This blog provides some useful tips on how professionals can develop rapport and engage in meaningful therapeutic work with children and young people. These tips may seem obvious. However, in practice these tips are not followed as often as you may think. In some cases, young people are labelled as ‘unable to engage’ or ‘will not engage’. In my opinion, this reflects poorly on the professional, not the young person.
Spend time getting to know the child or young person. This is critical as the young person will have experienced many different professionals in their lives. These experiences could quite often be perceived negatively by the child or young person. Therefore, they are likely to be cautious of forming therapeutic relationships and will be waiting for you to show that you care. One way of showing that you care, could involve providing them with your time informally within their own environment. Offer to make them drink, sit with them, find out about their interests and hobbies etc. They need to see your commitment and investment before they will be willing to invest their time in you.
When you say that you will do something with or for the child or young person, make sure you follow through. For example, if you say that you will be in the residential home, foster care placement or hospital on a particular day, make sure you are. If you have an appointment with the young person make sure you attend promptly.
Be yourself and do not use your status or role to create more of a power imbalance. By the same premise, do not hide behind your professional role or status. Use words and phrases that you would use naturally (as long as it’s not inappropriate), do not try to use psycho-babble or ‘therapize’ the child or young person. They will see right through phrases such as “how do you feel about that?”.
Children and young people first and foremost want to be understood. The problem with this is that this triggers the tendency for professionals to state that they “understand” them. Depending on the situation this can elicit a negative response from the child or young person. In reality, we can ‘imagine’ how someone may feel in a given situation. However, we can never really fully understand. Experiences are unique from person to person. The young person is ‘an expert of their own experience’. We are only individuals who are looking through the window.
Working therapeutically with children and young people can lead us to feel deskilled at times. This can be due to the complexity of the young person or other factors that may affect that young person’s functioning on the day. It is likely that what worked on one day, may not work the next time you see them. With this is mind, what you planned to cover with the young person may be out of the question within the first five minutes of you meeting with them. It is important to plan and consider other tasks to engage the young person in these circumstances. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to working therapeutic with children and young people.
Children and young people within clinical or residential services often perceive that professionals lie to them or tell them mistruths. It is essential from the outset that you are open and honest with the young person. You need to clearly set out why you are wishing to work therapeutically with them, the boundaries/limits of this intervention, and the expectations upon the child or young person and yourself. If safeguarding concerns come up, you need to clearly state that you have a duty of care to pass that information on. Through creating an open and honest dialogue with the young person you are creating safety for both yourself and the young person.
It is the therapeutic relationship and not the type of intervention which is the most important ingredient for effective therapeutic intervention. If you follow these tips, it will help you build rapport and engage children and young people therapeutically.
Please check out our previous blog on the essential qualities needed to work therapeutically with children and young people.