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A trustworthy space – How to build trust during virtual counseling sessions
In our previous article, we discussed in-depth how providers can present themselves as trustworthy online. In this post, we are going to continue with the topic of cultivating trust by exploring how therapists can build trust through virtual therapy sessions with children.
Mental health practitioners are agents for change. The impact we as child therapists can have on how a child or adolescent will grow and change over the course of their life is powerful. Thus, great care and intentionality must be taken in our approach to establishing trust and building healthy relationships with child clients. Trust is an essential part of the therapeutic process, and as in any other relationship, the counselor-client connection requires a strong foundation of trust in order to function optimally.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University conducted research that concluded the following:
“Science shows that children who do well despite serious hardship have had at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult. These relationships buffer children from developmental disruption and help them develop “resilience,” or the set of skills needed to respond to adversity and thrive.” (Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience: Working Paper No. 13.)
Children can still fare well despite serious hardship if they have “at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive adult.” That supportive adult could be a parent, educator, caregiver, another adult, or a counselor. You can be that one stable, committed adult and make an immense difference in a child's life, but first – trust must be established.
In the realm of virtual therapy, where the challenges are unique, building trust with child clients becomes even more crucial. Establishing a trustworthy therapeutic space lays a foundation for effective therapy and is also a key factor in retaining young clients. Therefore, trust not only enhances engagement, but also contributes to continuation of treatment and better outcomes for kids and families.
Starting strong – Introducing trust to the counselor-client relationship.1. Introduce yourself briefly.
First impressions matter even to teens and kiddos. Your intro should be brief, friendly, and with most kids and teens, straight to the point. Children don’t particularly care about qualifications and professional experiences. They want to know that you are kind, genuine, and non-threatening.
2. Share your genuine excitement for working with them.
Be specific and authentic about your enthusiasm for working with them. Explain to them why you are excited to work with them by calling out and mentioning a strength or a positive interest you know they have. Children respond very well to genuine praise and positive reinforcement, so offer them validation from the beginning.
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
3. Put them at ease.
Children often have apprehensions regarding therapy, and it is important to be mindful of common anxieties children have about counseling.
- Young children ages 3 to 5 may worry that therapy will hurt or be scary.
- Children ages 6 to 12 may feel nervous about meeting a new person.
- Adolescents ages 12+ may feel embarrassed or view therapy as a sign of weakness or as a punishment.
- Children of all ages may be concerned that they will be forced to share and discuss things they don’t want to talk about.
The way you put them at ease will vary depending on their developmental stage, but the goal is always to reduce potential fear and proactively assuage any anxiety triggers. You can do this through reassuring, previewing, and inquiring.
For example, teenagers are often highly concerned with confidentiality and want clarity around what will and won’t be shared with their caregivers.
- Reassure – Remind them that everything will be kept confidential unless you have their permission to share something or unless their safety is at risk.
- Preview – Prepare them before every parent check-in so they know exactly what to expect.
- Inquire – Invite them to become engaged in the therapy process by asking them if they have any questions.
4. Ensure that your virtual background space is curated for the unique interests and needs of each client.
The way you design your virtual setting should be carefully thought out and invite client engagement. Strategically place and replace toys or items that could facilitate interactive conversations or practices relevant to each client’s individualized therapeutic goals.
5. Invite the child/adolescent to give you a tour of their space.
This is often a good way to get the child to talk since they are often “experts” about their room’s environment. Additionally, children and adolescents alike are familiar with the concept of show-and-tell, and much can be inferred from what they choose to show and share.
6. Exercise patience
Patience with virtual counseling is paramount, particularly when it comes to technical difficulties. Demonstrate patience when technical difficulties arise, and take time in the beginning of the session to help the child/adolescent find the best camera position.
Especially for young children, expect and anticipate that there will be times during the session when you will be unable to fully see what the child is doing. Rather than expressing concern over the placement of the camera, get creative with how to stay engaged with the child even when they are not “on-frame.”
For example, invite the child/adolescent to bring items to you or tell you about what they are doing. Saying things like, “tell me about” or “can you show me?” is a good way to navigate camera placement mishaps.
7. Be fully engaged and fully present.
The most powerful way to establish and build trust is to pay attention and listen attentively.
Children innately long to be heard and understood, and it’s possible that you might be the first adult to ever offer them deep listening. Give your client your undivided attention and actively listen to anything and everything the child may have on their heart to share.
Children are highly sensitive to non-verbal communication, so be aware of both your body language and your voice’s inflection. Keep in mind that because virtual therapy sessions rely more heavily on verbal communication, conveying emotions by exaggerating your nonverbal cues can be helpful. The point here is not to be dramatically animated or over-the-top, but to leverage non-verbal communication such as facial expressions to demonstrate your active engagement in what the child is saying.
One great way to naturally enhance your facial expressions is to observe and mirror the child’s facial expressions. You can foster a sense of security and trust simply by matching their eye movements and expressions and synchronizing your breathing with theirs.
9. Notice their non-verbal communication.
Take note of their tone of voice. How fast are they talking? Are they speaking loudly or quietly? Is their tone of voice matching the context of what they are saying? Observe their body language. Where is their focus? Are they looking at you or around you? Is there anything distracting their attention? How are they interacting or not interacting with their environment? Children and adolescents can often feel overlooked and misunderstood, and the more you are able to see and understand them, the more they will trust you.
10. Use humor and find natural ways to share a laugh.
Laughter is a proven way to build social bonds with others, and children especially connect through humor. In fact, a child’s sense of humor begins to develop as early as seven months. Humor is disarming, relaxing, and enjoyable, and sharing a healthy laugh is a great way to build a trustworthy connection in therapy.
11. Establish a set structure for every counseling session.
Trust is formed through consistent, reliable, comforting, and familiar moments. Routine and structure are highly reassuring, and children and adolescents generally feel more confident when they know what to expect. Most importantly, when a child is able to anticipate the structure and dynamic of their counseling sessions with you, they will be more trusting and amenable to your influence. For example, you could do a “Feelings Check-In” at the beginning of each session or “Two Stars and a Wish” or “Thorn and a Rose”, where they tell you the best part/hardest part of their day/week.
Trust accomplishes its best work through patience and consistency, and earning trust takes time, effort, and authenticity. As with everything else, honesty really is the best policy. Children can sense when something is natural and when something is forced. Be your natural, trustworthy self, and trust will develop naturally and organically.