Sometimes when we’re busy having our own experiences and feelings about what’s going on in the world, we assume that we know what’s going on for others too. This is an easy mistake to make when it comes to dealing with children and young people.
Sometimes, they might say something that gives us a clue about what their experience is but it transpires, it’s not an accurate representation of what was going on, or what’s going on for them now.
That can happen sometimes because they lack the verbal vocabulary required to explain their experience or because their feelings simply change very quickly. The way that they feel about something now might be very different to how they felt about it at the time.
I’d like to give you a working example. Not too long ago, I had a young person who came to see me with his Dad and it was for a consultation session, so I got started, as I always do by saying ‘Tell me a little bit about why you’ve come to see me here today. What is the problem?’ and it was quite interesting because I had two people before me, telling me two very different things.
The young person was reporting that they felt particularly anxious. They were reporting that they had had this feeling of anxiety for a year because of having to go back to school after lockdown had come to an end.
Simultaneously, the parent was expressing these problems started about two years ago because of a school transition and because they got into the wrong group of friends.
This young person was a teenager. They were of an age where they know their own mind.
What started unfolding before me was almost a debate about what this child’s experience was and where this child believes their anxiety was coming from.
I’m not saying that the parent was incorrect. What I am saying is when we work with children and young people, we need to get started with where they’re currently at. If they say it’s about going back to school after lockdown, then that’s our starting block. That’s not to say that it won’t eventually evolve towards something like what the parent is describing.
We want to avoid creating a source of conflict at the exact moment in time that a young person is being vulnerable, opening up and disclosing how they are feeling to us as that invalidates their opinion and emotions.
It also makes it seem as if we’re not really listening.
I’m not listening because I know more about what’s going on for you than you do.
If you feel the desire to communicate what you believe is going on for them in a very gentle and subtle way, you will very gently and subtly give them the message, that you’re not listening, and that their feelings about their problem is not valid.
If they want to share, our job is to say, “Tell me about it. Tell me what your experiences are and where do you think they are coming from?”
It might be that because of our gentle questioning style, we take them on a journey, where they end up landing in the place where we knew the problem was all along!
A good question to ask is “Tell me more about that.” I’ve spoken about this particular statement before. What you can do is repeat back what they’ve just said and then tag on, ‘tell me more about that.’ Pick one specific thread from everything that they’ve given you, then you can gradually start worming your way down the various rabbit holes of what they have shared with you. It may lead them into giving you more information about the specific symptoms that they’re experiencing.
Alongside this, think about your intonation – specifically the pace of your voice, as you say it. When we first start communicating with anybody, you’re going to be pitching your pace at the same speed, the same volume, the same pitch, the same beat rhythm, everything else as the person that you’re talking to, regardless of how old they are. That matching and mirroring of their communication style puts them more at ease, helps build rapport.
Once we’ve got them at ease, start leading the conversation in a different direction. Use the ‘tell me more about that’ statement, tagged on to some information that they’ve shared and begin to slow the pitch of our voice. What this does is give the message of “I’m taking what you’re saying very seriously, I’m truly listening, because I’m going at a speed where I want to be able to comprehend what you’re saying to me. I really want to understand.” It starts to put them and us into an emotional feedback loop that we’re sharing at that moment so that if they are feeling even anxious or vulnerable about sharing this information with us, we begin to sound incredibly reassuring and we begin to act as therapists.
This is a tactic that therapists often use, not just for building rapport, but also for leading their clients towards a solution.
Once you have had that conversation of exploring what the problem is, avoid jumping in with your own solutions for that problem. The likelihood is those solutions would work really well for you but would not necessarily apply to them. Instead, ask them, “What do you think would be a good next move here? What do you think you should do about that?” so that they start thinking for themselves in the pursuit of coming up with solutions for their problems.
In addition, it means that the solutions they’re coming up with are much more likely to be the right fit for them because they came up with them!
If they’re struggling to come up with the solutions, we can inspire them to come up with ideas by sharing the ones that we’ve got, but not necessarily framing it as “You should do this”, or “I think this would be the right thing for you to do.”
Instead, we would use a softening frame around it such as “I’m just guessing but this might be a way for you to think about that problem…” Or “I don’t know if this would work for you”, “If it were me, I would think about this.”
That way, they don’t have to fully accept it or have the discomfort or embarrassment of fully rejecting the idea you have put forward. That way, they can take or adapt the ideas that you’ve given them and create some brand-new alternatives. When they come up with ideas and solutions that will work for them, they are much more likely to then put those into action and begin to start solving their problems.
By Gemma Bailey