Ten Tips for Working with Child Clients
Earning the trust of a child, any age, in a short period of time is no easy feat. Every child CAIR Coalition serves has a different story, and it is our responsibility to learn each story in order to better the child’s ultimate goals. Every day, we face new challenges on how to best build a comfortable rapport with the brave children we serve. Here are some tips we have learned along the way.
1. Set an Appropriate Environment
Making sure the child client feels comfortable and safe encourages them to open up to you. Here are some things to consider when preparing for a meeting with a child:
a. Clothing: Consider not dressing in a suit. A suit may intimidate a child. More casual attire is recommended.
b. Follow their lead: If meeting in a conference room, ask them where they would like to sit. If an office makes the child uncomfortable, offer an alternative. Make sure the child knows they can ask for a break at any given time, and should let you know if some questions are particularly difficult to answer.
c. Provide paper and markers or fidget toys: Children may use the coloring materials simply to help distress while others may use it to help communicate with you. Fidget toys can be particularly useful for children discussing traumatic experiences.
2. Don’t Skip the Introduction!
Make sure the child gets to know you a bit – this will set the tone for the entire attorney/client relationship. Many times, our children clients are recent arrivals who have suffered traumatic events. Patience is key. Offering some details about yourself, showing genuine curiosity about the child’s interests, and finding common interests will go a long way towards building a good rapport.
3. Remember the Child is Your Client
During the first meeting, prioritize meeting with the child alone. Make sure the child understands attorney- client privilege and what confidentiality means. This is a point you should repeat often. The child may be apprehensive or distrusting of adults. Reminding the child about confidentiality and reiterating that they are in charge of their case will encourage the child to speak candidly and ask questions.
4. Simplify Concepts
When introducing topics related to the child’s case, remember to break down concepts. A child client may not be aware of what we consider to be elementary terms, such as court, neglect, or crime.
In addition, whether using an interpreter or communicating directly, language can be an obstacle. There are many differences between countries that speak the same language. Some words may have a different meaning. Again, it is important to keep the language simple and clear.
Drawings or illustrations help children of all ages to better understand and visualize concepts. Also, try explaining concepts by relating it to something they know. For instance, comparing the roles attorneys and judges play in court to the positions players have in a soccer game can help a child better understand what happens in court. Other techniques include playing games, acting out scenarios, and using props.
(A young client's art work)
5. Focus on the General Story and Don’t Stress about Getting Every Detail
To help encourage helpful responses, use open-ended questions. Then, ask the child follow-up questions to gauge the child’s comprehension of the question asked, and your understanding of the information the child shared. Avoid asking very detailed questions initially. The child might require some repetition before they are able to fully comprehend what you are explaining.
Oftentimes, there will be inconsistencies in a child’s story. Remember that some concepts such as dates may be difficult, especially if they have experienced traumatic events. This is not to say that you should not address certain inconsistencies with a child. Nevertheless, avoid frustration for you and the child by recognizing what details are not necessary.
6. Keep in Mind Child's Age
It is important to remember that different age groups require different needs. Children, roughly 7-10 years old for instance, have difficulty in handling abstract concepts and may not be able to tell their story in chronological order. CAIR Coalition finds that drawings sometimes tell more than words itself. If your client has difficulty retracing their history, have them help you create a pictorial timeline. This can be useful in developing their thoughts.
Teenagers, roughly 11-18 years old may still have difficulty telling stories as adults. We find that older children are mostly concerned with the here-and-now rather than the historical concept of time. Do not assume that the teenager is ready to “get down to business and get this over with.” Be open to independent attitudes, change in behavior, and questions they may have. Tackle this by giving the child control over what he/she wishes to talk about next. Flexibility will always be key when building rapport with teenagers.
7. Give a Timeline
Almost every child wants to know “When?” -- “When will I go to court?” “When am I going to see you?” “When can I work?” – Setting up timeline or general timeframes at the beginning of representation with your child client helps ease their minds and allows them to plan ahead. The timeline also helps to eliminate fear and anxiety if the child client knows approximately how long they have before court, your next meeting or an interview. Most importantly, when setting up a timeline, do not be over-ambitious. Set realistic expectations.
8. Watch for Non-Verbal Cues
Sometimes children will say more through their body language than they will with their words. Some common cues to watch for are: nail biting, shaking, adjustment of clothing, head scratching, and avoiding eye contact. For example, if you ask the child client a question and they break eye contact, this may mean they are thinking about what you asked and feel too uncomfortable to respond. It may also be a hint to pause or take a break before diving into a difficult issue. Every child responds differently. Getting to know your child client will help you to identify the discomfort translated through their body language.
9. Be Conscious of Language
If you are speaking with a client that does not speak English, is important you have a translator present. You should not assume that you understand everything a child is saying. If you conduct a meeting in a language that is not their native language, information will get lost in translation. When using a translator, keep language simple, slow and clear for best forms of communication between you, your client, and the interpreter. Listen to the child’s tone in native language for emotions that can reveal new and important information.
10. Watch out for Do’s and Don’ts
Do’s: Use simple common everyday words and phrases; use names and places instead of “him/her” “there”; stay away from negatives; start your questions and comments off with the main idea; remember that children are not tiny adults.
Don’ts: Assume that the child uses and understands language in the same way as adults; assume you understand what they are saying/mean to say, recite back.; try to get all the facts straight during the first interview; threaten or intimidate the child; tell them you