Therapy for school aged children

I run a specialist guidance and mentoring support service as well as providing short and long term therapeutic support and counselling to school aged children and to their parents and carers who are seeking to accurately interpret their child’s behaviour.

In this article I pay respects to some of the young people I have met who seem to able to carry on even in the face of insurmountable odds.

Sometimes in the face of overwhelmingly difficult obstacles, children seem to smile and rise about their adversities. Perhaps we think it means these children have not been impacted too badly by what they have been exposed to, but perhaps a cheerful smile does not mean that a child feels safe and cared for, rather it might mean that something else, something completely opposite to how it seems.

These apparently false positive representations might disguise an anxiety. These smiles might well be used as a safety net to signal to parents and carers, “I’m fine, no cause for alarm, I won’t be a problem to you and nor will I give you reason to worry or even to tell me off.”

A child may assume this position of presenting false contentment when a parent or caregiver is, for example, absent physically or emotionally because they (the adult) have confusing and worrying relationships with other adults causing their child to worry for them.

Further, a young person may present as happy if they are fearful of unpredictable parental mood swings and behaviour. In this case a child who smiles and achieves is doing their best to ensure that they give their parent no cause to be angry with them.

How does a parent, teacher or therapist work with a young person who presents with acceptable, “good” behaviour in the face of all the odds?

The first step is to realise that this presentation comes from a deep seated need to remain safe and secure. Direct approaches such as, “I know how stressful things must be for you, why don’t you tell me about it?” might seem helpful and the right thing to do, but it may well frighten an already anxious child because they may imagine that you intend to speak to the person you believe is causing them difficulties.

Imagine being in their position. Imagine you felt as if you were far out to sea in dangerous waters with only a leaky life boat safety. Imagine if you felt someone was trying to get you out of that life boat, “for your own good”. You would presume them dangerous to you and you would probably want to shut them out.

The first step in working with a young person who displays false positive emotions is:

  • show, by your actions rather than your words, that you are safe, reliable and dependable, it might take a long time them to feel safe enough to speak to you about anything and they may never have the kind of conversation with you that you might consider valuable.
  • Take an interest in their life, be respectfully inquisitive, not about life at home or the place that you believe is causing the problems, but about something less threatening. Perhaps they might show you a piece of art work or literary work, you could examine their use of colour, characters or plot. 
  • Maybe you could comment on how they made it to school in the rain.
  • Freestyle, be yourself and be careful, try not to go digging for information at first, you will be seen to be doing so!

The second step is to look into the work of Dan Hughes and his team, with his PACE approach he provides an understandable road map to understanding how to help young people feel safe.

www.danielhughes.org/P.A.C.E. If your curiosity has been raised by reading my article today and you would like to find out how counselling and therapy can help you or someone you love then please get in touch with me, I would be happy to explain a little bit more about my services and how therapy can help in the short and longer term.