I am a young therapist. Along with that comes a young face. Several of my clients were taken aback when they first met me. Addressing my age and experience has become a norm, and I’ve used a handful of well-practiced professional responses when this occurs.
Before I begin listing these, I want to acknowledge that there are many workplaces that discourage therapists from sharing any personal information. Others may provide you with their own list of preferred responses to personal questions. If that is the culture of your workplace, by all means follow that norm. There are pros and cons to disclosing personal information. Age can be an uncomfortable subject, depending on your clientele and the context.
“How old are you?”
From my own trial and error, I’ve realized that it is not a good idea to jump to conclusions about where the question is coming from. If I’m not sure about the energy behind the question, my first response is along the lines of, “What thoughts are coming up about my age?”
It’s always good to know how your presence in the room is affecting the client. The question may not be coming from a negative place. In fact, some clients may be impressed with your level of education for your age. Younger clients might ask this out of curiosity, and then picture where they see themselves in however many years. I tend to give an age range when it’s appropriate, so that they do not develop their own timeline of where they think they should be at certain ages.
Sometimes it is merely one of those moments where an older client realizes their own age, much like how one would react when learning that people who can now legally drink were born in 1996. The outcome of a harmless wonderment like this could be a moment of amusement, and then proceeding to get down to business with no further trust needing to be gained.
Other times, this question is phrased in a way that makes you know you have to be somewhat defensive. This could be attributed to how certain cultures may correlate age with wisdom, in which case I might say something along the lines of:
“I know, I have a young face [polite laugh]. I assure you, I’m old enough to have my masters degree in marriage and family therapy, and years of practice under my belt.”
Note how I said “years” vaguely. I am including the experience I gained as a student. It’s much like how one strategically words their resume. It is truthful, of course, and brings the client some comfort and reassurance.
Remember, the client is in your office for themselves, and this question could very well be about their own issue with themselves. For example, maybe an older client was not quite as successful when they were your age and holding some bitterness and possible regrets in their life. If they have the courage to admit this type of reason behind their curiosity about your age, the conversation would naturally go back to them. Often they do not immediately realize the hostility behind their curiosity about your age, even when it may be evident to you. In this case, I would try to answer as humbly as possible with your credentials like in the above example, and maybe offer an age range if it feels right. It’s also perfectly fine to say, “I’m not going to share that information so that we can preserve our professional relationship.”
“You’re too young to know about this / to have experienced this”
Some older people may have uncertainty with how you could relate to them. Depending on what the topic is, I try my best to show that I have the ability to help them without offering too many details about myself. Sometimes it is simply obvious to us both that I would not have the client’s experience. For example, to a client struggling with menopause:
“You’re right, I’m too young to know what menopause is like firsthand. However, I have learned all about the symptoms and witnessed other people go through it. Most of the time, people have their own unique experiences. So you’re right, I wouldn’t know about your personal experience, but I can try my best to understand.”
This response offers honesty and shows that you are committed to understanding them, even if you can not personally relate. Expressing curiosity about difference can flatter clients, and help them want to educate you. If their concern carries on for more than a session or two of rapport building, one might want to consult on whether this is a good therapeutic fit. After all, they are the consumers, and your experience is not the issue they came to therapy for.
Personal questions that have meaning to the client, like “Are you married?” or “Do you have kids?”
When your clients are married or have kids, they often want to know whether you have experience with either. Because of my young appearance, it is often assumed that I do not. I’ll be honest, I’ve conducted my own experiment by coming to work with a band on my wedding ring finger occasionally. I noticed that I was treated differently, with more respect. I can only hypothesize that it is because a wedding ring is associated with life experience.
Regardless of wearing a ring, the questions still arise. They still typically come from a similar place of wanting to know whether you are the right fit for their therapy needs. Depending on the case, it may be best to be open and honest, or include humor:
“I have 350 kids here at this school!”
“I don’t have any kids of my own, but I’ve helped raise many throughout my life, and have completed training to work with families as a Marriage and Family Therapist.”
“I’m not married, but I have experience with relationships and I’ve completed training to work with couples.”
Here’s my favorite way to decline offering the information professionally:
“I prefer not to say whether I am married or have kids. I think it might suggest that I’m biased in working with your family system.”
Answering personal questions can be a tricky situation to navigate as you need to rely on your own professional judgement. Like I mentioned before, everyone falls on their own level of comfort with disclosure. It is important for us as professionals to establish boundaries as to what we are willing to share. It’s good to prepare in advance for the inevitable (and understandable) questions, especially if you have a noticeable feature such as youth.