How Can Your Client Not Get “Attached”?

I’m 28-years old and single, but when I’m at work, I often feel like a mother of a 4th grader. My client Tanya is a ward of the state but she lives with her mom and grandmother. Her father is absent and mom spends time in and out of prison. From the stories Tanya tells me, it doesn’t sound like responsible adults are consistently around. With as many times as Tanya has threatened to run away from school, she never has. She doesn’t have anywhere she wants to run to.

I spend approximately 6 hours a day in school with Tanya. We work primarily in a one-to-on ratio. I’m trained to maintain a professional, therapeutic relationship with Tanya. I’m not supposed to let her get attached to me; she needs to learn to generalize her communication and social skills to other people. However, Tanya doesn’t appear to trust anyone. She even accuses my iPhone timer of cheating the clock. But Tanya has to learn to trust teachers, administrators and the educational system before she can acclimate to a mainstream classroom.

My job is to teach Tanya how to follow the expectations in a traditional classroom. In order to even attempt that, I have to demonstrate to Tanya that it’s worth it to try. She has been so traumatized that her default response to everyone and everything is variations of aggressive defiance. I needed to build a relationship before I could tackle any academic tasks. After 3 months of working with Tanya, she will barely tolerate a 1-minute conversation, and that’s an improvement.

While my clinician, my supervisors and my training continue to preach the adage “don’t let clients get too attached,” I ask, with what does it even mean to get attached? Do we really want to teach kids that they should feel a personal connection to their professional but not too much because they are just going to leave you? Important, influential and memorable people come in and out of everyone’s lives. It’s natural and normal. Why not teach that life lesson instead of ignoring the inevitable?

For a kid that feels abandoned, its crucial to teach them about these transitions as no professional will be in their life forever. Teaching Tanya how to transition between different types of relationships is in her best interest. No matter what happens, eventually she and I will part ways. When that happens, I want Tanya to understand that while it was my job to support her academically, I care about her as a human being who was a part of my life. I want her to know it’s not bad a thing we won’t be working together anymore. I am not leaving because of a bad reason.

Clients like Tanya need these experiences framed as a normal part of life rather than another act of betrayal they can add to the memory bank. As professionals, we do our clients and ourselves a disservice when we ignore the likely outcome of children forming strong personal attachments beyond the therapeutic relationship.   We are missing a teachable moment.