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I’ve got one of those "full-disclosure" things to say at the outset here — I am not a fan of the life coach industry. I think the mental health and personal development professionals have a confusing overlap. We’ve done a terrible job staying in our respective lanes, and professional overlap confounds clients.
It’s not that life coaching is awful. In my practice, there are skills, strategies and tactics I work on with clients that are more "life coachy" than therapy, but I also always have that clinical compass heading in front.
There are some significant differences between therapists and life coaches, which I explain below along with how to find a reputable life coach.
Life coaching doesn’t have any agreed-upon theoretical orientation or modalities. Anyone can do anything and call it life coaching.
What’s the big deal if life coaches are not licensed and don’t have that other formal education? As a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, I’m licensed in multiple states with oversight provided by state licensing boards, which determine the guardrails of how I can practice.
This system provides legal protection for clients and ensures quality standards for the provision of therapy. But there’s also something else — no one can legally call themselves a "counselor" or any variation of "counselor" without a state license. Counseling license boards are another layer of protection for clients. You don’t need to worry about whether you’re getting a real counselor or a fake one if someone calls themselves a counselor.
Also, for life coaches, there’s no legal oversight. There are no quality standards. No assurance they’ve met minimum education and professional standards. Sure, there are certifications, training programs and national associations. Still, even as seemingly robust as they may describe themselves, they’re not the same as accredited education programs mental health professionals must take.
There is a strong argument that therapy sometimes isn’t as "outcome" oriented as clients may want or need. Reducing anxiety or depression can take months or years.
Life coaching, which granted is not supposed to treat anxiety or depression, is fundamentally about action, and may bridge that gap between stabilization and optimization and provide tangible results quickly. College students often come to a life coach for a limited time when they need help with more action-oriented issues.
So, if you’re not opposed to life coaching for your college student at this point, I’ve got a few recommendations for you.
1. Check that licenses are current.
The best life coaches often hold some sort of license (e.g., Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist). If a life coach is licensed, they’ll be the first to list it after their name and on their website.
If they’re licensed, it’s not a bad idea to see if they are currently licensed. I can’t call myself a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor if my license has expired. Double-check to make sure everything is current.
2. Ask what protections are in place to keep client information secured.
This is another requirement that licensed professionals must have for clients, ensuring strict protection against releasing client information without consent.
3. Ask how their sessions/appointments and billing work.
I’ve known a few life coaches who were less than upfront about their billing practices and surprised clients with staggeringly large bills after a few appointments. Remember that life coaching is not reimbursable by insurance, and you can’t use your FSA or HSA for payment.
4. Make sure they have a good rapport with your student.
Lastly, just like with counseling and therapy, 80% of the success with life coaching comes down to rapport. Suppose your college kid makes that connection easily with the life coach. In that case, they’ll probably have a much better outcome. A good life coach will provide a free consultation to see how they work and whether they have that personality that dovetails nicely with your son or daughter.
All of us need support at certain times throughout our lives. Life coaching can provide that professional boost to get us in the right direction. Just make sure you’ve done your homework, and hopefully, your college student will enjoy the process.