The child-counsellor relationship in the counselling of children

Those of us working in nurseries have to develop the skills of being able to counsel young children – or at least listen and show empathy akin to being a counsellor. The relationship between child and counsellor is primarily about connecting with the child and staying with the child’s perceptions. The child may see the environment in which they live quite differently from the way in which their parents see this environment. The counsellor’s job is to join with the child and to work from within the child’s framework.

Approaching the child–counsellor relationship with judgement, affirmation or condemnation, invites the child to move away from their own perceptions and towards those of the counsellor. Instead, it is important for the child to stay with their own values, beliefs and attitudes rather than to be influenced by the counsellor’s values, beliefs and attitudes.

The child–counsellor relationship provides a link between the child’s world and the counsellor, enabling the counsellor to observe with clarity the experience of the child. This observation will inevitably be partially distorted by the counsellor’s own experiences, and some projection of these onto the child is unavoidable.

However, the counsellor’s aim is to minimize the influence of their own experience, so that their connection with the child’s experience of the world is as complete as is possible.

The child–counsellor relationship as an exclusive relationship
As counsellors it is important for us to establish and maintain good rapport with the child so that trust is developed. This development of trust can be supported if the child experiences a strong flavour of exclusivity, that is, a unique relationship with the counsellor which is not compromised by the unwanted intrusion of others, such as parents or siblings.

The child will have a personal perception of themselves, which will not be the same as the parents’ perception. For the therapeutic relationship to be effective it is important for the child to feel accepted by the counsellor for the way in which that child perceives themselves. It won’t be helpful if the child thinks that the counsellor’s views of them have been influenced by the parents or by significant others. This can be avoided if the child–counsellor relationship is exclusive.

Keeping the relationship exclusive means not allowing others to intrude or to be included without the child’s permission. Consequently, preparation of the child and parents for therapy requires specific attention because there is clearly an ethical issue involved. The parents have care and control of the child, yet in therapy we are proposing that the counsellor builds an exclusive relationship with the child. How do you think the parents will feel about that?

The situation may be aggravated in cases where parents are using public health services or the services of large non-government agencies. Some parents may feel disempowered and overwhelmed by the system, even though individual workers may try to create a personal consumer-oriented service. Such parents may be worried by the suggestion that they will not be fully included in the counselling process. This ethical issue can only be addressed satisfactorily if the counsellor is clear with parents about the nature of the therapeutic relationship and gains their acceptance of what is required.

Therapy is generally a new experience for the child and the parents. We may find that parents are likely to have a satisfactory level of comfort and to have confidence in the process if they are fully informed about the need for the counsellor to maintain an exclusive relationship with the child. It is helpful to warn parents that at times their child may not wish to disclose information arising from a therapy session.

It is also reasonable to expect that parents may feel anxious and believe that they might be left without information which they should rightfully know. Parents need to have reassurance that in time they will be given all the information that is important for them. They need to understand that children often have great difficulty sharing important and private information and that such sharing needs to be done when the child is ready and feels safe about sharing.

Sometimes, particularly at important points in the therapeutic process, a child may develop behaviours which are more difficult for the parents to manage than the presenting behaviours apparent at the commencement of therapy. It is helpful to warn parents that there may be a period of improvement soon after treatment begins which is often followed by a setback.

Passing general information to the parents, such as that mentioned in this and the previous paragraph, does not compromise the exclusivity of the relationship. However, to pass on specific details of a therapy session without the child’s agreement would certainly compromise exclusivity. As the child’s confidence in the counsellor increases and the counsellor’s understanding of the child’s issues becomes broader, the trust that the child experiences becomes stronger. This trust is reinforced by the knowledge that fears, anxieties and negative thoughts towards parents, events and situations will not be disclosed to the child’s parents or family members without the child’s agreement.

We may believe that a child has a right to privacy, subject to certain limitations, but must understand that it is sometimes difficult for parents to accept this. Clearly, it’s highly desirable to enlist the support and encouragement of parents so that the child feels free to talk openly with the counsellor. Counsellors have found that if we are open with parents about the nature of the child–counsellor relationship, parents will most often be very supportive of our work with their children.

Hence we try to build a trusting relationship with the parents in the child’s presence. Thus the exclusivity of the child–counsellor relationship is maintained, the child is fully aware of the parents’ acceptance of that relationship, and is given permission and encouraged by the parents to join with us.

Considerations in counselling young childen

Sometimes children suffer longer than they should in environments that are stressful, abusive and unsafe because the adults around them lack the skills to open the door to effective communication. Engaging effectively with children requires skill and commitment, but it is a skill that can be learned, and these activities will help build your confidence and give you practical ideas and resources to use.

Social workers frequently have to work with children to address very difficult issues. It is often the first time they have met the child. It is important to keep in mind that the world view of children who have been abused and neglected is likely to be that the adults around them neither care about them nor have been able to protect them, and may have been the abusers themselves (Ainsworth et al. 1978). In these circumstances, it is imperative that we are able to convey to the child that we are safe, caring and interested adults.

When engaged in long-term work, there are additional challenges in building and sustaining a relationship with a child. Children who have been consistently let down by adults often build a protective barrier that means they are very cautious of, or even closed down to, investing in a relationship. It is not uncommon for a child to try very hard not to engage with a worker, to reject the possibility of a relationship almost before it has begun. For these children, experience of multiple losses has shown that it can be unsafe to trust (Fahlberg 1991). Their experience is that they have to attempt to self-regulate, to be emotionally self-sufficient, which, for an immature brain, often results in defensiveness on the one hand, or being emotionally over-demanding (Gerhardt 2004) on the other.

With every interaction we have with a child we have the power to begin to change this world view of adults, whether we are foster carers, social workers, teachers, nursery nurses or care workers. In effect, we can offer children a different working model of the world.

This healing process can begin with the child learning to engage and trust just one other person in her life. You could be that person. This is a huge privilege and also a huge responsibility, but the rewards and benefits are immeasurable, for both the child and the worker.

Children have the right to confidentiality during one-to-one sessions. However, it would be naive to think this can be absolute. Issues will arise in the course of working with a child that do need to be shared with others – either with the child’s immediate carers or, in the case of child protection, other professionals and potentially the child’s own family members.

The important thing is to be honest with the child from the start. The child’s developmental age will determine how you explain the level of confidentiality that you can offer (and this may also depend on your role). With younger children, counsellors talk about safe and fun secrets, ‘like when you have made a card for mummy and you don’t want to tell her before her birthday’. You can tell the child that we all like those kinds of secrets. But there are other secrets that are upsetting, maybe about the child or someone else getting hurt or not being safe. These kinds of things can’t be kept secret because they are too big for anybody to have to keep secret. We have to tell these secrets, so we call them ‘have to tell secrets’.

You can have this conversation using a series of picture cards and discussing which ones could be secrets. Why would they be secret? Are they ‘fun secrets’ or ‘have to tell secrets’? For children who can read well, having short scenarios written down can be more developmentally appropriate. In group work you could ask one group to act out the secret and one to discuss whether they think it is a ‘fun secret’ or a ‘have to tell secret’. Do both groups agree?

Issues will arise in sessions that you either need to tell main carers or that would be beneficial to tell. In this situation acknowledge this with the child and explain why it would be a good idea to tell. In a situation where it would be beneficial to tell, social workers may invite the child to tell the carer/parent with them and let the child do the talking while they are present, as support. If this is not comfortable for the child, speak directly to the carer/parent, preferably in the child’s presence. If the child doesn’t want to be there, or leaves half way through, that is fine. The aim should be to involve the child as far as possible.