The Therapeutic Relationship: Building and Ending

I’ve written before about the importance of the therapeutic relationship, and for me, I would say that building relationships is one of my strengths, not to mention one of my favorite aspects of being a music therapist. As music therapists, we build relationships mainly through our music making but there are also so many other elements that help to build relationships.

  • Authenticity – We must be ourselves in an honest, open manner.  Clients can sense when we are being fake in some way and this can disrupt the trust between the therapist and client.
  • A Personal Touch – We can be authentic but still adapt for every client. For example, some need more energy from the therapist, others need a more calming presence. Or some might need more non-verbal communication instead of verbal.  We can still personalize our interactions with the client and be ourselves at the same time. 
  • Communication – Every client deserves clear communication about their treatment and therapeutic experience from their therapist. And every client needs to feel safe enough to communicate to the music therapist.

paper cutouts
The last few weeks made me very aware of the therapeutic relationships I have built with the children at my job. Now that we’ve ended the official school year at YCCA, we’ve moved into summer camp. Some children stay at home for the summer, and others continue. All the groups change as new kids are added, children “move up” to a different group, and teachers shuffle around. Transition is hard for the kids (and for the staff as well!) so in this time of transition, maintaining, building, and ending relationships in a healthy therapeutic way is imperative.

One strategy I used transitioning to a new group of kids was making sure everyone (including me!) knew everyone’s names. As a music therapy team, this summer we are adapting music from the 1960s and 1970s for our interventions which is a fun (and sometime challenging!) way to rethink children’s music (don’t worry – I’ll write a whole blog post on this topic later). For our first week, I rewrote the lyrics to “Help Me, Rhonda” by the Beach Boys to help learn names. 

Since it’s summer time we have new friends and old ones too

I come in every day and I don’t know who is who

Well (insert child’s name) help me out, and together we can figure it out

So please help me (name), help me learn all of your names

Help me (name), help, help me, (name) x6 
Help me, (name), yeah, learn all of your names.

When you are first building a therapeutic relationship, making the time to learn each child’s name is so important especially in a group setting. By singing their name, you are validating their presence in the music therapy group and letting them know they are an important part of the group. And the children need the chance to learn your name too!

Ending relationships is probably one of the hardest parts of being a music therapist. It is a delicate balance between providing closure for the client and not disrupting their therapeutic process. For these very young children, it’s different as well because they do not yet have the capacity to really understand change in a mature way so closure looks very different then say with a teenager or an adult.  With our kids, the best we can do is prepare them for the change. A few weeks before the school year ended, we started talking to the kids about the summer, about who their new teachers would be, and about making new friends. June was Friendship Month so we sang songs about the importance of friendship. For these young children, reminding them that they will always be able to make new friends and that most of the friends will be in their new class helped to make the transition a little easier. But we also had to say goodbye to a few friends who were either moving away or changing schools. It’s hard to know whether they really grasped that big of a change in their lives and sometimes the parents struggled more than the children with the transition. But no matter what, we did our best to provide closure for the child and communicate about what was about to happen. Sometimes I think we overlook young children’s capacity to understand situations and a little explanation goes a long way. A few gentle reminders that change is coming and explanations of what will be different truly helps to effectively end a therapeutic relationship and set the child up for success in the future.

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2 thoughts on “The Therapeutic Relationship: Building and Ending

  1. Great post, Katy! One of my favorite songs about friendships, old and new, was a song I learned as a girl scout: Make new friends, but keep the old, one is silver and the other gold. It’s a good way to teach about the value of all friendships, and how new friends do not need to push out the old ones in our hearts.

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