Building Relationships and Trust with Children in Counseling
It is the foundation of any relationship built between people. This is especially true for the children we serve in a therapeutic capacity. It is essential to build trust in our counseling
relationships as mental health practitioners for children. The relationship you build with your students or clients impacts how they will grow and change over time. We want to affect that change as much as possible.
We do, however, want to be careful in our approach to building healthy, trusting relationships with children. Let’s discuss the importance of relationships and how to make them effective in counseling.
Why is Building Relationships with Students Important?
Over time, researchers have started to quantify factors that make counseling effective. It probably won't surprise you to learn that you, as a counselor, educator, group facilitator, or other professional,
can have a significant impact by providing hope and building a positive relationship with your clients or students.
Research from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University found that childhood resilience involves supportive relationships and chances for skill-building. No matter what adversity a child faces, children who fare well have the "support of at least one stable and committed relationship" with an adult, whether it be a parent, counselor, educator, caregiver, or another adult (2015). You can be that one stable, committed adult who makes an immense difference in a child's life!
What Makes a Good Therapeutic Relationship?
Setting the foundation for a strong relationship right from the beginning is key to creating a good therapeutic relationship. If I'm running a small pull-out group, I'll introduce myself individually to each child. I will show them the room we will be working in and let them ask any questions. Check out one of the mindful moment rooms I've built before that I run groups in. In these first moments of interaction, I can start building a healing relationship with each child.
I also make sure each child knows how excited I am to work with them. If I have had a chance to speak to their families or teachers, I can mention a strength or interest I know they have.
Positive one-on-one interactions before we start the group are helpful because transitions can be stressful for many children. Knowing what to expect can help reduce potential fear or worry. I am proactive about working to assuage anxiety triggers.
Every student wants to be heard and understood. As counselors, we provide that active ear for children to come to us with anything on their hearts. I mean, anything. The attention that we give to a child displays our care and commitment to them. Deep listening skills are essential and can be developed, and it is important to practice these skills.
What is the child saying without saying the words? What are they saying with their body language? What is the tone and rate of their speech? How are they looking at you or around you? What else are they paying attention to?
Your attention should be entirely focused on the child and their message to you. When you can uncover the meaning behind what a child is saying (because some children may not know how to say what they mean or feel), you have established a level of trust that will endure in your relationship with them.
This is the first step in setting up a productive relationship with children. Paying attention and truly listening is one of the simplest and most powerful tools we can have with children.
Sharing genuine excitement is setting the tone for a good therapeutic relationship. Carl W. Buehner wrote that people "may forget what you said—but they will never forget how you made them feel" (Evans, 1971).
It is for this reason that I share my genuine excitement about working with each child individually.
I share my enthusiasm about working with them even if I am having a bad day myself because I know that my attitude and actions are so important in the lives of the children I work with.
So, I intend to start every interaction with each child positively because making each child feel important helps foster healing and positive relationships.
Empathy is a word we hear a lot as counselors in our educational journey and professional development. Having empathy is understanding as if you are going through the trials and troubles the student is talking with you about. Seeing and feeling what a child is going through as they speak creates a powerful connection between you and the child. And the truth is, you cannot be an effective counselor without empathy.
At all times, the focus remains on the child. With your understanding of their feelings and what they are going through, your words to them will have more of an impact on your relationship. You will empower the child to find their own solutions to the issues they are facing through your relationship.
Share a laugh
Pablo Neruda once said, "laughter is the language of the soul." Laughter brings joy, relief, and camaraderie. For many, there is nothing better than a child's laughter. It reduces stress, helps to establish rapport, and can help build trust. You do not have to become a comedian or put on a show. But you can put a smile on a child's face at the appropriate time. Just be cautious about sarcasm, as many children don't understand the subtleties of this type of humor just yet.
Something important to remember is that it needs to come from a place genuinely wanting to see the child smile—it should be an organic growth within your conversation with them. Children can feel when something is forced or not natural. Be mindful of this when speaking with them about any subject. Be your best self, and a laugh will come naturally.
Share something personal
When children speak with us, at first, it may be surface level. Then they get deeper and begin baring their souls, and whether they know this or not, they become vulnerable. Connecting with students with something personal about us can help alleviate any fears of what they think about us. It could be something that you can practically relate to regarding what they say. It could be a simple story about yourself. This can open another dimension of your conversation for their betterment and it is a way to build relationship.
The old theories of psychoanalysis and the concept of a "blank slate" approach don't often work these days. Of course, when you are self-disclosing you need to reflect and always ask yourself "Am I sharing this because it is in the best interest of the child, or am I sharing this for some other reason?"
Of course, we do not want to get too personal, nor do we want to be disingenuous with the student. We only want to share enough for them to realize that we are humans also, with dreams, goals, and flaws. We are not perfect, and there are solutions we cannot come to on our own too. We can be a symbol of strength to them, but when they come to realize we are stronger together, regardless of our flaws, this strengthens the relationship with them.
Structured Counseling Sessions
Having a set structure in each session can also be reassuring for children as they always know what to expect next. I incorporated structure into my Skills for Big Feelings program in that each session includes two guided relaxation scripts, an activity, and three weekly skills. The outline of a typical session is:
Review the Visual schedule
Do a Mindful Moment Guided Relaxation and then a Feelings Check
Activity (including practicing and coloring three weekly coping skills
Do a Mindful Moment Guided Relaxation and then a Feelings Check
Familiarity with counseling sessions creates a peaceful transition for the children. This can help with participation for a successful outcome for the individual or group. And the more a child understands the sessions, the better control they feel they will have in their therapy. When a child has control or knowing they have control, they will develop confidence in who they are and what they can face.
Be Mindful and Present to Build Trust with Clients in Counseling
Even if I do not feel 100 percent excited or engaged because of my issues, such as physical pain, fatigue, or stress, I try my best to stay mindful. And I try to stay present with the child I am working with, not letting my distress impact those interactions. I try to be upbeat and positive with them.
The influence of this strategy alone has been powerful. Please note that I am not encouraging you to be inauthentic or fake with the children you work with. I am, however, encouraging you to shift your attention to the positive and the present moment, which are both strategies covered in Skills for Big Feelings. When you begin to practice this, it will be impactful in your career and personal life.
Skills for Big Feelings Program
If you want a more comprehensive resource of activities to work on with your clients or students, please check out my Super Ultimate Skills for Big Feelings Growing Bundle. You will receive the book (available in paperback or eBook formats) as well as my Coping Skills Craftivities book, digital interactive notebooks, printable poster pack, trauma-informed guided relaxations, presentation slides, editable documents, schedules, family handouts, coloring coping skills workbook, games, and MORE!
The best part is, as more resources are added to this growing bundle, those who have already purchased will get access to the updates at no additional cost.