counselling Services (staff team).


Bowlby, J (1997) Attachment and Loss: Attachment London: Pimlico
Forman, M. D (2010) A Guide to Integral Psychotherapy Albany: Suny Press
Klein, M (1960) Our Adult World and Its Roots in Infancy London: Tavistock
Parsons, T (1999) Man and Boy London: Harper Collins Publishers
Ryle, Anthony & Kerr, B. Ian (2002) Introducing Cognitive Analytic Therapy J Wiley and Sons Ltd
Timimi, S (2010) Toxic Childhood Therapy Today 21:20-23


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