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.
Contributed by Kelle Watson, M.A. LPC, Director of Mental Health Counseling
You never really hear anyone say, “I really love January”! “I really love all the dead trees”! “I really love that the sun hasn’t come out in days!” Many feel let down in January after the holidays are over, the lights are taken down, the bills start rolling in, and the gloomy weather which was pre holiday charming is now post holiday depressing. It is quite normal to feel the blues. It is even quite normal to feel so affected by the dreary days and lack of sunshine that it results in a lack of motivation to not do much of anything. Ironically, it seems like a strange month to set forth resolutions to change and start something new and productive when all you feel like doing is sitting inside on the couch eating something warm and fattening.
How do you know when you have the normal blues or when it is something more? How do you know when you should make an appointment to see a professional counselor? True clinical depression and the normal blues can be confusing to sort out. It is helpful to listen to those around you who are able to observe you on a regular basis. They know what is normal for you and what is not. If you are feeling blue it is helpful to talk about your feelings with a friend or loved one. Many times this can be helpful in processing the situation. If after talking it out with a friend or loved one, you are feeling like yourself again, it is probably just the blues. If you do not feel better and the depressed mood persists for over two weeks, you may want to consider making an appointment to speak with a professional counselor trained in dealing with clinical depression.
It can be very difficult to admit that help is needed. We hear this often in first sessions. It takes a lot of courage to make that first appointment and reach out for help. It takes a lot of courage to physically show up to the first appointment and to trust someone you are meeting for the first time with your deepest and most vulnerable thoughts.
To know if you need professional help the following is a list of symptoms taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In order for a true diagnosis of clinical depression five or more of the following would be occurring for you: You may have a loss of interest or depressed mood for a continuous two week period and you may feel depressed for most of the day for every day of the two weeks. This mood would represent a change in behavior for you. You may feel sad, empty, or hopeless. You may feel tearful. In children depression may manifest in an irritable mood. You may have an increase or decrease in appetite and subsequent weight loss or weight gain. You may have insomnia every day in the two week period. You may feel restless or you may feel lethargic . You may have a loss of energy and you may feel fatigued. You may feel worthless. You may have excessive feelings of guilt. You may have a decreased ability to concentrate. You may have suicidal ideation or even a plan to harm yourself. It is always important to seek help if you feel you may want to harm yourself.
Many of the above symptoms can be rooted in and comorbid with a myriad of other issues which a good counselor can help you process and work through. There is nothing wrong with seeking help to get you back to feeling like yourself again. Sometimes there may be a primary care visit recommended to assist with medication. Sometimes there may be behavioral interventions that will help. Sometimes there may need to be both medication and behavioral interventions working together to alleviate the depression. A good counselor can help develop a treatment plan that works best for you.
What is a good counselor? A good counselor is someone who has had professional training from an accredited school. A good counselor is also ethical, intelligent, genuine, supportive, caring, empathic, and non judgmental. A good counselor will work collaboratively with you offering behavioral interventions that you can apply to your daily life and use in between counseling sessions. Interventions are personally tailored to you and your needs in order to help you get back to feeling like yourself again. A good counselor will also assess your overall needs and make appropriate referrals and recommendations.
Offering professional counseling at a low cost for individuals who could afford it no other way is one of the great things we do here at Catholic Charities. Gone are the days when counseling was just for the rich and elite who were able to pay the high fees of psychoanalysis. Our services are affordable to a large mass of the population who could not afford to go anywhere else.
If January is making you blue, talk to a friend. If it is something more, give us a call. We are here to help, listen, support, and get you back to a happier, healthier state of mind.
Written by Kelle Watson, M.A.LPC, Director of Mental Health Counseling
I have always found Christmas to be magical. I still do even though I am far from being a kid anymore. It seems magical things happen that there is no explanation except that it is Christmastime.
One Christmas eve as I was walking by the front door, the doorbell rang. I opened the door and no one was there but there was an envelope taped to my front door. It had no writing on it. I looked down the walkway and driveway and saw no one. It had snowed recently and the path was shoveled so I didn’t see any footprints. There was no car pulling away. There was nothing but an envelope filled with money taped to my front door. Inside was $100.00. Who gave me this generous gift? As Christmas came and went I asked everyone I knew but it was still a mystery who left me the gift at my door. How did I not see them walk away? Did they ring the doorbell and run into the night so I wouldn’t see them? Why weren’t there any footprints in the snow? Where was their vehicle? Did they pull away with the headlights off? I never had any of these questions answered and after 15 years I still don’t know. What I did know is that my family was struggling financially and apparently so did the person who left the gift at my door.
Another Christmas Eve many years prior I was walking by the front door and the doorbell rang. It was a neighbor that lived up the street and he was dressed as Santa with a bag of presents. Ironically, this man dressed as Santa was not a very nice person. In fact, he yelled at us if we kicked a ball on his lawn and we knew to stay away from him. We never went to his house for Halloween or to sing Christmas carols. We rarely saw him outside his house as he didn’t seem to want to interact with anyone. He had no wife or kids or family that ever came to visit him but here he was Christmas eve at my door with a sack full of gifts pretending to be Santa. My brother ran up and quickly chose a toy from his bag and went off to play with it. I looked up at him and said in rather loud disbelief, “You’re Mr. Brown”! “No, little girl, I’m Santa”. I insisted, “You live 6 houses down in that white house with the long porch! You’re Mr. Brown”! “You are mistaken, I am Santa”, he said, then quickly added, “Here I have a gift for you”. He handed me a tea set anxiously hoping to deflect both my question and recognition of him. He then began to leave but turned around and looked at me rather confused. As he walked away I said, “Thank you for the tea set, Mr. Brown”. He didn’t respond and I watched him walk off into the snowy darkness. I really didn’t mean to blow his cover. I was just being a kid. I appreciated the kindness that he tried so hard to disguise under a Santa suit. Now, as a counselor, I look back and conjecture that maybe he couldn’t reveal his kindness unless it was hidden under a cheap white beard. Maybe his yelling at us to get off his lawn was because people had been mean to him and that is all he knew how to do. Maybe he didn’t have any relationships in his life because he had been so hurt by people and had given up shutting himself off in that white house with the long porch. Whatever the reason, still there he was standing before me Christmas eve with a gift at my door.
One reason why I love working here so much is that is what we do at Catholic Charities. We reach out to people like him everyday. We see through their disguise of pain or anger and help them where they are at with what they need at just the right time. The amazing thing is we don’t wait until the magic of Christmas time. We do it each and every day.
This Christmas both professionally and personally let’s reach out to those around us who are hurting, lonely, and need a hand. It could be a smile to a neighbor, or holding open a door for a young mother with a stroller, or being kind to someone who is in the military thanking them for their service, or being extra kind to a cashier working the holidays, it could be picking an angel off a tree and buying a stranger a present, it could be throwing your spare change in a bucket next to a cold bell ringer, it could be helping someone older put their groceries in their car, it could be tipping the hard working waitress something extra or paying it forward in a drive thru, it could be volunteering at a church or soup kitchen, or it could even be reaching out to a grumpy old man who lives down the block appreciating that underneath their facade there is a human being who is just looking for some human contact. Maybe this Christmas you can be the gift at someone’s door.