When adults have anxiety, trauma or grief, talking about it to another person helps to process active and painful emotions and allow them to be filed in memory. Sometimes children, and especially young children, are not able to talk about what is troubling them, either because it is too painful, or simply because they do not have the maturity to untangle and articulate their emotions. When we cannot express our emotions verbally we express them in our behaviours.
Children's natural way of expressing themselves, and processing life's events and challenges is through play, drawing or painting, or imaginative story telling. Being able to express difficult feelings to a sensitive, empathic adult can bring great relief and enables the child to assimilate and resolve issues and difficult past events. Being able to express complex, deeply held feelings and have those feelings acknowledged means that the feelings lose much of their negative power.
Some children and young people are very much able to express themselves verbally and, as with adult counselling, talking things through with a counsellor, and having the opportunity to share things and perhaps see them from a different perspective, can be hugely helpful. For other young people using art work and play is a more comfortable route to self expression, and can be a way of finding the vocabulary of our inner world.
Issues that young clients bring to counselling are many and varied. Presenting "symptoms" may be difficulty sleeping, difficult behaviour at home or at school, anger, school refusal, self harm or suicidal ideation, and a whole range of behaviours relating to anxiety. Situational difficulties range from parental separation, loss and bereavement, bullying, early trauma, and for adolescents, exam pressure, body image, and anxiety around life choices and transitions.
I have worked extensively with children in care, either during and around transition from birth family to foster care, or foster care into adoptive families. This kind of work often involves working with deeply traumatised children and young people who have a very poor sense of self worth or self belief. I have trained and worked with The Place2Be, counselling children in primary school in London. I am School Counsellor in two schools in Brighton and Hove, and at an Alternative Provision College (primary and secondary aged young people excluded from mainstream school) in West Sussex. I see children and young people for counselling with the Brighton and Hove Community Wellbeing Service (NHS). I am a member of the BACP 'Children and Young People Division'.
I offer a free telephone assessment with parents who are considering counselling for their child. I invite parents/carers to join their child or adolescent for part, or all of their first counselling session if that is the young person's wish. The counselling session is a special 'private' space for the child or young person, and I make it clear to them that counselling is a confidential space. It is important that I get a sense of the child's world from their perspective, and that a trusting relationship can develop so that the child or young person feels able to express themselves freely.
I am available for discussion with parents and would always contact them if something comes up in the counselling sessions that I feel they have a right or a need to know. I make it clear to children and young people that I would need to break confidentiality if I have a serious concern for their health or safety. Parents and carers may join in with sessions at any point during the course of therapy if that seems appropriate or helpful, and this is something that can be discussed with the child, young person and parents or carers.
I have an up-to-date CRB certificate. I have a 'Child Safeguarding Policy' and 'Child Protection Policy' for my private practice.
In my practice I draw on the PACE therapeutic approach to counselling children and young people, developed by the clinical psychologist Daniel A. Hughes. Hughes has spent most of his career working with therapists and professionals, as well as parents, who care for and support the most vulnerable children in society.
PACE offers four essential qualities of relationship that strengthen children’s sense of self, resilience, positivity and self-belief, and the ability to regulate emotions:
Playfulness: Reciprocal enjoyment helps children to regulate positive affective states. Children who have experienced trauma, however small, or serious, can have difficulty managing emotional states, can plunge into despair, or have difficulty managing the arousal that accompanies fun and laughter. Taking turns, winning or losing in a game, in the safe and boundaried environment of the therapy room convey a sense of positivity, and hope for the future.
Acceptance: Acceptance creates psychological safety. The focus is on acceptance of internal experience – the thoughts, wishes, beliefs, desires and hopes that we each carry inside ourselves. In accepting the internal experience of another we are communicating our understanding of this experience (or at least our desire to understand as best we can), that we are comfortable in knowing it and that we are not going to disregard or challenge it. We may not tolerate certain behaviours (and in the therapy room there are clear boundaries) but we will accept the experience underneath the behaviour. Behaviour is evaluated, the child is not.
Curiosity: When we curiously explore within a relationship we express an interest in the other, and a desire to know them more deeply. Curiosity and acceptance are closely linked. When we direct non-judgemental curiosity towards the experience of a child, the child is likely to become responsive to understanding their own experience of self. The child experiences with another, rather than alone. This strengthens their sense of self.
Empathy: Empathy communicates our acceptance and our curiosity. We try to "stand in the other’s shoes" and recognise and respond to their emotional experience. With the experience of empathy, a child is more able to experience an adult companion (therapist or parent) as being with them, as they explore current and past experiences – experiences which might be positive, or the more challenging experiences of trauma and shame.
Many of these ideas are explored further in ‘Creating Loving Attachments’, by Daniel A. Hughes (2012).