I’m a young therapist. I started my graduate program at 23 years old and finished at 25. When I first started seeing clients in a school setting, I was 24, and their parents were often in their 40s or 50s.
I also have a young face. When people guess my age, I get anywhere between 17 and 23. I’ve been told that this is a good attribute to have, yet I am not yet seeing the benefits in my career. Several of my clients were taken aback when they first met me. Addressing my age and experience has become a norm, and I’ve accumulated a handful of recited professional responses when this occurs.
Being a young therapist can have its advantages. We’re fresh from school and up to date on the latest research. Many of us are also tech-savvy, which makes finding resources for our clients second nature, and we’re more easily relatable for younger clients.
In my first few years of practicing, I’ve also quickly found that being a young therapist can have some challenges. Most clients want an experienced therapist, even if they can’t afford a therapist with the level of experience they would prefer. Often, “experienced” is at least partly code for “older.” It means the therapist would have more life experience to bring to the table. This preference is understandable, even if it runs counter to research: Therapists’ outcomes plateau (at a high level of effectiveness) in their first year of clinical experience.
While there is a 100% guarantee that time will fix the problem of a young appearance, it can be difficult to work with clients who have decades of life experience over you. I’ve learned that in order to gain their confidence and my credibility, I’ve had to both “look the part” and “act the part.”
Looking the Part
If a client was choosing between two trainees – a young, single person and an older person with a wedding ring or some gray hair – the client might feel more comfortable choosing the older trainee to counsel them. These markers of age are not necessarily markers of effectiveness, of course. But many clients see them as markers of wisdom.
As a young therapist, I’ve noticed that it is difficult to “look the part” when I am in debt from school and on a tight budget. (Pre-licensed therapists aren’t known for being well paid.) I’ve had to get creative with looking polished and successful while on a top ramen diet.
I started out in the field as a school counselor. In that role, I had to be relatable to both school age clients and adults. I found that I was treated with much more respect by other staff and by my clients’ parents when I wore heels or a blazer. My closet today looks like it is shared by two completely different people: one side is business professional, while the other is my twentysomething self, always ready for brunch.
Acting the Part
I stay up to date with the current pop culture, trends, viral videos, memes, and the like. I’ve noticed that it is a gamble to disclose my trendiness to clients. I get two different types of reactions when I make contemporary references with my adolescent clients: impressed, which leads to stronger rapport; or embarrassed and disgusted, like how one would react to their parent trying too hard to be cool. I will never forget the time that I referenced Facebook, only to get the reaction “Ew, no one uses Facebook. What are you, like, 30?”
I often struggle with the decision of whether to be open with my knowledge of current trends. I need to act more professionally in front of my clients’ parents, who often question my age and how long I’ve been practicing. It’s a dilemma. I don’t want my teen clients to think that I am being “fake” with either them or their parents. When we meet in family sessions and they see me matching their parents’ mature demeanor, I can easily lose the teenager’s trust.
Young therapists walk a tightrope in hopes of staying authentic while assuring our clients that we have the knowledge and skill necessary to help them. Our age holds challenges that will undoubtedly be fixed with time, and once we are older I’m sure we will be wishing to have these frustrations back. Needing a more professional wardrobe to match one’s new professional role is, after all, a good problem to have.