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When asking someone what is the hardest feeling to express, a common answer you may get is vulnerability. Many adults have a hard time being vulnerable, and will often avoid things that can make them feel vulnerable.  Children and teens are no different when asking them to open up to the idea of raw honesty, or the very things that make us vulnerable. They also will attempt to hide behind these ideals and vulnerabilities, but are often urged to “open up and let someone in.” 

As an adult I have at times needed to let someone in. As an adult and as a therapist this has required some patience, trial and error, and critique of my own perceptions.  If being uncomfortable allows itself to mark me at times as an adult, I often wonder how a child or teenager would do with this same task – to look through the perception through the eyes of a child who has fewer experiences than me, and who is not fully developed mentally. I wonder what the impact of exposing this vulnerability would be.  This idea allows for me to pause and think and identify how important it is to allow the child to express the way that they are thinking, and guiding them – not telling them. 

As I began to see what my future would hold as a therapist, I started to see that I wanted to do more then ask, “How does that make you feel?” 

  As therapists we often request that people allow us into the darkest parts of their mind, to assist them and bring them to pull themselves out of the darkness. As a child/ adolescent therapist it can be very dark and very hard to pull them out. How do we do this, though? How do we have someone recognize that we are trying to assist them, and push so hard to not allow them to put up the walls that have protected their vulnerabilities for so long? 

It can be as simple as getting to know them, but we have other tools to use – such as the techniques of listening. The Life Space Crisis Institute Inc. (LSCI) has done a wonderful job at creating an educational piece on the five elements of listening:

  • Attending is the act of being fully there for the client. This means that you are not doing work outside of them talking to you. You are mindful of what they are saying to you and are mindful of how you present to them. By creating a therapeutic relationship with them you allow for yourself to be seen as an empathic entity that they are able to rely on, and can trust. I would often start with very simple questions: What is something you like to do for fun? What music do you like? What hobbies do you have? What are your friends like? Questions like this can tell you a lot about a person; it. also shows that you are here to listen to them. During this time, I would be making appropriate eye contact and making sure that I am “attending” to them by validating their statements or using mimic speech to show them that I am listening. This would not be the time to go right into the reasons why they are in therapy, but rather to show them that you don’t see them as a case, but a person. 
  • Reassurance can be a great tool in letting a client know that they are seen and heard, and that you as the therapist/ active listener are not going anywhere in this moment. This can allow for them to feel less fear and doubt in their therapy and you as their active therapist or support in this moment. Statements that often start with “we” can be extremely beneficial into this ideal, as they see then that they are not alone. 
  • Affirming statements allow for us to tell the person that we see them and that we are invested in what they are saying especially if they are saying that in a kind way, and are being patient with us while we ask questions. I have found that many people often will just bypass this phase.  But imagine how powerful it would be if someone told you that you were doing a great job at talking through your feelings, and how that might make you want to talk through your feelings more. LSCI does a great job with examples like “I can see that was hard for you to say”, or my personal favorite: “You are handling a difficult situation really well.” Both of these statements allow for someone to see that they are doing a good job even if it is uncomfortable to express themselves. This can help them understand that they may be able to process things differently, and overcome the negative perceptions that may start to occur.  
  • Validation is not just a great listening tool, but a really useful therapy tool in itself. This is often used by allowing the client to express themselves, and then identifying the emotion that would be associated with that emotion. For example, it can be alarming to hear a client say that someone is “going to kill them,”, but it’s possible that this person is simply stating that another person is going to be very angry with them for something that they have done. It is our job to see what they are talking about by identify the clues with this statement. You can often identify the perspective of the client by stating the emotion that would go into this, such as “That sounds really scary.” This would allow for the client to either continue to express themselves with this idea as to why this is scary, or simply state it really isn’t – the other person will just be angry. We are again assisting them in processing but also allowing to think of their emotions. 
  • Decoding means that you are looking not only at what happened but also the context of things around this particular event. Although, this can be hard at times, and requires a lot of assumptions that use non-verbal skills, decoding often will allow us to identify with what the perception might be. This could be something like a child throwing something instead of asking for help. The staff might look at this event and state that they could simply ask for help, instead of using physical assertiveness to ask for help. This allows for the staff to go into their perception of the event, and plant the seed that there could be the use of an alternative. However, some individuals will decode prior to attempting to build a therapeutic rapport with the person – which can at times result in the client stating that the staff has no idea what is going on with them. That is why I urge people to use decoding only after they have taken time to get to know the child. 

I would like to point out that these are the techniques that often worked for me in getting to know my adolescent populations; this is not the way that every therapist works and that is OK, but we all need to start somewhere. By allowing for resources like the LSCI Institute to educate us and provide new ways of thinking, we can allow ourselves to further serve the population that we are working with. Listening tools allow for us to see the perception of the client, hear what the client is saying, and understand the ways that we can better their mental health. 

. Again, these are some suggestions to assist in helping with working with a challenging population of adolescents and children, because ultimately we are shaping the way that they are going to see therapy for years to come. If we fail, that could hinder their ideation of therapy as adults and could impact the way that they view the world of mental health. 

By getting to know them and who they are, and showing them that people are listening to them and people care about them, we are able to help them understand different parts of their lives – not just the bad but the good as well. 

Emily S. has a master’s degree in psychology, and currently serves as Clinical Training Manager in KidsPeace’s Organizational Development and Training (OD&T) department.


 Life Space Crisis Intervention, Inc. (2024). Home. Life Space Crisis Intervention, Inc. 

Long, N. J., Wood, M. M., Fecser, F. A., & Whitson, S. (2021). Talking with students in Conflict: Life space crisis intervention (3rd ed.). PRO-ED, Inc. 

Emily S

Emily S. has a master’s degree in Psychology, and currently serves as Clinical Training Manager in KidsPeace’s Organizational Development and Training (OD&T) department.