My first experience providing psychotherapy was through a practicum position leading adolescent groups. On average, I was asked about my age and experience two or three times a week. Granted, the site I was working at had a high volume of clients with quick turnover, but it still felt at times that my relatively youthful looks were a disadvantage. If I never hear “Miss, you look like one of us!” again, it will not be soon enough. Every time I was confronted with questions about my age or qualifications to be leading group therapy, I had a choice to make about how I would respond.
In class, I was taught to limit self-disclosure, which meant not revealing my age. Instead, I was encouraged to ask my clients something along the lines of “I wonder why you are curious about that.” I would like to see you try that on skeptical 15-year-olds and see how far that gets you! After a year of fielding many questions about my personal life from my many teenage clients, I became quite the expert on choosing what response worked best for each investigator. Regarding my age…
“I know, I look young right?! I am student, but don’t worry, I’ve been through college and am finishing graduate school.” This works for the merely curious, especially the teens just trying to make conversation and connect. This worked especially well when the group session addressed their own school lives and the impact of mental health on their ability to perform there.
“People tell me that a lot! I’m actually a therapist here, being supervised by ______. I’m a student just like you.” This came in handy with the potentially skeptical, because I gave them information about myself that satisfied curiosity and clarified what my space in that clinical setting was. I found this response to lead to follow up questions regarding my role and qualifications that led to acceptance of me as a therapist in their eyes.
“What makes you ask that?” Yes, sometimes I got away with this! I was surprised when this would work and allow a client to open up about their apprehension about therapy, but it often led to really good conversations about the process and purpose of therapy. I always felt a mini-victory when the conversation proceeded in such a way the teenager forgot how it started!
“I’m in my 20s.” Most of the time, with this particular question, limiting self-disclosure had to go out the window. I found that kids like when you are direct with them and treat them as worthy of information. Saying I was “in my 20s” gave me enough cover that they wouldn’t know how young I really was but also showed them they could ask me something and get a response they could deem acceptable.
In the group setting, I found it to be important to not brush off questions about my age. When you are in a group and 10 pairs of ears are piqued for your response, answering in a satisfying way can be crucial to building trust and rapport. I can’t say telling adolescents my age never hurt our relationship or their ability to see me as competent, but more often than not, I showed them I was real. I showed them I was truly a part of the group because I was accountable to what they needed from me, which allowed me to expect that from them in return.
Shanny Shmuel, M.S. is currently a Psy.D. student at Widener University’s Institute for Graduate Clinical Psychology.