Working with young people in Therapy … or “playing the game”. (Sometime’s Poker, Sometime’s Chess).

If the ultimate (and initial) goal, in therapy, is to initiate a discussion with the client that enables them to better understand and empower themselves … how to accomplish said goal with a young person with “nothing” to say?

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Psychotherapist’s rely on all kinds of cute strategies to engage young people who run the gamut from being “too intelligent” for the therapy routine, to too angry, etc.

Some draw pictures, finger paint … build play-doh sculptures.

The “game” I stumbled into that helped me to begin forming my first relationships with young people (usually angry, violent or silent ones), was a bit different.

Before completing my qualifications as a clinical psychotherapist, I faced one final hurdle … one that student’s today don’t seem to face: I had to find my own clients in order to build up enough face to face hours to finish the practical component of my courses.

We all struggled with that – there was nothing in the form of assistance. People weren’t lining up to sit opposite a “good intentioned student” with their problems.

The one population that was available, at least for me, was troubled youth. Not gifted youth, or wealthy youth, of course, but … abandoned, often seeming hopeless “troubled youth”.

I could pick from any number of examples to illustrate my experiences here – and to be honest, there was no universally identical quality. They’re similar only in theory – their personalities and problems are/were as unique as any other cross section of the population.

They were all poor, of course.

One client had bashed his girlfriend’s head in with a lead pipe.

Another client, with anger problems, had a propensity for getting out of her car at traffic lights and (in traffic) trying to pull other drivers out of their vehicles.

Plenty of different experiences for a burgeoning therapist to cope with using his CBT or DBT or Existential Therapy flow charts and assessment hand outs or “one size fits all” clinical “book” interviews.

Initially I’d show up with my stacks of stock interview questionnaires (it didn’t occur to me until later that this was actually a good way to immediately ruin a relationship with ANY client. A pen and a pad of paper is intimidating enough.)

One of the most interesting clients, though, we’ll call him “Jimmy”. Jimmy wasn’t violent with me, or aggressive. He showed up to his sessions on time every time like clockwork (unheard of). His mom would be there with him … and (to my shock) she supported my efforts.

The only problem with Jimmy was … he had absolutely nothing to say. He was stone faced, silent – when we sat down together he looked like a wild animal in paralyzed shock. The moment the session ended, the paralysis would end, and he would happily return to his former disposition and discuss our next meeting time.

None of my books had anything to say about dealing with a client – particularly one at his age, in regard to breaking through a stone wall of silence. We’d sit for 50 minutes and I’d work like a blackjack dealer tossing out different “hands” to see if he’d react to anything at all. Something on which to build some sort of rapport.


So, instead of theoretically dealing cards, I began doing it literally.

I had a pack of cards with me in my backpack that I’d still been carrying around from my last trip to the U.S.; to Las Vegas. They had the name of a Vegas Casino on them.

Wow – something went over … he actually reacted. “What are those?” … “Is that a real casino name on the front …?” … “Have you actually been to Las Vegas?”.

I pushed my hilariously useless assessment print outs out of the way permanently at that point; thousands of man hours of academic research had “folded” in building rapport with this kid in the face of something this comedically simple.

After that I didn’t have much trouble getting Jimmy to talk to me. Obviously he didn’t just “heal” completely at that moment, or have a “children’s catharsis” – but we’d begun talking; rapport existed. In between discussions of how certain card games worked, I was allowed to ask him questions about his family, feelings and background.

That was enough, though – to “accomplish” what I needed to.

After that I was able to actually begin mediating the problem’s we’d been facing in his relationship’s with his “complex” family unit, his teachers, etc.

He wasn’t perfect – he still pulled his pants down a few weeks later on a “hall pass” and laid his posterior against the glass of another classroom’s window.

My goal had been accomplished, though … once you’ve got a young person to begin “playing the game” with you, the rest is easy.

2 thoughts on “Working with young people in Therapy … or “playing the game”. (Sometime’s Poker, Sometime’s Chess).

  1. Excellent article! There are other possibilities of ways to attract the attention
    of young people, patterned after yours. For example, to take out money
    from different countries.

    Children love animals. Maybe a gentle cat, dog or bird could help initiate
    conversation. Great pattern to be worked and developed!!


  2. An inspiring article! It made me think of different strategies I could use in class with my students. Thanks for sharing! 🙂


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