Connecting with Your Teen :: The Importance of Building Rapport

 

With any client that I have in therapy, one of our most important tasks is to build rapport. Just imagine being in the client’s position — you walk in to a total stranger’s office and you are expected to bare your soul? To trust that they have your best interest at heart? Or that they even know what they are talking about? No. It just doesn’t work that way.

Most of the time when I have a new client, we begin by discussing their reason for coming in, but I also ask about everyday things. I want to know their kids’ names, if they have a dog, how they spend their free time and many other things about them. I need to get to know them. And I let them know a little about me also. I tell them everything they need to know about me professionally, and I also share a little about myself personally. If we have something in common, I sometimes comment on that as well (“Oh really, I have a chocolate lab too!”).

This is called building rapport. It lets the client know that I am genuinely interested in who they are and that I care. It takes time and it can’t be faked. Clients don’t generally reveal their deepest secrets in the first session, even when that secret may be the very reason they are there. They need time to decide if they can trust me. But once that rapport is built, they can tell me anything. Likewise, there are times in therapy where I as the counselor must confront the client. Not in an authoritarian way, but in a gentle way because that’s what I have been charged with doing. I point out a client’s blind spots. I challenge irrational beliefs. And sometimes I push a little, to encourage the client to strive harder to meet his or her goal. But I can’t do any of that until I have earned the client’s trust. And that takes time.

It recently occurred to me how much the same is true with kids. The concept of rapport is similar to the concept of attachment in family relationships. My oldest is in middle school and his personality is changing. He is becoming more independent and beginning to explore his identity. And that process of change is hard. His dad and I are there to guide him through that, but as with any youth or young adult there comes a bit of a resistance.

What helps though, is the fact that we have well over a decade of good relationship to fall back on. From the time he was an infant and we met his every need to the moments as a toddler that we kissed his boo-boos. All the times we listened when he was upset. The good memories made on vacations. The times I built Legos or my husband coached basketball. The family game nights where we laughed until our sides hurt. The times I listened to his ten minute monologues about Minecraft You-Tubers. Every single moment that we spent time with him on his terms.

Every minute of that served to secure attachment with our son. In each of those moments we showed him that we care about who he is and that we are interested in helping him achieve his goals. We still have a long way to go in our parenting journey, but I am confident that that rapport will serve as a foundation for our relationship as we guide all of our children into adulthood.

To the contrary, I’ve worked with families where the opposite is true. They’ve come to me with a rebellious teen, wanting me to fix him or her, a task that is nearly impossible. When I talk to the teens I hear this theme repeat, “They don’t care about me. They just want me to do what they want me to do and they don’t actually care about me and my future.”

That may or may not be true, but the teen believes it to be true. And in the majority of those cases, what I will discover is that this breakdown in trust began long ago. Every time the parent disciplined harshly without listening first. Each moment that the child wanted to spend time with a parent who was too busy, trust broke down. I had a teen client once tell me, “My dad has always been in our house but he didn’t really deal with me much when I was little; my mom did. Now all of a sudden he wants to be the dictator.”

But it doesn’t work that way. Attachment is something that must be built over time. Ideally it is built from birth, but even when it isn’t, it is never too late to begin. Spend time with your child. Try to understand who they are. Be sensitive to developmental stages, which can really help with understanding the high level of emotions that come with being a teen.

Sometimes, just be fun! Take vacations. Do fun activities together. Laugh at weird jokes. Say yes when you can. Have meals together. These are the things that will cultivate the bond that will get you through these years. There will still be rough patches and times when you want to pull your hair out. But that attachment, that bond, that rapport … that’s what will get you through it without losing them along the way. 

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