Encouraging communication

Talking with young children directly and openly about why they are seeing the therapist also indicates to parents that emotional matters can be talked about reflectively, rather than simply be reacted to. When young children come into a room with their parents in which there are toys, they are instinctively drawn to play with the toys, while their parents are left to talk with the therapist. However, by insisting that the child is part of the conversation from the outset however briefly, this sets the scene for a new way of communicating, talking and listening (Schmidt Neven, 2002).

For the second part of the second session, the child is alone with the therapist. Young children generally will avail themselves of the toys, drawing materials and doll’s house with a small doll family and furniture. It is of interest to the therapist to pay attention to the particular toys that the child enjoys playing with, their capacity for a fantasy life and imaginative play, or their inclination to be quickly bored. The connection with the parent in the waiting room is always present, sometimes in the form of anxiety when the child asks to see their parents if the separation cannot be tolerated. At times, children want to create something they can show their parents. Problematic relationships with either or both parents may be demonstrated through for example, the drawing of excessive love hearts which are then folded up and offered as a gift for the returning parent.

There are many examples of children who are enormously relieved to have the opportunity to speak to the therapist directly, and have so much to say about their predicament, that they ignore the toys and go straight into the conversation with the therapist to explain what is happening to them. For example, a boy of eight caught up in the aftermath of his parents’ acrimonious divorce, felt the enormous burden of the problem, and struggled to take an even-handed approach towards them. He described a situation all too typical of needing to switch off from hearing his father speak about his mother in an abusive manner. He informed the therapist that he could not allow his disappointment with his father to override his love for his father, but he feared that this might happen.

It has been stated earlier that we should be cautious about prematurely de-coupling adolescents and young people from their parents in an attempt to offer them an experience of independence. We may hypothesise that the problems adolescents bring are still so encapsulated within the family dynamic, so that wherever possible, attempts should be made to help the adolescent within the family context. Suicidal ideation, cutting, and other self-destructive impulses can be seen to represent an impasse for the young person, who feels that they have no other means of communication primarily with their parents. The causes may be complex, but maintaining the linkages with parents holds out hope that they, and their parents, can be helped to begin the process of opening up communication.

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