This is something many recent graduates experience as they start working with clients without the “protective” title of intern. Even more seasoned clinicians get a wary look from parents who interpret a cautiousness or tentativeness or youthful appearance as inexperience or a lack of authority to get the job done. In either case, the result is that the therapist feels as though he or she needs to prove themselves to be up for the task.

Therapists typically respond to this pressure by citing their credentials — degrees, clinical placements, years in practice, etc. in an effort to verify competency. But answering the call to prove yourself by “proving yourself” is probably the worst thing you could do, as it puts you on the defensive, and emboldens the parents’ skepticism.

Maybe you are new to the field. Maybe you don’t have much experience with the types of problems with which this family presents. It’s okay. That’s what supervisors and colleagues and consultants are for, and what you really want is for these parents to understand that if you were to start thinking that you were in over your head, you’d get the guidance you needed. You want them to understand too that your relative youth or newness to the field doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t handle things. Native talent and emotional intelligence and great training transcend a lot of traditional markers of competency, and in few places is this more apparent than in the practice of psychotherapy.

Allow families or parents to entertain their doubts, and give them room to make a change. Here’s the sort of thing I would say in that circumstance:

“I don’t know how to make you feel more comfortable with me working with your teenager and it would be a mistake for me to try. All I can say is, I have ideas about how to help him which I’ve shared with you, and we can go forward with them if you’d like. If they help, we do more, and if you feel I’m not the right person, you’ll move on and it’s fine.”

Any attempt to defend your competency will come off as junior and defensive. Own it (your lack of experience, your childlessness), and let them decide. Your ability to answer without becoming defensive will go a long way in establishing your credibility as a competent therapist.

— Janet Sasson Edgette