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Trust Me: Walking the Tightrope of Rapport-Building With a Teen

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatric psychology and behavioral health.



This is a fictional account of a counselor attempting to establish rapport with a sullen teen. The story provides ideas and techniques, both verbal and nonverbal (including silence), and also suggests ways to correct an attempt that’s gone in the wrong direction.

“Trust Me” is written from the viewpoint of a counselor attempting to establish rapport at the beginning of therapy with what may appear to be a difficult teenage boy. In reality, on a scale of 1 to 10, as far as building a connection is concerned, at most he is about a 5—although I'd likely push him down a bit further toward the easier side of things, around a 4. I say this because there is this idea that rapport can be established in a manner of a few minutes if you are a talented therapist, as if it's some sort of magical ability. The truth of the matter is that rapport is the beginnings of a relationship, and when you think of it this way it becomes clear that starting an actual relationship, any relationship, means establishing a bond that is strengthened from that point forward. In therapy, especially with teens, there is a push/pull process that goes on as you feel around for which strands will twist together between you, and they test the waters to see if you are worthy of their trust. I attempted to provide the feel of this process in the way the counselor and the teen interact in this story.

In the narrative, I have used some of my own approaches to working with teens, given some insights into how a psychologist or counselor might think about working with a new teen client, presented a touch of rational behind the characters comments and actions, and provided a glimpse as to how client nonverbal behavior could be interpreted in a closed off adolescent. The manner in which I describe the process of negotiating with parents to maintain a teen's confidentiality is something I would always do, unless the adolescent is court ordered or there is another prohibitive factor which prevents me from doing so. It is important to note that this is not a legal agreement and the teen is still a minor, This means that if a parent insists on knowing what was said in therapy despite the agreement, the therapist must disclose it. It is crucial to let the client