A tale of two therapists
This ‘A tale of two therapists’ blog article was written by Kaitlin Moore and Alexandra Faulkner, Therapeutic Specialists in the Therapeutic Services Canberra team, at Australian Childhood Foundation.
Kaitlin and Alexandra work as Therapeutic Specialists with children, young people and their carers in foster, kinship and residential care. This is Kaitlin’s first year working as a therapist. Alexandra has been working therapeutically with children and families for 30 years.
Here they explore the perspectives of a less experienced and more experienced therapist on their work with children.
How do you prepare for the first session with a client?
Kaitlin: I start by thinking about what I already know about the child or young person from conversations with the carer, case manager or teachers and try to incorporate this into activities. For example, if I know that a child likes making slime, then I can ensure that I bring this along and use it as a sensory regulation and relational activity. I also like to give the child the opportunity to share parts of themselves in the session and learn a little about me, so a game like 20 Questions or Get To Know You Jenga can be great to facilitate this reciprocal learning and connection.
Alexandra: I gather what information I have available to me from the referral source, to help me understand what is happening for this child or young person. However, I try to hold that information somewhat loosely, to allow the possibility of the client being seen and experienced anew. I have some standard activities that make up my first few sessions with all clients, as a way of getting to know the child or young person, allowing them to get to know me, and setting the agenda for what therapy looks and feels like. This has the added bonus of letting me focus on relationship building at the start, rather than having to worry about what we will “do”.
What are the key principles that guide your work?
Kaitlin: Creating safety, building connection and being child-led are 3 key principles that guide my work. The way I uphold these principles is through integrating my understanding of the neurobiology of trauma and healing through safe and attuned relationships.
Alexandra: The overarching principle that guides my work is that the “magic” of therapy happens through the relationship between client and therapist. I strive to give the children and young people I work with an experience of relationship that is truly respectful, trustworthy, safe and reliable. If I am holding this at the forefront of what I do, then other aspects of the work – play, talking, focus, practicalities – will take care of themselves.
How do you know when a therapy session has gone well?
Kaitlin: When a child or young person enjoys the space I have created for them in the room, they feel comfortable to engage and explore, and they feel heard and understood. If a child feels safe enough to discuss some of their worries or challenges, then this also makes me feel as though the session has gone well.
Alexandra: I feel that a therapy session has gone well when I have a sense that the child or young person has been seen and heard as they want to be, not as others represent them. Ideally there would be a little bit of “stretch” also in how the client thinks about themselves or the world around them, but sometimes this might not be possible. At the very least, I want the child or young person to feel that I have respected whatever their experience is that day.
How do you make sense of a challenging session?
Kaitlin: A challenging session for me is one where a child shows resistance to engage in any of the activities planned or where they refuse to speak with me. I worry about the child not feeling safe or comfortable in the space, and it makes me question the strength of our relationship and my own skills as a therapist. Silence can feel unbearable at times like this and I begin to fear that I have missed an important cue from the child.
Alexandra: I try to hold the knowledge that a challenging session is part of a much bigger picture – the journey of therapy as a whole. Not every session will end with smiling faces and uplifted spirits. And difficult sessions are not only inevitable but are essential – they allow for therapeutic work around challenges in relationships, opportunities for repair, and experiences of humility.
How does the work of a more/less experienced therapist inspire you?
Kaitlin: When I observe the more experienced therapists around me, I am inspired by their wealth of knowledge and skills. They seem to have an activity or game up their sleeve for any situation or topic and respond to challenging situations with ease. They appear confident in their approach to sessions and are a real asset in times of crisis, for both the child and their Care Team.
Alexandra: I feel inspired by the creativity and energy that newer therapists bring to the work. It’s an important reminder to me that the tools and activities I’ve been using for years may not be the most appropriate, and that there are new ways of engaging with children and young people.
Alexandra and Kaitlin enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on their work.
It is interesting to note their different perception about experiences of challenge in the therapy. For Alexandra, not knowing and challenge allow space for new information and opportunity for growth; for Kaitlin, these experiences can contribute to uncertainty about the direction and usefulness of therapy.
Although there were some differences, the more significant observations were Alexandra’s and Kaitlin’s shared experiences of understanding and doing the work. Both therapists prioritise the importance of relationships through building connection and creating safety. Similarly, they both want to provide children with a true sense of being seen, heard and understood.
Kaitlin and Alexandra concluded their reflections by saying: “We are encouraged by the knowledge that regardless of the level of experience we bring to this work, we all have something valuable to offer and can learn from each other. Our reflection has highlighted the fundamental truth that creating a safe and connected relationship for children has so much value for their healing.”