Building Relationships of Trust With Clients


Whether you are a clinician or professional who has worked with adolescents for years or someone who is just starting out, we can all use a little reminder at times about how it felt to be an adolescent. The world was both exciting and terrifying, freeing and yet so restrictive, and adults could not be trusted. When you are working with adolescents who are abusing substances, have mental health diagnoses, have behaviors, and/or have been through trauma, trust is a really big deal to them. Developing that trust can be difficult, particularly with certain clients. So for a few minutes, forget about seeing adolescents through the eyes of a professional and look at yourself through the eyes of an adolescent to see how you can better build relationships of trust.

Why Respecting Boundaries Is So Crucial

Too many adolescents have seen too much. Whether it was trauma inflicted upon them, or the consequences of their own actions, their faith in people, and adults in particular, may be fragile or non-existent. To make matters worse, the people in their lives–parents, school employees, law enforcement personnel, doctors, therapists, case managers, and more–may not have shown respect for their boundaries, either.

This is where you can really help them to begin to heal. Being cognizant of their personal space, their reactions to visual and audio stimuli, being willing to just sit in silence until they are ready to talk are all physical manifestations that you respect them and their boundaries. Allowing them to progress on their own terms instead of trying to force them through a set program or timeline demonstrates that you recognize and value them as a human being and an individual. Respecting boundaries is one of the first and most crucial steps to building a relationship of trust with adolescents.

On Being Genuine

Adolescents are excellent at recognizing someone who is being genuine. Likewise, they will be painfully aware when you are not. They may test you beyond what seems reasonable to make sure they feel safe, that you are going to do what you say and not just give them lip service. They are not necessarily testing you to annoy you or perhaps not even to push you away. Rather, they are likely testing you to find out if they can trust you and if you will trust them back.

Listen, Listen, Listen, Listen

There may not be another species on earth that is more acutely aware of when you are not listening than the adolescent. If you are remotely distracted by anything, they will notice it. Perhaps this is because they themselves can be masters of distraction, but when they are crying out for help, they are also looking for someone who is completely present and committed to helping them. Put your phone away, remove other distractions, and listen with your ears, eyes, mind, and heart to a fellow human being in need.

Respect Is Given Where Respect Is Received

Being in a position of authority does not mean being authoritative. Nor does it mean that you must act like an adolescent or try to be like them. Gaining respect is different than gaining approval. Trust is a relationship that is built on mutual respect. Professionals and clinicians who can master the art of respecting their adolescent clients have such an advantage because so few adults truly demonstrate respect toward adolescents.

Respect combines all of the important elements of respecting boundaries, being genuine, and listening to your client. Respect also includes taking the time to ensure that you truly hear what they are saying, whether or not they are expressing that in words. Learning to read body language, make eye contact, and just being willing to invest the time needed will help you to truly understand your client better and show them respect. You can receive respect in turn by modeling effective communication, being consistent, and showing up for them. When you are able to do these things, you create more opportunities to build relationships of trust.

Trust In Yourself

Adolescents are also like sharks that smell blood if you exhibit signs of self-doubt or fear. They will take advantage of it and can make life more difficult for all involved. Trusting yourself to be genuine, listen, show respect,  and give them the care they need may be harder than it sounds. Self-doubt in new situations with new clients or in new settings is human, but believing in yourself and your training, experience, and wisdom will help you build trust with your client.

Sometimes it is even more difficult to admit that they need someone or something else than you have to offer. Trusting in yourself also means that you trust yourself to always do the right thing for your client.

Sometimes it is helpful to see yourself through the eyes of your client when you are looking to build a relationship of trust. Remembering to respect boundaries, be genuine, listen, and treat your client with respect will help you create a mutually trusting relationship. At Sustain Recovery, we work very hard to build relationships of trust with both our clients and their families. Trust is an important component of healing in situations of substance abuse and mental health, particularly with adolescents. What makes us truly unique is that our program is longer than typical residential treatment for substance abuse, yet shorter than long-term residential. The extended care program allows us to help adolescents transition back home and make connections with others in their community to experience lasting success and mental health. Feel free to call us at (949) 407-9052 to find out more about adolescent extended care and if our program could be right for your child or client.