Blog

An Invitation to the Counsellors Cafe

May 21, 2017

I feel very privileged to do the work that I do, working therapeutically with children of all ages and their families has gifted me a valuable opportunity to adapt and develop my skills as a practitioner. Person centred core conditions[1] will always be central to my practice but over the years I have integrated family therapy and developmental psychology theory alongside play, art and narrative therapy techniques.
Through my training I have come to view the family as a whole multi generational system, a family system in which every member plays it’s part in how that family has learned to ‘work’ together and raise children. I see my role within the system as being there to nurture, guide and educate, the child, the parents, and ultimately the family and their wider community.

Dr Patricia Crittenden[2], is a Developmental Psychopathologist currently working in the USA. She is a leading writer in this field and professionally respected for her book Raising Parents. In it she states;
'Supporting-cherishing-parents is central to caring for their children. Doing so makes emotional sense, functional sense, and economic sense; parents are the only resource that is never cut back. Moreover they are the architects of society; let’s value all parents and assist those who need help.'

This ethos is at the heart of our work at Acorn Families, along with the belief that the child’s ability to thrive or struggle is rooted in relationships, particularly those of its significant attachment figures, as both Bowlby[3]Ainsworth[4] and many others since describe.

Why are feelings important?

All feelings are important to us, even the difficult ones; they are part of nature’s natural warning system. Think of a crying baby being able to let you know they are hungry, tired, thirsty, cold, hot, bored etc. But as adults, we sometimes lose sight of this and often finding feelings difficult to understand, becoming fearful and uncertain of how to respond.

Darwin[5] was the first to document studies of innate human facial expressions of emotion. He believed that expressions were unlearned and were therefore evolutionarily significant for survival. Darwin obtained evidence of this through his research on different cultures and species and on infants.

In later studies, Ekman[6] found that people shared many similar facial expressions despite never having met previously before. He was therefore successfully able to confirm Darwin’s initial hypothesis that expressions were indeed unlearned behaviors that develop independently from cultured expressions. He claimed the number of commonly-observed emotions to be the six ‘core’ expressions of anger, fear, surprise, disgust, happiness and sadness. In all cultures studied so far, adults understand these facial expressions as having the same core meaning.

Infants and toddlers are quite good at discriminating and understanding the core emotions; even a 2 year old can recognise happy and sad feelings. Beyond this basic understanding the child must then slowly learn all the cultural connections and links between emotions and acceptable behaviour, the scripts that govern the appropriate expression of emotion in their family and culture. No small task. What is remarkable is just how much of this information the preschooler already comprehends and reflects in his/her own behaviour[7].

When I work with children in a safe environment, I have found that they are often able to identify their feelings and express what is bothering them, when using the chart below as an aid. I call emotions ‘Big’ feelings, which children can easily relate to. I sometimes ask them simple questions to help establish what the feeling might be and why they think it’s happening, giving the child an opportunity to share their story.

Big Feelings

Big Feelings

Why is Playing Important to Children?

Piaget[8] was the first to show us the importance of independent play with objects for child development. Whilst Vygotsky[9] argued that cognitive development is dependant on social interactions with both adults and other children. Both in fact are key to the development of good mental health in childhood, helping the child learn about others feelings and reactions, experiences that are necessary for the child’s emerging theory of mind.

As the child grows outwardly in size, their theory of mind grows inside. We know that by the age of 4 the child’s emotional vocabulary has expanded enough that they can recognise facial expressions and situations that convey their basic emotions. They begin to understand the links between other people’s emotions, and learn to regulate or moderate their own expression of emotion[10]. Part of this process is impulse control, sometimes called inhibitory control – the growing ability to inhibit a response, to shout rather than hit, to wait rather than cry etc. When a child is upset, it is the parents/carers who help to regulate that emotion by cuddling, soothing or removing them from the upsetting situation. The 2 year old is only minimally able to moderate feelings or behaviour in this way, but by the age of 6 most children have made great strides in controlling the intensity of their expression and don’t then automatically hit out when they are angry, cry when they are sad or sulk when they are denied[11]. But what if something goes wrong? What if problems arrive for the child and/or its family during this crucial developmental stage?

Learning About Emotions Through Stories

Narrative therapy shows us that as humans we have also evolved as a species to use mental narratives to organise, predict, and understand the complexities of our lived experiences. Our Choices are shaped largely by the meanings we attribute to events and to the options we are considering. A problem may have personal, psychological, sociocultural, or biological roots-or, more likely a complex mix of all the above. Children and their families may not have control over whether a certain problem is in their lives.

Therefore, in order to help children talk through such problems a technique called ‘externalisation’ is often used. Externalising conversations help the child to separate the person from the problem, which in turn relieves the pressure of blame and defensiveness. Then instead of being defined as a problem, a child can now have a relationship with the externalised problem. Leading theorists in family therapy advocate the use of ‘playful approaches to serious problems.[12]’ Using play therapy techniques can work really well here, for example puppets, art, sand trays, stories etc., to help the child express their feelings.

So children are born with an innate ability to adapt and survive in their environment. Helping the child express themselves and their problems playfully and safely is key to their development. Adults being aware that ignoring or supressing feelings/problems can result in children becoming fearful or trauma memories becoming stuck, is where we start.

So with this knowledge in mind I am always searching for new ways to help children, and families, identify, express and manage their feelings through creativity and stories. This is where the idea for my storybook series begins.

Drawing on this knowledge and experience I have developed a series of picture books as a tool to help children everywhere to learn about, and deal with, their feelings. Each book also includes professional guidance notes for parents, carers and teachers to help them talk to children safely about their feelings.

All children, in every walk of life, will struggle with their feelings from time to time. Modern family life is complex and it could be argued that children have to deal with more emotional pressures than ever before and many parents, carers, teachers etc. struggle to know how to effectively deal with them to. My books have been written to help people identify and express feelings safely and playfully through stories.

'Finding Your Way' Series of Children’s Picture Books

The series is called 'Finding Your Way' where we are introduced to characters struggling to understand their emotions. They each journey through 'Lifeland' – a magical place where the six BIG feelings of sadness, fear, happiness, anger, disgust and surprise are waiting to be explored. Helping them along their way are friends and confidants and so the magical adventure begins, brought to life by fantastic illustration by Katy Boys.

  • The Sad Skeleton
  • The Frightened Fairie
  • The Happy Hob-Goblin
  • The Angry Alien
  • The Surprised Sprite
  • The Disgusted Dragon