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Author: Yael Clark

What goes on in the therapy room?

What goes on in the therapy room?

Here are some examples of the therapeutic work I do with children.

The movie Inside Out provides great clips for exploring the usefulness of emotion and the importance of helping our emotions to work together as a team. (Worksheets are for ages 8 and up.)

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Maker:S,Date:2017-10-19,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-ve

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Learning and expression through play helps the younger children develop trust and find their voice.  Sometimes the play is related to the referral concerns, other times it is a way to connect and settle, to learn while having fun. Parents and I chat calmly and kindly about the child’s needs as we play and create. During grown up talking time, my conversation is designed to be overheard by little ears so they can feel validated and supported.

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All ages love to tell their story through sand play. This child told a story about two pirates who were brothers. One pirate stole his brother’s treasure and buried it under the bridge. The queen watching from her castle is sad. In the end, the pirate who stole, returned the treasure and his brother shared it out between them. Yes, this child was working through issues of sibling rivalry!

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My child-friendly take on the Stress-Vulnerability Model of Mental Illness: The sunshine balloons represent protective factors (that enhance wellbeing) and the raindrop balloons represent risk factors (that can create difficulties).  Just as we need rain, we also need adversity to grow. But we need to keep the rain bucket from overflowing by getting out into the sunshine to dry up the rain!

(Blue balloons- “hurt body”, “out of routine”, “hurt feelings”, “tired”, “sick”, “lonely”.  Yellow balloons- “sunshine”, “friends”, “sleep”, “healthy food”, “play”, “love”)

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Maker:S,Date:2017-10-19,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-ve

Victoria’s Wild Weather and Anxious Children

Victoria’s Wild Weather and Anxious Children

There have been some worried children around Victoria lately. Fear of rain and storms is a common source of childhood anxiety. Their fear is real; they don’t have an adult understanding of Emergency Services, safety plans, government warnings that keep us safe, or of geography in general. My 8 year old is worried there will be a tzunami!
BEFORE you rush in with logic and explanations, make sure you’ve respected their fear and communicated understanding and acceptance. “Yes, it can be pretty scary seeing these photos of floods in the news. It sounds like you’re worried. ” Allow your child to hear you speak to others with calming facts. Saying it directly to your child when they’re highly anxious or don’t feel like their worry has been validated, will be taken as a lecture and a dismissal of their fears. Hearing it indirectly allows them to hear the facts without feeling confronted.
If your child is open to it, make a coping plan with them. You could make a list of things to do when the storm hits. You could make a basket or box of activities and soothing objects.
The news loves sensationalism and children don’t know what is historical or distant, and what is current or local. The photo doing the rounds of Elizabeth St under water in 1972 is pretty scary! But we are – for the most part – safe. If you yourself are worried, you can role model soothing your fears (not too much wine!). Focus on comforting activities and on stories of coping and helping (e.g., State Emergency Services heroes).

P.S. Remember your pets’ fears too! Our Maggie sometimes needs half a sedative as storms set off her epilepsy.

Melbourne’s grief: how to help your children (and yourself)

Melbourne’s grief: how to help your children (and yourself)

There is a lot of information to help parents and schools support children through the death of a friend and through the trauma of a city in mourning. I have noticed, however, that there seems to be no mention of ACTIONS to reconnect children to what is meaningful and hopeful. We all, adults and children alike, need to express our worries; be comforted; and maintain good health practices. We will also be helped by DOING something that connects us to the tragedy in a loving and values-driven manner.
*Write and colour a card for the family,
*Give charity in the name of the lost friend, (offer services to the community for a price and donate the money)
*Spend the day as a family, consciously appreciating each other and your blessings,
*Make a photo album of the lost friend and record good times,
*Bake, cook, and help out the bereaved families,
*Engage in social activism and social justice programs,
Ask yourselves WHY are you shaken and grieving so? The answer is your clue to what you need to do to cope. For example, if the answer to why, is “because I am going to miss her so much”, make an album, plan ways to keep her memory in your life. If the answer is, “because this has rattled my security”, then connect to what helps you feel safe and truly appreciate your time with loved ones. If the answer is, “because our laws about bail and police pursuit are failing us”, write to the newspaper, contact your local MP etc.
Cuddles are vital; expression is fundamental; and ACTION is the way through and forward- tiny steps at a time.

Parents- use your words!

Parents- use your words!

Language: two-year olds don’t have enough of it and can become terribly frustrated when they can’t communicate their needs.  I’m sure you have heard parents tell their little ones, “Use your words”. Perhaps you have said it yourself. It makes sense to coach our children to communicate clearly; they’ll get their needs met more easily and we won’t have to play guessing games that make us want to pull our hair out!

But…

Using words is more important than simply communicating needs. Using words organises our feelings. Words make sense of our world. As children’s vocabulary grows they become more able to manage their emotions. This is directly because of language. To quote a long ago lecturer, “Language is the digestive juice of the mind.” If we don’t express an experience in words (even in our own thoughts) then we don’t process the experience, we don’t make meaning of it or learn from it.  The importance of this is clear in the context of my work providing “Talk Therapy”. Perhaps it is less clear how this applies to parenting.

Three approaches that fundamentally underpin my work are that of Thomas Gordon (Parent Effectiveness Training); Adele Faber and Eileen Mazlish (How to Talk so Kids will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk); and that of Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell (www.circleofsecurity.net). These approaches teach parents to connect with their children by using language. Gordon calls this skill “active listening”. The more recent work of Dan Siegel (The Whole Brain Child) shares the findings of neuropsychology (e.g., using brain imaging) to explain how using words to express what a child has experienced- using words that describe both the facts and the feelings- assists a child to integrate the functions of their  brain and regulate their emotions.

Little Sammi came into my rooms with her mother and father. As she entered, she tripped and knocked her knee on the coffee table. “Ouch!” I exclaimed. Sammi’s face showed shock and pain. “She’s fine.” said dad.  “That didn’t hurt, did it?” chided mum smilingly. Sammi’s eyes darted up to her father and she clung to her mother. She looked unsure and ready to cry. I tried again: “That table corner is sharp and hard. Sammi didn’t see it and it hurt. Maybe a cuddle will help Sammi feel better and then she can choose which toys she wants to play with. I have lots of toys.” Mum and dad were quick learners and it didn’t take them long to learn that Sammi needed to have her experience articulated (expressed in words) and her feeling (pain) acknowledged so that she could understand what had happened, process it, and then move on to something happier (the toys). When Sammi’s experience was denied (with the best of intentions), she struggled to reconcile her parents’ message (you’re not hurt) with her inner experience (that hurt!), she got stuck in the conflict between these two messages. The words being used did not match her experience. She was alone in trying to process the hurt.

Like many of us, Sammi’s parents had learned that children need to learn to brush off their hurt and be tough to survive in a tough world. Indeed it is logical to think that paying attention to Sammi’s little accident might provide reinforcement for attention seeking behaviours. Without getting into the psychology of why this logic does not hold true and is not helpful, I can assure you that this is not the case. Try acknowledging things from your child’s point of view for a while and see for yourself. Read Dan Siegel’s work (No Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child).

Between that first session and the second, Sammi’s parents took many opportunities to use active listening and to recount Sammi’s experiences from Sammi’s point of view.  They found that instead of becoming a “sook” when her pain was validated, she actually recovered faster. They saw first-hand that the commentary on their daughter’s experience seemed to settle her and increase her resilience. Sammi bounced back more easily when her parents stopped denying her feelings, her reality.

Sammi’s parents had learned to use their words!

Executive Function Difficulties and Finding Dory

Executive Function Difficulties and Finding Dory

Have you taken your children to see Finding Dory? This movie could be helpful for children with executive function difficulties. Dory has memory difficulties yet , as Marlin discovers, she has developed excellent compensatory skills that enable her to meet her many challenges. Dory’s self esteem is saved when Marlin and Nemo learn to celebrate her unique approach: “What would Dory do?” becomes their strategy!

The movie also emphasises the importance of belonging and being connected to your family history in order to develop a strong sense of self, but I’ll leave that theme for another time.

Here is an opportunity to have some great family chats in the car or over hot chocolate after the movie! I’d love to hear your thoughts on the movie…

Image result for finding dory image

Yoga and mediatation for children

Yoga and mediatation for children

Sometimes I think the single most important recommendation I give to my client families -after emphasising parent-child attachment- is to get yourself and your kids meditating, doing yoga, practising calm-breathing. I promise you, most of the other recommendations I give, can only be followed through on when you are calm and regulated. Without a settled nervous system, the rest is just theory that is too hard to put into practice when it matters most. …..aaaaand exhale 🙂

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-18/mindfulness-relaxation-trial-records-overwhelming-benefits/7039114

Students lie on the floor with their eyes closed

Body Image and Your Young Child

Body Image and Your Young Child

I dream of a community in which we could raise our children surrounded by body positivity such as this! Healthy body image is like developing herd immunity with vaccinations: it only takes a few negative body messages to undo the good work at home or school. We need to develop a herd immunuty effect for healthy body image (and child safety- but that’s another topic).

https://www.romper.com/p/9-body-positive-terms-you-need-to-…

Connect to Calm

Connect to Calm

Remember: connect to calm. Calming down from a state of heightened emotion is not a rational, reasoned choice that anyone swtiches on because they’ve been told to; it is the natural by-product of being held, understood, and given safe shelter. Calm is the result of the pause

Parenting Panic? Remember to Press Pause. (9/12/15)

Parenting Panic? Remember to Press Pause. (9/12/15)

I recently used my Facebook page as a platform to ask parents what they do when their children’s behaviour gets too much to handle. Every response identified the need for the parent to calm themselves before dealing with the child’s behaviour. Strategies to do this varied greatly but the understanding was universal: a “break” of some sort is essential.

We have all heard or been told to calm down when we’re angry; to count to ten; to build a bridge, move on …etc. Usually this is said when the angry person is right at the peak of his or her emotion, far beyond the reach of logic or reason and most likely feeling very disconnected from others, alone in their anger. And as most of us can attest, this advice is usually not very well received. In fact, it often escalates the anger and aloneness: “Don’t tell me to calm down! You don’t understand!”

So we have a dilemma. The calm down advice is universal. But most of us don’t want to hear it when we need it. Some of us want to take it if we ourselves initiate it (and aren’t ordered by others)…but how? Why do we hate hearing it when we know it to be good advice? Why is it so difficult to do even when we want to? And lastly, how do we help our children to calm down, to adopt this skill we ourselves struggle with?

Imagine you are overcome with anger. Your body is tense, hot, maybe shaky. Words about injustice, unfairness, betrayal are screaming at you from inside your head. “I deserve better than this!” Memories of past betrayals and injustices leap up unbidden from your past. Fear of future mistreatment urges you on to stamp it out NOW and ensure it never happens again. Physical urges- to run away, to stamp your feet, to hit- are coursing through your feet and hands.

There is no way that in this state, a parent can tune in to their child’s needs and respond to the specific situation at hand. No, in this state we parents are reacting (not responding) to past events, the threat of future events, and judgments of the present moment. We are not present. We are not choosing our parenting strategies consciously.

Enter the need to settle ourselves, ground/centre/anchor; there are many terms for what I call the pause.

I have a pause button on my fridge at home. A simple printed pause button icon laminated with a magnetic strip on the back. It’s for me as much as for the children. It’s a visual cue to settle myself before I try to deal with my children’s needs.

In sessions with clients I provide information about basic neuropsychology and the effect of heightened emotion on rational thought. You can get the gist of this by clicking on this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gm9CIJ74Oxw

Dan Siegel calls it a time out. I call it a pause. I prefer pause because time out has connotations of sending someone away, disconnecting. For some people being alone is exactly what’s needed- a chance to centre in one oneself and settle- for others, isolation at the time of emotional distress is experienced as rejection or abandonment.

I’m not overstating it when I say that learning how to settle ourselves is THE key skill for parenting. No matter how many parenting articles we have read, courses we have taken, or experts we consult, none of our theory will be put into practice at times of anger (frustration, exhaustion, loneliness etc.) unless we are calm enough to access that part of our brain that houses our knowledge, beliefs, and skill. We’ve all had the experience of looking back on an incident with regret, knowing that it could have been handled better, that we actually DID have the skills but didn’t use them.

So how do we press pause? How do we unhook from the overwhelming thoughts, memories, sensations, images, and urges that block our access to tuning in to our children and to using our parenting skills? And then how do we help our children to pause, without unhelpfully ordering them to calm down?

In brief:

1. We are hard-wired to seek connection when we are faced with difficult emotions. Some of us have learned to over-ride this instinct because the need was never adequately met but our children need it and if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable with someone we trust, we adults need it too. Having someone validate you, accept you, and not talk you out of your anger when you’re in the midst of it, is one of the most sure-fire ways to press pause helpfully. We need this. Our children need it.

2. Use your five senses to get present. Notice what you can see, smell, touch, taste, or hear. This will ground you and help you reconnect your frontal cortex and limbic system (as explained in the YouTube link above). If you are able, invite your child to do this with you. Make a kit of sensory toys that can be used at this time- by you or your child IF your child understands and wants to, not as a tool to distract or silence your child; they’ll resist that.

One of the reasons we don’t like it when someone tells us to calm down or count to ten is because we fear our concerns will never be heard. Therefore, help your child (and yourself) understand that a pause button is not a stop button or a change the channel button. After the pause you will press play and get back to the issue at hand, but from a calmer place.

3. Know your parenting values. What do you want to role model? What do you want your children to learn? What sort of people do you want them to be? If you have a clear understanding of this then you can choose to act by these values once you are calm, even if every single parenting skill you ever read has completely flown out of your head.

Calm does not mean happy. It does not mean you’ve moved on. It means that you are ready and able to address your needs and your child’s needs in a tuned-in-to-the-moment manner. And that’s what your child wants from you: to be seen and heard and parented fairly.

The next incident might sound like this:
“I’ve had my pause kids. I feel calmer. You’re still in trouble because you weren’t allowed to do that. But now I can help you with what you really needed.”

or this:
“I’m here with you. I see how furious you are. I’ll stay with you. Let’s do some belly breathing and then work out how to help you.”

You’ll work out what feels comfortable for you and your family.

Just remember to pause.

Paris 13/11/15

Paris 13/11/15

Be conscious of what your children are exposed to over the coming days on tv, the internet, and newspapers. We adults can’t get our heads around what has happened in Paris; our children certainly can’t. It’s a big world growing ever smaller. To children it is smaller still – Paris could be the next suburb for all they know. Protect them. Look after yourself too. Look for goodness and kindness.

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