The silent therapist

Therapists are often trained in verbalising thoughts in order to help children and adolescents grow further into their next developmental stages and challenges. We as therapists have learned how to paraphrase them, how to tentatively express their possibly underlying feelings or how to summarize their own expressions into their desires or fears. While those words can be powerful vehicles towards growth, they can equally as easy block that growth. 

The verbal channel is only one out of many we interact with during child psychotherapy. However, we tend to prefer verbal communication over non-verbal communication, as if it is ‘more desired’ or ‘more mature’. To verbalise non-verbal communication can either facilitate or inhibit children’s expression. It is important to carefully monitor whether your verbal interventions open or close the flow of the child/adolescent. In addition, actively welcoming non-verbal communication channels in therapy is highly important. Hence, my therapy room carries a great variety of play and creative materials (see this blogpost). Children express themselves during painting or drawing – without naming what they just created. Or they start to play in the doll house, fully playing scenarios from the perspective of a playmobil character and thus not tolerating us commenting about their own emotions or difficulties. Children express themselves vividly through their body language. They move, scream, sing, leave the room abruptly or turn their backs towards us. With adolescents the verbal channel tends to grow in relative importance, while it is still highly advisable to open up other channels too (see this blogpost). To narrow the content of a therapy session to ‘the being said’ is in other words not fully being open to the wealth of children’s expressions.

After being more open to and aware of different communication channels with children, therapists tend to verbalize them. When children, for example, play out traumatic experiences with dolls, we want to name what is being played. Either we want to let them know that we saw what they are playing. Sometimes we even connect it to their traumatic experiences directly in order to let them know that we connect what they are showing here-and-now to what happened there-and-then. Or we interrupt the silence during painting by posing questions about the painting. This oververbalisation not rarely leads to blocking the communication process of children which in turn results in faster ending paintings/drawings or play breaks. It is interesting to check within ourselves what our motives are to break the silence or the flow of children. Are we ourselves uncomfortable by mirroring children and adolescents in non-verbal channels such as bodily expression? Are we uncomfortable with silence? Are we absolutely wanting to convey to children we are there for them, fully present in the moment? We all have experienced those tendencies. However, that overly wording our emotional presence for children can become exhausting. They might feel chased, totally overstimulated or pressured to be as verbal as the therapist. 

We need to find confidence that we are not helping children any less by saying less words. The silent therapist is for sure not the same as the inactive therapist. The silent therapist takes the time to let the child’s rich communication flow into his or her mind. They attach their evoked emotions (countertransference), associations, and thoughts to it. They talk about these mental processes evoked by the therapy with colleagues or supervisors. Thereby, links can be made to the child’s symptoms, history and underlying dynamics. This in turn leads to a therapeutic stance that is better adjusted to foster the child’s or adolescent’s developmental and behavioral needs. Personally, when I am more silent during the session itself, my reflection afterwards tends to be richer as I am more present in the moment.

If you are uncomfortable with silence inside the therapy room, acknowledge that. It might help you to draw at the same moment when children are drawing. Or to have some Play Doh or a tangle in your hand. Some therapist also write down some words to capture the flow of the session, but I am rather hesitant about that for two reasons. Writing down can easily stop the flow of the child and/or it can narrow your receptive capacity.

So, I invite you all to sit back, be silent, let your mind wander during therapy and see how the process evolves. This has to be, of course, in balance with stimulating verbalisations. Experiment with mirroring the child non-verbally. Experiment also with your verbal communication: try to shorten it, try to use meta-communication while of course keeping the flow of the sessions natural. Try to find a balanced alternation between verbal and non-verbal interventions. Try in each session to find moments to sit back, alternated with moments of leaning forward towards the child. Make sure to experiment gradually because otherwise the child won’t recognize his/her normally very verbal and now quite silent therapist anymore!


  • Lanyado, M. (2004). The Presence of the Therapist. Hove, UK: Brunner-Routledge.
  • Winnicott, D. W. (1958). The capacity to be alone; in Winnicott, D. W. (1965) The Maturational Processes and the Facilitating Environment. London: Hogarth

Written by An Molenberghs.

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