Constructivist Developmental Theory and Therapy: Implications for Counseling Adolescents

By Crespi, Tony D.; Generali, Margaret M. | Adolescence, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

Constructivist Developmental Theory and Therapy: Implications for Counseling Adolescents


Crespi, Tony D., Generali, Margaret M., Adolescence


In the most general sense, hundreds of thousands of adolescents are at risk for psychological distress. Unfortunately, large proportions of disturbed youth do not receive adequate mental health services (Tuma, 1989). Equally disturbing, it has been suggested that antisocial and disruptive behavior have increasing stability with age, thus underscoring the more intractable quality of dysfunctional behavior as youth age (Zigler, Taussig, & Black, 1992).

From a child-health perspective, the increasing number of adolescents experiencing psychological distress is quantifiable. To illustrate, while psychiatric inpatient admissions for other age groups have declined, adolescent inpatient admissions to psychiatric facilities have increased (Crespi, 1989; Wilson & Soth, 1985).

From the juvenile justice system the news is equally grim. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that more than 1.5 million youngsters are arrested annually, 34,000 for aggravated assault and 2,000 for murder alone (Regnery, 1985). More recently, Zigler, Taussig, and Black (1992) noted that Federal Bureau of Investigation tallies show that 1.75 million juveniles under age 18 were arrested in 1990.

Elsewhere, data suggest that young people often evince significant problems when they are victims of abuse and neglect (Kazdin, 1989). It has been observed that the incidence of violence against children is increasing (Avis, 1992). Further, children witness approximately 80% of parental physical assaults (Jaffe, Wolfe, & Wilson, 1990).

The contention of this article is that child and adolescent clinicians, including psychologists, family therapists, and counselors, should consider the contributions of a constructivist developmental framework. Therefore we will review specifics of a constructivist developmental model for counseling adolescents, highlighting the work of psychologist Allen E. Ivey, former President of the Division of Counseling Psychology of the American Psychological Association and a Diplomate of the American Board of Professional Psychology, whose work on Development Counseling and Therapy (DCT) provides a critical link between theory and practice.

Integrating Developmental Theory and Therapy

Clearly, the essence of counseling and therapy is development. However, developmental theory is not typically viewed as part of clinical practice (Ivey, 1991). Explicitly, developmental counseling and therapy (DCT) theory illustrates how life-span theory can be manifested in the counseling framework (Ivey, 1986). Drawing from the theories of such developmental scholars as Piaget (1963), Kohlberg (1981), Gilligan (1982), Kegan (1982), and Erikson (1963), Ivey (1986, 1991) suggests that developmental theory can be integrated in counseling.

Adolescents, specifically, confront the developmental challenge of individuation, developing sufficient separation from the family of origin in order to assume adult roles and responsibilities (Allison & Sabatelli, 1988). Critically, Ivey (1991) notes that one cannot truly become separate and autonomous unless a solid developmental foundation is established which is built through connections and attachments.

Life transitions and changes can be most challenging for youth. Gilligan (1982), for instance, distinguishes the psychological differences in women's development. Traditionally women were socialized to view themselves in relation to others. In striving toward individuation, the female adolescent may perceive a sexual relationship as a passage into adulthood. In order to individuate from family, for example, she may become dependent upon another person and due to lack of individuation, experience an unwanted pregnancy or unhealthy relationship.

For the young man, individuation becomes equally confusing. The emphasis on traditional male characteristics can pressure the male adolescent to individuate before he is psychologically ready. …

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