Anyone who knows me, knows I love a giggle. This comes through in my therapy work because I try not to take myself too seriously. Doesn't matter if the client is 7 years old or 70 years old, there are always opportunities to inject some humour into my sessions. But is this appropriate all the time?
Don't get me wrong, there are definitely times where the therapeutic situation calls for seriousness, solemnity or even shared grief. This is the essence of a person-centred approach to therapy - I meet the client where they're at and hold space for any emotions that may come up for them within the session.
So how do I manage this balance? Read on.
*When working with kids*
Most of the kids I work with are learning strategies to manage their self-regulation skills, develop their social and communication skills, and practise patience/emotional expression. The one constant here is 'learn'. The kids I see are constantly learning new skills and strategies to promote independence and process trauma. Learning is also exhausting! So, if I happen to turn up to their session wearing a fake moustache, this creates oodles of fun to offset the heaviness of this constant learning.
Perhaps I bring a 'friend' (hand puppet) who constantly steals and hides my instruments, or I get 'stuck' in an overdramatised French accent. Maybe I accidentally *fall asleep* in the middle of the session and the only thing that can wake me up are the hand cymbals so conveniently placed nearby, or a secret drumbeat on the djembe.
All of these things assist in bringing silliness into the arena, and the child is learning without realising. Besides practising those valuable skills and processes mentioned above, they are also safe in the knowledge that silliness is welcome.
*Okay that's pretty obvious, but what about with adults?*
Here there is more nuance required. I work from a trauma-informed perspective of therapy, and the main hallmark of this is the concept of safety. Safety to be honest, safety to consider alternate views, safety to laugh and safety to cry. I truly believe that to achieve this atmosphere within the therapeutic relationship, you must be authentic to yourself. How can I ask that of my clients without exhibiting it myself?
This looks different depending on the client, because again, that's the nature of a person-centred approach. When this is paired with a trauma-informed approach, the result is relatable connection and humanness. And at that point, telling it like it is can sometimes be the best thing you can do. I have found that older clients (even adolescents, Gen Z and millennials) appreciate stark honesty and minimal psychological lingo - unless it's asked for.
Ahh, millennials. Where to start. I'm an older millennial myself, so maybe it's easier to relate to other millennials. But I never underestimate the power of the perfect meme to encapsulate what we've talked about in a session. Before you all react with appalled shock and horror ;-).... the millennial experience is based so much in dark humour which is how we can deal with things like sky-high housing prices, the state of women's rights overseas, the global climate crisis, becoming parents, the responsibility of breaking the generational trauma train, etc. Add in the extra layer of a global pandemic, and maybe the best thing to do is acknowledge a well-placed swear-word and have a laugh first.
Looking to the younger end of the adult scale, adolescents can be some of the hardest clients to relate to. They are truly in their own universe, which is what makes them so remarkable. I have found that adolescents tend to initially assume that we therapists are ultra-professional beings walking a very straight and narrow line. One thing they are really good at though, is smelling a lack of integrity. So, if you’re not being yourself, they will know!
At the other end of the continuum are older adults, often 80+. And I have found many of them to be very talented rap artists. I’ll say no more.
The main thing I would like to stress here is that injecting humour into therapy does not equal a lack of professionalism. On the contrary, it makes a therapist more relatable and aids in the rapport-building process. And without rapport, the client will be getting nowhere fast with their therapy.
So, go forth, tell a joke and send a meme. Let’s incorporate silliness into our clients’ therapy journey and have a giggle along the way.