For many professionals a major challenge in working with troubled youth is achieving rapport. It is one thing to work with an individual a few times during a period of crisis in their lives and quite another to have a client look forward to working with you to solve the challenges he or she faces.

One of the finest additions to my private practice - and a great school counseling tool - is the use of carefully selected, high quality magic tricks and brain teasers. They have been useful in increasing rapport tenfold as well as being useful as both an assessment tool and setting up behavior modification programs. Magic can help drive you toward realizing your therapeutic goals.

My early interest in magic lasted a year or two when I was 14 years old. I had been fascinated with the large volume of friends and peers that were always eager to see me make a handkerchief disappear or transform four nickels into two dimes. I remember my popularity and confidence getting a boost at this important developmental time.

My interest in magic was reawakened some 20 years later while preparing to chaperone 100 eighth graders on their final class trip. With only a few weeks of school to go, we had little reason to believe that there would be many meaningful consequences for this feisty group of kids. My hope was that I might allay some boredom on the 6 hour bus ride by bringing 10 - 15 brain teasers and a selection of quality magic tricks which I had just purchased.

The puzzles and tricks were a great hit - they worked like magic! They did not just alleviate boredom, but helped to turn the bus trip into a chaperon's dream come true. The "Psychic Dice" and the floating dollar bill electrified everyone on board. My performance was rewarded with lights out at 11:00 p.m.

The kids seemed very turned on by the magic tricks, so I decided to experiment with their use both in school and in my private practice.

The following September, I soon saw magic's effect on 6 year old Billy who experience severe separation anxiety. His astonishment at my changing a Mexican coin into an American one caught him off guard and allowed him to see me as non-threatening. He quickly calmed down. After 20 minutes of getting acquainted and reassurance that he was going to be all right, he was able to go back to class problem free.

Therapeutic Alliance

In my practice, creating rapport or "opening the door" is step one. Getting "trough the door" with children and making efforts to sustain the relationship is step number two. Magic and brain teasers have strengthened my therapeutic alliances with youth by providing a shared activity, common ground, and something to look forward to.

We are all aware that some of the problems that children face are excruciatingly painful, like abuse, abandonment and loss. Being taken to a counselor for the first time to deal with these issues may be quite scary. The nature of magic and brain teasers is very energizing and soothing as well. Used correctly as a shared activity, they can reduce anxiety and let the therapeutic work on painful problems become more bearable over the long term.

To help maintain an ongoing connection with counseling, I have often given them a fun brain teaser to take home to share with family members. This can make the issue of counseling a little easier to share with mom and dad and it gives the child and me something positive to focus on each session. The teasers are also a great way to generate dialogue about family dynamics. "How did Mom handle the puzzle?," "What did Dad say?," etc. They can also create a nice bridge between counselor and parents.
One of my favorite brain teasers is called Twin Tangle. Once you pick this one up, you cannot leave it alone. It consists of metal horseshoe shaped bars that require tremendous patience to untangle. A 13 year old student brought this teaser home for the weekend and reported on Monday that her parents had great fun with the puzzle and that they were looking forward to meeting me.

Tricks and teasers have been great as ice breakers for support groups and have also been a highly positive way to conclude peer conflict mediation meetings.

Positive Reinforcement

Some children may be so interested with puzzles and tricks that they want to start it as a hobby for themselves. If this happens, there can be tremendous therapeutic advantages in terms of "buy in" for behavior modification. You may be able to involve parents and the child at this point to help them develop a "good behavior" chart and have magic as the irresistible "carrot at the end of the stick." They are also a nice vehicle for positive interaction with children and parents.

I was recently working with a 10 year old, not-very-verbal boy who enjoyed his magic trick at the end of each session so much that he actually asked his parents to start a good behavior chart so that he could earn tricks for himself. He even requested that I ask his parents to find him a counselor outside of school because he was beginning to enjoy talking.

Social Skills

I have spoken to parents of children who have taken up magic as a serious hobby. I have found what logic tells me, that magic can be beneficial for improving social skills and confidence. This is because magic always involves interaction with at least one other person. Magic necessarily includes things like organization, assertiveness, speaking clearly, eye contact, gaining people's cooperation, and even handling conflict. You must practice, rehearse, and have self-discipline.


Magic and brain teasers have been a tremendous addition to my therapeutic tool box and a great boost to my professional practice. They have helped me build rapport, break down tension and anxiety, served as diagnostic/assessment aids, and are superb for connecting with teenagers.

I highly recommend them for anyone wishing to expand their own tool box and enrich their practice.