Children and teens can sometimes be suspicious of the motives of adults toward them. Although this sometimes can apply to a person’s relationship with their own child or teen, it applies a great deal when they must work with other youngsters as a volunteer or as a child-service professional. Whether this little strategy is used with kids at home, school, church or in the community, I have found it to be a great way to demonstrate good faith and intent. It’s the best way I know to get a youngster to open up.
Legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden knew people as well as he knew basketball. His authentic generosity endeared him quickly to others. If a young man failed to make the team, Coach Wooden worked with him to find a way he could participate and contribute while a student at the university. “What can I do for you?” is something Coach Wooden asked often.
And he always meant it.
A Helpful Strategy
As a school psychologist and later a private-practice consultant, I did a lot of assessments and interviews with youngsters presenting emotional or behavioral difficulties. In some cases, these kids were referred through law enforcement or the family court. They were not always excited to see me. (I quickly learned to leave my necktie in the car. It’s no fun being strangled with your own clothing, but that’s another story.) This little strategy worked pretty well with the tough kids, but it worked well with the withdrawn and tender kids, also.
During the assessment, generally near the end of it, I would ask, “If I could do something for you, what would it be?” I would then grin and quickly explain that it had to be something legal, ethical and moral–and cost a dollar or less.
The tough kids were generally caught off-guard by the question. They were expecting me to do something to them, not for them. It was often the case they couldn’t think of anything right away. A little patience would pay off, and I discovered that a youngster’s response was often diagnostically significant.
It often surprised me just how doable many of these requests were:
A middle school boy asked if I would teach him how to work the combination to his school locker. He had been carrying all of his books to every class.
Another young man was living in a group home after his mother passed away. He simply wanted a small picture of his mother. Grandmother had taken down all of his mother’s pictures after the funeral. It took almost three weeks to get Mom’s picture from her. It was an obituary card from the funeral. The boy showed it to everyone who would take a look. Later, he tacked it up on the wall next to his bed.
A young lady began crying as soon as I asked the question. All she wanted was a decorative plate from her grandmother’s house. She had always admired that plate as it hung on the wall in the living room. When Grandmother died, all the children divided up her belongings among themselves. They had not given thought to the grandkids. It only took a phone call for the girl to get the plate. How easy was that?
A fifth grader asked if I could get the chain fixed on his go kart. His parents were divorced; the go kart was a birthday gift from his father. Finances being tight, Mom simply could not afford the repair. We were able to put the touch on a kind-hearted tractor mechanic. He not only fixed the chain in a few minutes, he received a blessing in doing so.
Attempts to honor requests like these might not carry great therapeutic value in every case, but they almost always boost rapport and help with trust. It can reset a strained relationship, and it will make a tremendous difference in future encounters with a youngster. And, best of all, it can be used with any child or teen.
So give it a try. Ask the question.
A nationally recognized child and adolescent psychologist, author and speaker, Dr. James Sutton is in demand for his expertise on emotionally and behaviorally troubled youngsters, and his skill for sharing it. Dr. Sutton is the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network, a popular internet blog and radio-style podcast dedicated to supporting young people and their families. www.thechangingbehaviornetwork.com