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Pro Tips From Kelli Washington: Getting Kids and Teens to Open Up During Treatment

"Young people are often misunderstood, which is very unfortunate when they’re seeking help. It means a lot for young people to have someone who actually hears them and cares about what they’re going through." - Kelli Washington, LPCC

Written by
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Dr. Amy Cirbus, LMHC, LPC
Head of Clinical Content
Clinically reviewed by
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A headshot of Kelli Washington on the Spring Health logo

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    Kelli Washington is a Licensed Clinical Therapist who specializes in working with teens and young adults. She is especially passionate about advocating for mental health within communities of color. Kelli has her own private practice and is currently working as a therapist with Spring Health. She says, “When you’re able to see a client make progress because of your work together, it motivates you to keep going, despite the challenges.”

    This month, Kelli is sharing what inspired her start in the field and how she stays connected to herself, along with some pro tips on getting kids (and teens) to open up in treatment. 

    Amy: You primarily treat kids, teens, and young adults. How did you choose this specialty? 

    Kelli: Most of my job experience growing up was in daycares and schools. I’ve always enjoyed working with young people. Taking a job as a staff member at a mental health treatment center for teenage girls really solidified my interest in working with children and their families. I could see what a difference we were making, and how important it was to address some of these issues at a young age. A lot of adults have difficulty working with young people and meeting them where they’re at. I found it easy to connect with them, and for them to trust me as an advocate.

    Young people are often misunderstood, which is very unfortunate when they’re seeking help. It means a lot for young people to have someone who actually hears them and cares about what they’re going through. Their families are appreciative of that as well.

    Amy:  What’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the years?

    Kelli: That humility is important. Even though I’m considered an “expert” in the field, my client is the ultimate expert of their life. It’s important to be open to learning. I come from a place of curiosity with clients, rather than assuming I know how to “fix” them. And, there are times that I could be wrong and it’s important to acknowledge that, especially with young clients.

    Today, I’d say I feel much more confident in my abilities, even though I still struggle with imposter syndrome. Every client and every session is unique. No matter how prepared I am, I can still be thrown off by some information and that’s okay. I don’t let it rattle me. 

    Amy: Are there things that challenge you?

    Kelli: A big challenge can be maintaining my boundaries and not allowing clients’ problems to impede my personal life. It’s easy to feel connected to my clients and start to internalize their problems. I hear so many tough stories and experiences, it’s sometimes hard not letting that shift my perspective of the world around me.

    It’s also tough when someone isn’t making the progress you’d like for them. It can feel frustrating when the client isn’t putting in the same level of work that you are. A challenge with kids is that they’re often receiving support at the request of their parents, so it can take some time for them to buy into the process. It’s also a big part of their treatment for them to implement new strategies to support their growth at home. A lot of progress can be made in session with a child, but can’t be maintained without the support of the entire family system. And parents need to be put at ease, too. Input, even from a professional, can feel threatening. It can take time for the families to build trust and a good working relationship.

    Amy: What do you find rewarding? What keeps you going?

    Kelli: Knowing I have the ability to improve someone’s day or life is incredibly rewarding. Even a small effort on my part could be very impactful for my client. De-stigmatizing mental health and what it means to want or need therapy, and helping people shift their perspective on mental health feels great.  

    There are so many misconceptions about mental health that deter people from getting the support they need. I love that I get to help change that. 

    Amy: How do you take care of yourself?

    Kelli: Maintaining boundaries with work and practicing self care. I try to be done working at a certain time each day and I don’t carry my work into the weekends. 

    I try to travel and spend time with people as often as I can. I maintain a comfortable caseload so I don’t get overwhelmed. I try to exercise regularly, as that has always been a helpful stress reliever.

    Amy: What do you wish other therapists knew about working with children and families?  

    Kelli: Meet them where they’re at! Allow them time to get comfortable with you and with the process. Express interest in their interests and hobbies, even if you don’t fully understand them. 

    Let your guard down. When they feel relaxed around you, they are much more likely to open up and share things. 

    Kids are so used to being told what to do, initially they can be defensive or tune you out. Really make it a point to listen to them from the beginning, before addressing your own therapeutic agenda. 

    Ask for their input and how you can best support them. Allow some of the traditional therapy expectations to take a back seat when initially building rapport. Kids aren’t as likely to sit across from you in a chair and talk for the entirety of the session. Interaction, like games, can be helpful.

    Also, keep the lines of communication open with family members, while simultaneously respecting the therapeutic relationship with the child. Be direct and clear with parents. Assure them they’ll be informed about pertinent information, but that in order to build trust, some aspects of the session will remain confidential.

    Probably most important to family work is ensuring that the child doesn’t feel like the “problem.” Give guidance on how everyone has the opportunity and responsibility to make changes for a healthier family dynamic.  

    About the Author
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    Dr. Amy Cirbus, LMHC, LPC
    Head of Clinical Content

    Amy is a Counseling Psychologist with over 20 years of experience in direct clinical care, organizational consultation, and telemental health. She is passionate about providing equitable access and raising awareness on the importance of investing in our mental health and wellbeing. For the past four years, Amy has focused on supporting the evolution of telehealth— previously at Talkspace and currently as the Head of Clinical Content at Spring Health. She is a contributor to national podcasts and publications, most notably the New York Times, Wall Street journal, Forbes, Thrive Global, and Business Insider.

    About the clinical reviewer
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