Counseling in Spanish

I am currently working with Spanish-speaking families and thought it would be helpful to share some of my ponderings with other new counselors who may be considering how to conduct a therapy session in Spanish. I am currently completing my final year of my master’s degree while working with adolescents in a behavioral health hospital in South Florida. I simply wanted to share some helpful tidbits and games that I have found helpful when Spanish clients are present. From my experiences, I am either conducting initial assessments, individual therapy, or translating for clients while another colleague runs group counseling.

When we learned about counseling in the classroom, it was much different than the first day of practicum, right? Well, I know there is a big shift between speaking Spanish and then applying what I have learned in English into the way Spanish formulates sentences. This may sound confusing so I will try to explain further. I tend to use the subjunctive tense during group counseling. For example, when beginning groups, we ask for the youth to stop what they’re currently doing, bring a chair, and come sit around a table. Instead of saying, “usted trae una silla” I would say “por favor traiga una silla”. It is more of a command in Spanish, but I feel like it conveys that I am the professional in the room and it is time to start group.

Before beginning to expand your bilingual counseling competence, make certain that you have a supervisor who is capable of overseeing and helping in the case of an emergency. It is very important to remain ethical while learning. I also practice humility when I am unfamiliar with a word, I simply ask the client to describe the meaning of the word using the phrase, “Lo siento, no sé esa palabra. ¿Qué significa _________?”

When providing ‘consejos’ (counseling/advice) to clients, it may be helpful to consider which tense to use. For youth, I use the Tú because it is less formal and they are younger than I am. When I run a family session, I begin using the Usted and Ustedes tenses and eventually switch to the Tú . This may be cultural because my brother-in-law uses the Ustds for everyone all the time. I elect to use the usted tense when it is the initial meeting, with doctors and supervisors, and for older people. I had one other case with a teenage boy who had frequent crushes on the other patients. In this case, I consistently used the third person. I thought that it conveyed that I was the professional and not someone that he could flirt with. Most cases, using the Ustds form is formal and considered universally to be respectful language.

Finally, while in the role of translator during a group counseling session, I have learned that translating is very difficult. Since other people do not know what is expected, it is easy to fall into the trap of translating for everyone for one person to understand. After doing that a few times, I knew I needed to come up with a better idea. For the past two months, we have been using this bilingual game, similar to Jenga. It has cards written in English and Spanish. Unfortunately, the game does not put English on one side and Spanish on the other. I found that using a glue stick, I was able to match up the cards so it would super easy to help translate. This game is fantastic and has great open-ended thought-provoking questions aimed at building self-esteem and self-awareness.

Bilingual Group Counseling Game

bilingual board game

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