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July 01, 2011

Counseling Children

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Working effectively with child clients in the court system calls for a multidisciplinary counseling approach combining several instruction techniques (e.g., auditory, visual, verbal and tactile modes of information delivery). This approach improves information-processing and retention, and thus improves the counseling and decision-making process.

Many child clients have diagnosed or undiagnosed learning disabilities (LD) that may interfere with the legal counseling process. Individuals with LD may struggle to achieve educational skills, coordinate their movement, maintain attention, remember information, and/or interact appropriately with others.[1] The counseling approach highlighted here is intended to preempt and minimize these and other barriers. It builds on the strategies discussed in Part 1 of the article aimed at improving understanding of child development and rapport building. By incorporating these counseling strategies into your practice, you can enhance the child’s ability to plan, make decisions, troubleshoot, and resist temptation.

Counseling Strategies

Keep meeting agendas brief

Attorneys frequently face severe time constraints and feel forced to cover too much material in too little time. It is tempting to assume unrealistic expectations and cover as much ground as possible. Steps to take:

  • Be realistic and reasonable about what can be accomplished during a meeting with the client.

  • Identify a few, concrete, manageable items for meetings. You will find that your clients will remain more attentive, actively participate, and benefit most from meetings focused on a few, key agenda items.

Agendas also serve as important scaffolding for legal conferences. Reviewing an agenda with the child client at the outset of the meeting provides structure and allows the child to better process and recall the information.[2]

Use memory anchors

Memory anchors are discrete events that are meaningful to a client such as holidays, birthdays, school vacations, and newsworthy events. They can be used to develop a timeline for the child to make sense of time as it relates to the child’s case. Studies suggest that youngsters remember anchor dates and can readily recall events based on them.[3] Using memory anchors to develop a timeline or a calendar helps a child make chronological sense of important past and future events, supporting the child’s ability to process and make decisions about time-related information.

Memory anchors also increase chronological understanding of past experiences and establish expectations for potential future events such as the length of time between court hearings, out-of-home placements, or periods of detention. They help you counsel and prepare clients for possible and likely outcomes. For younger clients still developing a sense of time, a timeline or calendar enhances their understanding of time in between important events since days of the week, months of the year, and other measures of time may not make sense to them.

Use several means of communication

A child cannot fully contribute during meetings and the counseling process can be seriously compromised if he must rely solely on verbal communication. A child client—who may already experience PTSD symptoms that impair focus and concentration—is likely to feel apprehensive, overwhelmed, preoccupied, angry, threatened, or any combination of these emotions during legal conferences. These emotions interfere significantly with a child’s ability to process and retain information. Under these circumstances, clients are unable to truly listen to and comprehend what is said. Try using these communication tools:

  • Use visual aids such as charts, diagrams, timelines, or drawings to illustrate information for clients.

  • Use small objects, such as writing implements, folded or torn pieces of paper, or other items that clients can handle and manipulate to reinforce and demonstrate concepts.

  • Use technology (e-mail, text messages, and other forms of telecommunication) to foster successful communication. Since adolescents tend to be adept and comfortable with technology, these mediums foster communication between meetings and enhance information processing and retention.

Present information visually

Presenting information visually works to scaffold and reinforce legal advice. Bold, clear, and attractive stationary images activate the brain, support information processing, and secure storage of information in long-term memory. Looking at images also offers another medium for reflecting on choices or courses of action in legal cases, especially for child clients with difficulty holding information in their memory for a period of time. Children especially need a concrete representation to form a mental image to bolster memory and make connections between images. As a result, when an image is stored it becomes a key for future recall and further insight. Strategies include:

  • Use paper to draw out options, ideas, and consequences for your client. For instance, if there are three courses of action, make three columns and chart out likely outcomes to help the client evaluate choices.
  • Use symbols such as arrows, shapes, and simple drawings to diagram ideas or sequences of events.
  • Use different colored pens in diagrams, outlines, lists, calendars and timelines to more clearly illustrate information.
  • Have your client take notes, draw diagrams, and use calendars as a physical representation and reminder of his plans.
  • Have an agenda and review it with your client. If possible, solicit input from the client before the conference/meeting. Let the client add to or change the agenda, and provide the client a copy and a pen so he can take notes and actively follow along. With young children and early or nonreaders, provide an agenda as well and guide them through it as you move from item to item. You can always use symbols or short words the child client understands to make it meaningful.

Use social scripting

Social scripting teaches clients "scripts" for legal situations, including what will happen during a given court appearance. Social scripting involves reviewing such proceedings with your client with special attention to what he will say and do during the course of the proceeding. In the same way that a lawyer might moot a big oral argument in front of colleagues, it is helpful for the child to run through potential questions and issues as a way to prepare.

Scripting helps a child predict and anticipate what will happen in a situation, including what others might say, how the judge might react, and potential outcomes. Some clients may benefit from the use of a support, such as a note card or outline with the script available to read during the proceeding. Social scripts can reduce the stress associated with interactions during legal proceedings (likely intensified for clients with a trauma history) and help clients understand the perspective of others.

Use metaphors

The use of concrete metaphors to convey information during client meetings speeds comprehension and memory.[4] Metaphors provide child clients with mental pictures to hold in their mind’s eye to bolster understanding of legal information. Concepts become easier when a client has metaphors related to real-life events or experiences, drawing on examples that are familiar to children. For instance, when explaining the role of the judge, look to other decision makers in the child’s life—the school principal or a teacher.

Identify and minimize anxiety

As mentioned before, court-involved children often have trauma-related anxiety, thus even routine meetings and legal proceedings can be highly anxiety producing. This section outlines techniques to calm anxious clients and enhance counseling. To begin, here are signs of stress to look for:

  • tight, closed posture (e.g., arms or legs crossed, head turned down)
  • emotional sensitivity and low frustration tolerance (e.g., tears, irritability, aggression)
  • nervous behaviors (e.g., nail biting, hair twirling, and fidgeting)
  • poor eye contact (e.g., looking down, eyes darting around the room)
  • shaking or trembling
  • quiet, soft-spoken tone with brief or one-word responses
  • physical complaints (e.g., stomachaches, headaches, fatigue, diarrhea)
  • low self-esteem (e.g., negative, doubtful statements about self-worth, abilities)

If you notice your client exhibits one or more of these behaviors, use some of these techniques to reduce and manage the child’s anxiety:

  • Acknowledge that the circumstances are difficult and anxiety-producing. Empathic statements such as “this is hard” or “it is scary when you don’t know what will happen” or others customized to the client’s circumstances will help them label their feelings and reduce anxiety.
  • Ask open-ended questions to learn what is making the client anxious. This provides the client time to voice concerns, and allows you to correct any misconceptions.

  • Have your client engage in soothing activities. Give the client something to hold, like a stress ball. For a younger child, have a small toy, game, or other object available. Provide paper, pens, or crayons for drawing. Playing music is also soothing. Note: small gaming machines are not advised because they heighten anxiety and arousal and interfere with memory encoding/ability to remember legal advice. If you see a client repeatedly, certainly bringing something specific for her/him goes a long way to build rapport and instill confidence.

  • Offer water. Hydration reduces anxiety and builds rapport by showing care for the client.

  • Try walking and talking with your client (conditions permitting). Walking reduces anxiety and depression, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates dialogue.

  • Keep chewing gum with you and offer it to your client. Chewing gum is shown to improve memory and reduce anxiety.[5] It also serves as an easy, ready conversation starter, a simple way to open the interaction.

  • Use humor where appropriate. Try making your client laugh and smile. Granted, material covered in these conferences is often grave. Yet, showing a sense of humor at appropriate times adds levity that both reduces client anxiety and teaches the client a strategy for stress management. You also can use emotional contagion to your advantage during legal conferences to induce more positive emotions and reduce anxiety. Using a warm, welcoming smile and humor with clients is likely to induce an automatic smile, which in turn induces positive emotions. Reducing anxiety this way will bolster information processing and memory.

  • Breathe. Breathing techniques are known to help with relaxation. Diaphragmatic breathing (“belly breathing”) calms the mind and induces a state of relaxation in one’s body.

Avoid over-influencing the child

Children of all ages are highly suggestible. Lawyers for children must remember this, and avoid overexerting their influence on the child client. Despite the dangers of suggestibility, even young children can provide accurate accounts of experienced events, discern legal matters, and make informed decisions if adults question and counsel them skillfully.[6] Some tips to avoid unduly influencing the child client include:

  • Know your biases, prevent them from influencing your work, and quickly recognize and curb them when they arise.

  • Be aware that the order in which you present options to the client may affect his decision-making.

  • Be mindful of your own reactions, facial expressions, and body language.

  • Use neutral language when presenting information and options.

  • Have your client take the lead in mapping out options and weighing the pros and cons.

These are just a few tools you can use to avoid over-influencing the client in one direction or the other. Remember that ultimately, it is the client who has to live with the outcome of his case, so it is important for his voice to be heard, and for his preferences to be expressed.

Common Challenges

When working with the child client, address difficult issues directly. Being open and honest with your client makes the client feel more comfortable as you discuss difficult issues. Honesty and directness also go a long way toward building rapport and collaboration, thus enhancing the client’s ability to make good decisions. Following are some common challenges faced by attorneys while counseling child clients and guidance for how to address them.

Address time constraints

Attorneys face significant time constraints. Effective counseling under such circumstances is even more difficult. Following are tools and strategies to help reduce the impact of time constraints:               

  • Keep it simple. Focus on one or two key aspects of the case to cover.
  • Stay on topic. Remain focused on the key aspects of the case you have identified. If your client seems preoccupied or distracted, acknowledge that and shift their attention back to the matter before you.
  • Review your agenda first to maximize understanding and collaboration. Give your client a copy of the agenda to follow and check off or highlight items when they are finished.
  • Set expectations and watch the time. For example, “We have 10 minutes to work together and I need your full attention because this is important. It is a short time and I am confident we can do this.” If you have a wristwatch or a clock nearby, use it to keep track of the time together with your client.
  • Reinforce the positive. Brief bits of praise reinforce desirable behavior and motivate the client to keep up and meet the goal of working within time constraints.
  • Engage your client in brief open conversation at the start. Even when you only have a few minutes, it is important to relax them and orient them to you and the situation.
  • Provide your client with paper and a pen or pencil to make notes, organize ideas, or weigh options.

Plan meeting locations

It is not always possible to create the ideal meeting environment. Sometimes counseling has to take place in a juvenile court building hallway, in a holding cell at the detention center, at a child’s busy or even chaotic home, etc. Bearing this in mind, here are some strategies that can make any environment more conducive to counseling:

  • Ask for help. Enlist others who work in and know a particular building if there are alternative places (more quiet corridors, available rooms, waiting areas, a cafeteria) to meet.
  • Minimize distractions and make adjustments during meetings as needed. Scan the environment for potential distractions and find the least distracting place possible. Move if a location becomes suddenly filled with distractions.
  • Sit down next to your client, even if it means moving furniture to do it.
  • Go outside. At times, being outside can lead to a more productive meeting. Perhaps plan to meet your client outside a courthouse (weather permitting) before going inside and through security.

Ensure safety

A significant challenge in the lawyer-client relationship occurs when a client wants to pursue a course of action that is not safe. Imagine that you represent a 10-year-old girl who has been sexually abused by her mother’s live-in boyfriend. Your client tells you unequivocally that she wants to return home to her mother, even though the mother’s boyfriend is still living in the house. You know the judge, who has been made aware of these facts by the caseworker, will not grant your client’s request to return to her mother as long as the boyfriend is there. Steps to take:

  • Be honest and direct with your client regarding your assessment, and what you believe will be the outcome in court.

  • Use open-ended questions and a nonjudgmental approach. This will allow your client to confide in you regarding why she wants a particular option, and lets you discuss acceptable alternatives.

  • If you have built rapport and established trust, you will be able to discuss difficult subjects without your client shutting you out. This foundation will enable you to help the client think through options (e.g., is there a grandmother, aunt, cousin or other family or community member she would like to live with? What about a group home near her school? Or a foster placement? What are the pros and cons of each of these options?).

  • Clearly talk through and weigh each option with the client. This lets you see and understand the client’s motives for wanting to go home. For example, you may not understand initially that the client is concerned her mom will not take her medication if she (the client) is not home to help her. By coming up with an alternate way of ensuring mom will get her medication, and thereby alleviating the client’s concern, the client then may be more interested in exploring alternate placements to avoid the abusive boyfriend.

Ultimately, the child client must live with even the very toughest of decisions. As the child’s advocate, it is the lawyer’s job to effectively counsel the client to make a good decision. If you’ve spoken to your client, the client demonstrates adequate reasoning skills, the client is competent and clear about what he wants, then your role is to advocate accordingly for your client.

Work with parents and caregivers

As the lawyer, your ultimate responsibility is to your client. However, it is likely that you will need to develop a positive working relationship with your client’s parents, guardians, and/or other caregivers. In addition to having strong bonds with these individuals, your client also may rely on them for transportation to and from important meetings and court appearances, and for support complying with any court-ordered services or conditions. Your client’s parents/caregivers may be key to your ability to have access to the client. Some tips to keep in mind as you balance your duties to your client with maintaining a positive relationship with his family and/or caregivers include:                        

  • When parents or guardians are represented by counsel, be sure to ask to have their counsel present or seek permission from counsel before speaking with them.

  • Be open and honest about your role as the lawyer for the child.

  • Take time to explain attorney-client privilege so the parents/caregivers understand the legal reasons behind your duty to keep certain conversations with your client privileged. Parents/caregivers may feel alienated and frustrated by your need to have private conversations with their child. However, a careful and honest explanation of your legal obligations can go a long way toward easing any concerns. Sometimes explaining this to a parent/caregiver in the child client’s presence may help empower the client and reinforce your promise of confidentiality.

  • Keep the lines of communication open to the extent possible, and answer the parent/caregiver’s questions to the best of your ability (without compromising your duties to your client).

  • Avoid judging. As with your client, evaluate your own biases and take care to prevent your own biases from interfering with your relationship with your client’s parents/caregivers.

  • Be mindful of the order in which you are interacting with the parent/caregiver and the child client. If you are meeting with the parent/caregiver after meeting with the child client, remind the child about confidentiality (as the child could reasonably fear that you are now sharing information with the parent/caregiver).


Counseling is a key component to the successful representation of any client. When the client is a child, additional factors come into play, making the work of counseling yet more complex. Key to any lawyer’s success in this area are: understanding your client’s developmental level, building rapport and trust, and employing well thought-out strategies and techniques to most effectively communicate with your client. Together, these tools will best position you—the lawyer—to guide your child client to successful decision-making and more positive case outcomes.

This article was adapted with permission from Counseling Children and Youth in Times of Crisis: Tips to Achieve Success and Avoid Pitfalls, a guide produced by the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee of the Section of Litigation.

Dr. Maisley Paxton is a child and adolescent psychologist at the in Washington, DC; Lauren Girard Adams, Esq., is an independent legal services consultant in Norwich, VT, and the Co-Chair of the Children’s Rights Litigation Committee of the Section of Litigation of the American Bar Association.

[1] Nelson, A. et al. “Occupational Therapists Prefer Combining Multiple Intervention Approached for Children with Learning Difficulties.” Australian Occupational Therapy Journal 56, 2009, 51-82.

[2] Restak, R. The Secret Life of the Brain. , : The 's

Joseph Henry Press, 2001.

[3] Sobell, L. C., and M.B. Sobell. “Alcohol Consumption Measures.” In J.P. Allen and M.

(Ed.), Assessing Alcohol Problems: A Guide for Clinicians and Researchers. : National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 1995, 55-73.

[4] Scott, A., et al. A "Primer" in Conceptual Metaphor for Counselors. Journal of Counseling and Development 77(4), 1999, 389-94.

[5] Smith A. “Effects of Chewing Gum on Cognitive Function, Mood and Physiology in Stressed and Non-stressed Volunteers.” Nutritional Neuroscience 13(1), 2010, 7–16.

[6] Olafson, E. and J. Kenniston. “Obtaining Information from Children in the Justice System.” Juvenile and Family Court Journal 59(4), 2008, 71-89.