Imposter Syndrome & Child Therapists: 10 Tips on how to successfully navigate self-doubt

There are a collection of emotional experiences that are common to all humans: Happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anxiety, disgust, anger, enjoyment, and oftentimes, imposter syndrome

Imposter syndrome is a phenomenon that can be experienced by any human in any field of work, but due to the nature of clinical therapy, the feeling of being an imposter is something most therapists will experience at some point, especially child and adolescent therapists.

What is Imposter Syndrome?

The Journal of General Internal Medicine defines Imposter Syndrome as follows:

“Imposter syndrome… describes high-achieving individuals who, despite their objective successes, fail to internalize their accomplishments and have persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.” 

To put it simply, if you struggle to include your capabilities, achievements, and potential in your sense of self, then you may feel like a fraud, and, as a result, doubt yourself – despite the collection of moments or accomplishments when your capability was proven. 

Who is at risk of Imposter Syndrome?

No one is immune from Imposter Syndrome. The phenomenon can impact both men and women in any career, but there is increasing evidence that therapists are likely to encounter this phenomenon at some point in their career. Level of experience (from newbie to advanced) and format (virtual versus in-person) doesn’t appear to have an impact.

Symptoms of Imposter Syndrome

Here are the primary symptoms of Imposter Syndrome: 

  1. Self-doubt
  2. Negative internal self-dialogue 
  3. Low-self esteem
  4. Anxiety

Imposter Syndrome causes - Why does Imposter Syndrome happen?

There are arguably countless reasons why an experienced and/or qualified child therapist may experience Imposter Syndrome. Self-doubt can make anyone feel like a fraud, but if you are a child therapist then here are three primary reasons why you may experience Imposter Syndrome.

  • Child therapy may be new and different for you.
    If you are new to the world of clinical therapy for children and adolescents, then stepping into a new role can temporarily throw off your sense of confidence. Perhaps you were previously a school counselor or hospital social worker, and now you are needing to rely on a different set of skills to succeed in the new role and environment you are currently operating in, such as virtual child therapy. Or maybe you mostly treated adults in the past and are expanding your scope of practice to include children now that you have received more training.
  • You are not a parent yourself.

If you are not a parent yourself, you may dread the potential question from parents, “how old are your kids?” or “how many children do you have?”

However, keep in mind that even if you are not a parent, the caregivers are (most of the time) not child therapists. Which means, regardless of whether you are a parent, when it comes to therapy you are still the expert in the situation. You still have a deep understanding of childhood psychology and childhood development, and the caregivers are coming to you for a reason.

  • You may feel you are not meeting parental expectations for therapy.

You may feel real or perceived pressure from the child’s caregivers to change the child’s behavior to whatever the parents consider positive behavior to be. You may feel the need to accomplish the parent’s goals in your work with the child in order to “prove” that therapy is working. However, these situations often come at the very high cost of not feeling confident in the process, because the therapeutic process may be much different from whatever the caregiver’s presumed process might look like.

It is always a good idea to stay true to your expertise and stick to the therapeutic process by helping caregivers understand that child therapy is more than changing unwanted behaviors – although that certainly can be the result sometimes. Remember: the primary objective of child therapy is about the child feeling seen, heard, understood, and supported by healthy relationships. Changed behavior is the secondary result that may come about in the therapeutic process. 

Since therapists tend to be highly empathetic and agreeable people, having to manage caregiver expectations may feel daunting and can add to the felt sense of insecurity. 

  • Child therapy can be very uniquely challenging.
    Part of a child therapist’s job is to work with little humans who are still developing their brain, and sometimes, certain clients may require more patience and energy than others. If the child is exhibiting challenging behaviors in your sessions (head down, on their phone, playing a computer game, not talking, etc.) you may feel unsure of how to engage with them. Their behavior can be misinterpreted as resistance or disinterest, and unfortunately, this can lead to premature termination. If you tell the caregiver that the child is not engaging in therapy, then the caregiver may decide the child is not interested in therapy and terminate.

It can be challenging sometimes to join the child’s interests and meet them where they are, but it is possible. For example, ask them questions about the video game, be willing to play with them, and to keep trying to gain a deeper understanding of what the child’s world and thoughts are like. 

Additionally, there are many misconceptions about what child therapy is, by both parents and other professionals.  Oftentimes a child will tell others “we played” when describing their sessions, and as a result, the caregivers may surmise that the child “should” be doing something else more productive or beneficial. 

Any number of challenges such as these can cause child therapists to question their abilities to work with children (virtually or otherwise), and unfortunately, this doubt is often reflected in interactions with the child, which in turn affects the behavior of the child and the therapist/client relationship.  

What to do if you have Imposter Syndrome?

If you are reading this article and suspecting that you have Imposter Syndrome, then rest assured, relief from feelings of Imposter Syndrome is possible. Here is how to successfully navigate Imposter Syndrome.

How to successfully navigate Imposter Syndrome.

  • Practice awareness and acceptance.
    The first step towards intentionally changing anything is being aware of what is happening and accepting the reality of its existence. Coming to terms with the fact that you are struggling with Imposter Syndrome is not a failure. It is an admittance of being a normal human. Especially within the arena of virtual child counseling, Imposter Syndrome is extremely common.

    To work optimally within the family system requires an enormous amount of courage and skill that only comes with experience and, at times, some additional support. Being a child therapist also requires enormous amounts of energy. Having to remain patient, calm, empathetic, emotionally grounded, and helpful can take a toll. Whether it’s virtual or in-person, child therapy is not something that can be done half-way, and while being a child counselor is one of the most wonderful and rewarding careers (we’re biased, of course), it can also be emotionally and physically draining.
  • Get some professional support.
    Whether you are a newer therapist just starting out or a seasoned therapist, learning is a never-ending process, and our clients never stop teaching us. Regardless of where you are at in your career, mentoring, self-therapy, and therapist peer consultation groups are there when you need them.

For newer child therapists, seeking some professional support such as professional training, consultation (individual or group), therapy, etc. is especially a good idea.

Feeling like a fraud creates a mindset of fear and facing that fear together with some professional support may be very helpful. At Hopscotch, we have seen that newer therapists benefit most from individual or group consultation.

For more seasoned therapists, engage in some intensive self-reflection analysis. Self-reflection is part of your journey, and it is one of the best ways to grow. If you are more experienced in your career, then look inward. How do you feel about some of the more innovative methods? Is there a clash of cultural norms and therapy methodology as a result? Was there a time you felt like a fraud before? What triggered the feeling? How did you manage or process the feeling last time?

  • Don’t stop. Continue showing up and bring curiosity with you.
    Curiosity is a powerhouse emotion! Nothing obliterates fraud-feelings like curiosity. No therapist knows it all, and that’s ok. Knowing your clients is just as important as knowing the necessary methodologies, and you will do your best work when you grow your expertise on who your clients are and what makes them tick. Keep showing up and meeting your clients where they are with a healthy dose of curiosity.
  • Explore creative ways to engage with whatever is interesting to your clients.
    If your client lives in a different time zone or operates in a different culture or community, get curious. Is music a big part of their life? Ask them to share their playlists and talk about their music choices. Is gaming important? Talk with them about the different characters, the naming of the characters, the goals of the game, watch them play, ask them if they would like to share what they are doing with you, and definitely play with them if invited. This will provide a lot of valuable information into their world.
  • Be a part of your client’s world.
    Chances are, you would be more confident in your ability to communicate with someone who spoke your own language versus someone who spoke a different language than the one you were fluent in. But social attitude, interests, culture, family system, etc. are all examples of psychological languages, and in our experience, the insecurities many child therapists feel are connected to the felt sense of disconnect they feel with their client’s world.

    For instance, children are very tech savvy, especially post-Pandemic, and digital play is a big part of their world. If engaging and connecting through technology is a language you are still developing fluency in, then working on that fluency will build your confidence in your practice. There is no escaping the reality that the language of tech is becoming more and more dominant and finding a way to embrace technology and “join in on the conversation” will allow you to feel more confident.
  • Shift your mindset from teacher to empower-er.
    One of the aims of child therapy is to assist in fostering a sense of control and mastery within the child or adolescent. In other words, you don’t have to be “expert.” Instead, lean into the narrative that the child client is the expert in their world. Allow them to lead. It is ok for you as a therapist to step back into the space of being a novice to give the child client the opportunity to showcase what is most important to them. In fact, this technique of letting the child be the expert can lead to extremely beneficial therapeutic discoveries.

    A great place to begin treating your client like an expert is to get comfortable in any space, format, or conversation that is familiar and comfortable to them (IE: the digital space). If there is an opportunity to allow the child the advantage of having enhanced competency over you, defer to them. Allow them to show you what they think you would benefit from knowing about them, and let the child show and teach you what is relevant to them in the way that is most relevant and familiar to them. 
  • Engage parents throughout the process.

Imposter Syndrome whispers fearful commentary in your head like, “You’re gunna fail!” But in truth, success and failure are arbitrary terms, and success or whatever you define as failure is not entirely up to you. Child therapy is an extremely collaborative process, and working with the child client’s caregivers is essential.

Most parents need their child’s therapist to help them understand the benefits of therapy, what therapy looks like with children and adolescents, and how successful virtual therapy can be. Part of being a child therapist is helping caregivers understand that children are never “just playing” in therapy. Consider your script for introducing or reframing therapy, art therapy, and play therapy to parents during your intake and throughout your parent check-ins.

Hopscotch’s team of experts highly recommends this excellent video which can help caregivers understand why talk therapy is not always the best route for children. Consider showing this video to parents as part of the intake process.

Watch now:  Introducing Andrew – The Association for Play Therapy

  • Shift your client’s perspective so they understand that therapy is a supportive space, not a consequence.

Unfortunately, there are many unhelpful and inaccurate perceptions surrounding child and adolescent therapy. Many times, children are brought to therapy because they are perceived to have problem behaviors that “need to be fixed.” Understandably, this may cause the child to view therapy as a consequence rather than as a beneficial method to receive supportive assistance with their difficulties. Any time you can normalize therapy and reframe your client’s perspective, you are making a difference.

  • Cultivate self-trust. At Hopscotch, we are convinced that the imposter version of you simply does not exist. You have training, experience, qualifications, and you also have the very practical ability to be present for the child, which is transformative. Please don’t underestimate the power you have to make an impact.

    What if you knew enough, were qualified enough, and were experienced enough? Then what? Chances are, there would still be more to learn and experience, right? A great way to cultivate self-trust is to reassess your qualifications. Make a list of your training, education, experiences, accomplishments, personal and professional achievements, certifications, etc. and just stare at that list for a while. Compare what you know today versus what you knew when you first started your therapist journey. You still may not know everything, but… who does? 
  • Make routine self-care a consistent habit.

Ah… self-care. For many therapists, self-care is easier to advocate for than commit to. While you are busy trying to care for your clients, please do not forget to care for yourself. No one can pour from an empty cup, and sometimes, all that is needed to banish the fear and restore confidence is some restorative self-care.

Special thanks to Dr. Rachel Altvater, Hopscotch Clinical Advisor, who helped inspire this article and contributed her wisdom about Play Therapy,  Imposter Syndrome and entering a child’s world during a recent conversation with Hopscotch!