Contributed by Kelle Watson, M.A.LPC, CCEVA’s Director of Mental Health Counseling
It is a rare parent who has not said or at least thought this sentiment. While kids can be wonderful, charming and funny, they can also be challenging, exasperating, exhausting, and frustrating. An old Doris Day movie depicts her multiple kids following her around the house and calling her name over and over, “Mommy” “Mommy”! She turns away from them rolling her eyes and muttering under her breath, “You know you can grow to hate that word”! We can all relate to this in a lighthearted way, but when is a kid being more than a typical, non stop energy, full of questions, driving you nuts kid to a kid that may need counseling?
Kids present differently in counseling than adults and experience emotions on a whole different level. If you would for a moment, imagine yourself living in a world where a lot of the population knows more than you. Most people are bigger than you and the people who are the same size as you don’t know any more than you do and are just as confused as you are. You are changing and growing so rapidly that your clothes don’t last long. You are driven to places without a say in where you are going. Sometimes you don’t even know where you are going until you get there. You have little money or power or control if any. You have emotions but you are not self aware of what they are or when they will show up or how they will make you act. You can’t even name them as emotions because you have had such little experience with them that you don’t have the slightest idea how to deal with or process them.
When kids get to this point they “act out” because they don’t quite know how to tell you what is wrong. All they know is they are confused. They may start to do poorly in school. They may not hang out with their friends like they use to. They may do things that you thought you taught them not to do such as backtalk, lie, steal, throw things, yell, or hit. They may mope, be irritable, be hyper, or may want to be alone. Even worse they may try to hurt themselves.
It is important to talk with kids daily and check in with them on how they are feeling about their life. This can help them grow in their self awareness and emotional health. It doesn’t have to take a long time. Spending even 5 minutes a day of active listening time while giving them your complete attention goes a long way. Ask them to tell you one good thing about their day and one bad thing. Kids don’t respond to vague open ended questions. Asking your kid how they are leaves them feeling confused how to answer. Asking specific questions helps getting not only specific answers but gives you the information you need to know if everything is ok at school, if they are being bullied, if they are sad, if they are angry. It also helps to let them know it is okay to have emotions and to feel them. This sets up a healthy life skill of learning to experience emotions, learning how to control them and learning how to communicate their feelings.
If you are communicating with your child and you are not getting anywhere and the acting out behaviors continue or increase, it may be a good idea to schedule an appointment with a counselor. How do you know who may be a good counselor for your child or adolescent? A good child counselor should have a fun personality, should have a love for working with children, should be respectful to your child, should listen to them, should give them choices as well as structure, should be age appropriate and plan activities with your child. While an adult will come to their first session and can tell you what is wrong, a child may not know what is wrong and will need help sorting it out. Sometimes parents struggle with bringing their children to counseling feeling embarrassment or shame or hurt that they not only can’t figure out what is wrong with their child but that they are not able to help them. A good child counselor can provide an objective listening ear where the child feels the freedom to open up and talk without letting Mom or Dad down or feeling that they may be punished for what they say or for the acting out behaviors they have been displaying. A good child counselor will also work with Mom and Dad facilitating open communication between parent and child, educating Mom and Dad on the difference between child and adult counseling and explaining the age appropriate interventions that may be used.
Interventions for a child are very different. Since children aren’t skilled in conversation they need to be occupied with a task when talking with you. They may need to draw, or roll out some playdough or hold a toy. They may need to listen to music. An active child may need to toss a ball or get up and move around as they speak to you. A shy child may be content sitting still coloring. Each child is different and requires different interventions that are individualistic to them. A good counselor will adjust accordingly.
In a first session with a child, I ask them to make a journal. They have the power to design it however they want. They also have the power to show it to whoever they want. Sometimes children like to share with parents and other times they want to keep it private. Parents sometimes feel hurt by this but it is a way they are learning to corral their emotions and release them at times and keep them to themselves at times. If a child never learns to control their emotions they will become an adult with emotional management issues who may loose their temper in the grocery store because their coupon wasn’t accepted or screams at another driver out their window because they didn’t use their signal.
The child’s journal is then kept in my office locked up in my file cabinet and I let them know that. I let them know that what they say and what they think is important to me and that I will protect it. I am showing them that their emotions can be private and they can be brought out at times in an appropriate way. They are learning to have control over their feelings. The more they practice this, the more they are able to articulate their feelings. The more they articulate their feelings, the more information I have to help them.
Emotional psychoeducation for children needs to be age appropriate with pictures and games to help them to identify and name their emotions. Kids think they are having fun and playing while in counseling but they are actually learning valuable life skills. Because they are having fun, they look forward to coming to counseling. Because they are learning valuable life skills they are working on what brought them to counseling in the first place. They are changing emotional outbursts into conversations about their feelings. Mom and Dad are often included in the conversations as well as the interventions and homework. Behavioral charts can be made for home use that show the progress the child is making with their emotional health. This is a visual reminder that encourages both child and parents. The more Mom and Dad can be on board with counseling, follow through with interventions, and apply what is learned at home the more success there will be in therapy.
Art is a wonderful expression for children and so much can come out in a drawing. I often, in beginning sessions, have kids make family trees. They think they are coloring and having fun while I am assessing their family dynamic and social support network. Based on who they include and don’t include in their family tree I can learn how they feel about family members and themselves within the family unit. Kids often include pets as members of their family. Pets provide unconditional love that can counterbalance feelings of disappointment they may have in themselves due to their acting out behaviors at home. Pets help them feel that no matter what happens, no matter what they do, someone accepts and loves them. Technically pets are not human, but for kids pets truly are part of their support system and very often are part of their family tree.
As children progress in their experience, self awareness and knowledge of emotion they begin to hold conversations that help them learn how to express their emotion without resorting to acting out behaviors. This control that they feel empowers them. The progress gives them confidence. They are pleasing their parents. Relationships improve. Home life has become better.
While the goal is for children to improve acting out behaviors and no longer need therapy, this presents the sensitive topic of ultimately closing the case altogether. While adults understand this, kids can look at closure with both confusion and sadness. They are bonded with their counselor. They feel connected. They don’t want to say goodbye. A good counselor will handle this with the utmost gentleness and sensitivity. While I prepare them for closure, I encourage their progress and explain that we will be gradually stretching the sessions out. I encourage them on how far they have come and how much they have grown. I explain to them again what counseling is, how it progresses and how it helps us gain the skills to live a better life. I also let them know while it may feel like we are saying “goodbye”, it may be more like “see you again someday”. I explain they can always come back if they need to talk, or work through something. I make sure to give them my card again with my work email so if they need to contact me they can. This gives them the power to decide whether this is “goodbye” or “see you again”. This gives them the sensitive closure they need. Parents also like to know if issues come up they can bring their child to someone the child knows, trusts, and responds to.
If your child is driving you crazy, they may just need to talk with you, or they may need more time from you or they simply may be trying to figure out their place in the world, at school, or at home. Sometimes it may be something more serious that is bothering them such as anxiety or depression or grief. Whatever they need to figure out, we are here to listen to them, respect them, guide them, encourage them, and help them get back to being that wonderful kid that you have come to know and love.