We all want to build strong relationships with our clients. But when working with adolescents, don’t overdo the empathy, says Janet Edgette, a 25-year veteran of teen therapy and author of Adolescent Therapy That Really Works.

Edgette has watched many psychologists who work with young adults fall victim to a common pitfall: being too nice and too eager to be liked. “Overly obvious attempts at therapeutic joining with teenagers raise the alarm,” she says. Use too much “therapy talk” and try too hard to ignore obnoxious behavior, and you run the risk of seeming unnatural and alienating them, she adds.

In this video clip, Edgette explains how more natural and mutually revealing conversation is the key to building rapport.

As Edgette notes, a little honest and straight talk can go a long way. Being overly empathic with young clients “isn’t a full relationship, it’s half of a relationship,” she says. “It’s just the nice half, and it just feels weird.” By holding young clients accountable in addressing tough topics like rudeness, profanity, drug use, or promiscuity, you can actually strengthen the therapist-client relationship.

Want to create an atmosphere where the issues are treated as real, problematic, and easily addressed? Eliminate the fragile relationship that you and your client are afraid to break. “We tend to treat young adults as if they aren’t fully capable of making their own decisions,” she says. “But the choice of whether to accept our help is always theirs. Unless we honor that choice, creating a therapeutic climate in which they feel respected and able to accept our help is impossible.”

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day. 

Janet Sasson Edgette

Janet Sasson Edgette, PsyD, is the author of Adolescent Therapy That Really Works, Stop Negotiating with Your Teen, and The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Dont Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood.