We all want to build strong relationships with our clients. But when working with adolescents, don’t overdo the empathy, says Janet Edgette, a 25-year veteran of teen therapy and author of Adolescent Therapy That Really Works.
Edgette has watched many psychologists who work with young adults fall victim to a common pitfall: being too nice and too eager to be liked. “Overly obvious attempts at therapeutic joining with teenagers raise the alarm,” she says. Use too much “therapy talk” and try too hard to ignore obnoxious behavior, and you run the risk of seeming unnatural and alienating them, she adds.
In the following video clip, Edgette explains how more natural and mutually revealing conversation is the key to building rapport.
Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD, is the author of Adolescent Therapy That Really Works and Stop Negotiating with Your Teen. Her latest book is The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don’t Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood.
As Edgette notes, a little honest and straight talk can go a long way. Being overly empathic with young clients “isn't a full relationship, it’s half of a relationship,” she says. “It’s just the nice half, and it just feels weird.” By holding young clients accountable in addressing tough topics like rudeness, profanity, drug use, or promiscuity, you can actually strengthen the therapist-client relationship.
Want to create an atmosphere where the issues are treated as real, problematic, and easily addressed? Eliminate the fragile relationship that you and your client are afraid to break. “We tend to treat young adults as if they aren’t fully capable of making their own decisions,” she says. “But the choice of whether to accept our help is always theirs. Unless we honor that choice, creating a therapeutic climate in which they feel respected and able to accept our help is impossible.”
Did you enjoy this video? Check out more material from Edgette. In her article "Why Teens Hate Therapy," she discusses how to balance compassion with accountability. And in "Getting Real," she explains the importance of candor, sharing a personal experience. You might also like our Case Study, "Supporting the Overwhelmed Child," in which social worker Howard Honigsfeld shares best practices for working with struggling, underprivileged youth.