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The Relationship in Child Therapy…

“The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy…”

Bruce Perry, Child Psychiatrist, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, 2007


It is the relationship between the individual and the therapist which is central to the therapeutic process and any change or development as a result of counselling or therapy.  Most emotional, social or psychological struggles become manifest in relationships with other people and often have their roots in earlier experiences.  For this reason, it is only in relationship with a thoughtful other that these issues can find a resolution. 

All the available research and evidence shows that children and young people who, for whatever reason, struggle to self-regulate emotional states, only learn to do this if they have experience of an empathetic, co-regulating adult in a safe environment.

“It is within [the client-therapist] relationship that there can be new opportunities for dealing with old conflicts, for recovering what had been lost, for finding what had been missing in earlier relationships.”

Patrick Casement, Psychoanalyst, On Learning from the Patient, 1985


Casement is referring to what therapists and counsellors often call “transference”. It is certainly true that children or young people will have expectations of the therapist which are likely to be based on their experiences with other key adults in their lives. How they interact with or behave towards the therapist can reveal something of these expectations and experiences. This presents an opportunity, because, as perhaps my favourite child psychotherapist, D.W Winnicott, explains:

‘…by understanding, shown by the use of language, the analyst holds physically in the past, that is, at the time of the need to be held, when love meant physical care and adaptation’.

D.W Winnicott, Child Psychotherapist, Human Nature 1988


However, as important, if not more so, as the transference relationship is what Petruska Clarkson, in The Therapeutic Relationship (1995) calls ‘the person-to-person or real relationship’. The relationship a client has with his or her therapist is not exclusively an unconscious replay of earlier relationships but is a brand-new relationship between two human beings.


For therapy to be effective, the client has to experience the real compassion, empathy and understanding of another person. From my own experience with different therapists, a genuine attempt to understand, even if not completely successful, is more helpful than a response which feels “off the peg”. Many would argue that counselling or therapy provides a ‘corrective emotional experience’, if this is true, and I think it is, this must be because it gives someone an experience of a different type of relationship.


Surely, it must therefore follow, that this relationship has to be “real”. And this is true irrespective of the counsellor or therapist’s modality or way of working.


I have focused here on the importance of the relationships between therapists and the children or young people they see, and it is a very particular type of relationship, but therapy is not a panacea and the relationships children or young people, who have experienced difficulties, have with other people in their lives are even more important.


No doubt I will return to this topic in future posts, because as Bruce Perry says above: “Relationships are the agents of change.”


One Response

  1. By John Radoux July 17, 2019

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