Lately I have been working with adolescents and children coming in with a variety of emotional challenges. Some might be exhibiting signs of self harm, others may have eating disorders, another may be displaying surprising escalations in anger or deep withdrawal or substance use. Parents are at a loss asking me with worried eyes "what is wrong with my child?
When we take some time to explore together what is happening in their family system, their school system, their social system (amongst the many systems these kids are embedded in) - there is ALOT going on around them.
Steve Biddolph describes the symptomatic behaviours in kids (that i so frequently see in my office) beautifully when he says "our kids are the corks that bob up and down on the waves of their parents."
I would expand this further to say they are the corks that bob up and down on the waves of the many systems they are embedded within. They may not only be feeling their own distress but the distress in the systems around them.
Now some of these kids have come from fairly run of the mill type families. They have good, solid, committed parents. Good providers for their kids practical needs. Attuned to their educational and physical health needs.
When we look closely though - when it comes to talking about feelings in some of these families - many parents are just as unsure as the children I am seeing.
When we become like curious scientists and without blame or shame, take an even deeper look still and look intergenerationally about how the parents' parents did or didn't show and discuss emotions there is so much revealed and so much to be learned.
The kids I am seeing are showing their feelings through their behaviour rather than speaking them with clear language. They are limited in their emotional literacy (there is a fancy word!) and maybe they are living in families that are also just as limited in their emotional literacy too.
When these kids come into counselling we are working not only at symptom reduction and harm minimization but working more importantly to build emotional literacy - to help give voice to their feelings and needs rather than act them out in harmful ways.
I also like to work at strengthening the relationships between family members to build the emotional capacity within the family system too so that everyone feels more resourced to support eachother.
I had one adult recently describe their family in this way "bloody hell whenever anyone had a feeling in my family, the rest of us left the room!" After we had a laugh about his evocative description I could see that same image reflected across many families that I see (indeed also in many couples that I work with too).
My yearning is to help families come in closer to each other when there is a big feeling in the room. To support parents to witness their children differently - See their children's big behaviours as big feelings being acted out. To come in close and be curious about what the feelings are, with time and patience to learn to ask the right questions and listen with an open heart for the answers even if they are sometimes hard to hear or understand.
I love this work of building connections for these kids so they understand their own feelings and then building connections within families so that they can develop a shared language to understand each other more deeply.
My clients often say to me "oh how do you do this work?" "Aren't you knackered at the end of the day?" "Isn't the talking all day tiring?" I always smile when I am asked this and I explain that I genuinely feel deeply honoured to do this work. I am paid for being in deep interpersonal, intimate human connection each hour, each day with each individual. I cannot think of a more meaningful, purposeful job that allows me to be so enriched by the experience of being human and so closely in dialogue about living. It sounds so idealistic that it seems almost cliche, but it is very much the truth of how I experience my work.
Recently I had the pleasure of working with a person on some early childhood trauma. We sat in dialogue about the wounding that their childhood self had suffered. We talked about what that "child inside" had needed to feel cared for and nourished back then and how they could, as an adult, provide some nurturing for their own vulnerable, wounded, child self. Much like an attentive parent paying close and loving attention to their child in need.
Over the weeks that followed it became clear a seed had been planted. I watched as this person began quite unconsciously to nourish themselves more deeply. Giving themselves the gift of paying close attention to what their wounded, child self felt and needed. Tracking the signs of when they needed rest, when they needed food, when they needed to cry and when they needed connection with others. Learning to say no when no was needed and setting boundaries when they felt useful.
As they did this - paying close, mindful attention to healing their own wounded child self, they then surprised themselves by finding new strength inside (that they hadnt felt for years) to then show up as the loving, attentive parent for their own real life children, who needed their attention and love in their time of need.
This adult client nourished their own wounded child self and in turn, by being the parent to their own wounded internal child, they were able to then show up as the parent they yearned to be for their own children in their adult life.
Parent nourishing child, leading to parent nourishing child.
It is in these moments of witnessing such deep internal and intergenerational healing that makes my work feel priceless, precious and breathtaking.
Witnessing life and the relationship we have with ourselves and others transforming before my eyes. It is a humbling and beautiful.
This morning my 6 year old and I were having breakfast and discussing a very emotional week that we had together. Our routine had been completely shifted around as we were supporting a dear family member who was having significant surgery. My 6 year old had his plan for his school holidays completely altered by this family event and as we landed back into the school term this week he had been expressing anger and being demanding in ways that were out of character for him. I had been feeling emotional and stressed about our family member and the cascade of changes to our schedule that I was trying to manage. My patience had been tested under the weight of my stress and worry.
Over breakfast we started chatting about how we were both feeling. I showed him a photo of an iceberg and we marveled at how beautiful it was and at the mysterious way that only part of the iceberg is seen on the surface yet a huge, larger portion of iceberg was underneath the water.
As we kept on eating I said to him "maybe our feelings are like icebergs. Our anger is like the part of the iceberg we see above the water yet underneath (inside us) we have lots of other feelings that other people can't see." I started then to explain that when I have got upset with him and been impatient, under the water I have been feeling stressed, tired, worried etc.
At that point breakfast came to a halt as my son gathered us both papers and pens. With breakfast almost done and despite the urgency of needing to get moving to start our day, this precious opportunity to connect and debrief after a challenging few days together was priceless. My very eloquent son drew himself an iceberg and gave me a piece of paper to draw mine. He then started to articulately name many of the feelings he had under his iceberg - drawing faces for each feeling and asking me for the spelling of words he wasn't sure about. I too drew up my iceberg and my feelings underneath it. We named sadness, disappointment, fear, confusion, anticipation, happiness., tiredness, stress, worry,.. lots of feelings in different measures.
We looked at each of our drawings and discussed each feeling. It was great to be able to unpack what more vulnerable feelings were underneath his angry feelings and my impatient tones. He was still thinking about what other feeling words he hadn't yet named while we were getting the last few things ready for the day.
He took his iceberg to school and said that he wanted to add feelings to it as he thought of them.
When we said goodbye as I dropped him at school we both felt good and loved and connected despite a difficult time we had shared.
This iceberg conversation can be profound. It is powerful and accessible whether its between a parent and child like us, or between family members and partners. Anger is always a secondary feeling and working out what's underneath and taking the time to talk about those "under the iceberg" feelings can make all the difference. It can change the conversation and build connection.
So I say that I am a Psychologist who “works with individuals, couples and families to strengthen their relationship with themselves and those they love” but why are relationships my focus?
Well when I really examine life in its barest form, as humans we are mammals – pack animals, tribal animals. We exist and thrive in healthy relationships. We don’t fare well without them.
When we are in healthy relationship with ourselves we are attuned to what our body, mind and spirit needs. What the hell does that mean?
Well, when we are in relationship with our own physical body, we actually notice the body signs that signal to us our basic human needs. We notice our hunger pangs, our yawns, our body sensations and pains and make healthy decisions to nurture ourselves with sleep, shelter and food (and whatever else – massage, warm baths etc) until we feel satiated and nurtured.
When we are in deep connection with our own emotional body we notice and acknowledge our own feelings and thoughts (whether it’s happiness, anger, excitement, fear, sadness, disgust or shock) and we give ourselves time and attention, self compassion and self care to feel supported through all these states and understand them. When we are in healthy relationship with ourselves, we allow the vulnerable parts to be there in the same way that an attentive parent may mindfully tune in and respond to a child in whatever discombobulated state they are in.
In doing so, we say to ourselves “I see my feelings, it’s ok that I feel that, and I’ll stay with this feeling until it passes OR What can I do to support myself to be with this feeling and nourish myself?”
When we are aware of and in connection with our spiritual needs (I use the term “spiritual” very loosely here to indicate the stuff of life that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning) similarly we work at becoming aware of our core values and living aligned with those values. This means seeking out and engaging ourselves with activities, people and places that fill us with a sense of meaning and purpose.
Mental (and physical) health issues can arise when we aren’t listening to or cannot tolerate what our physical, emotional or spiritual body is telling us.
This same formula extends to our relationships with others.
When it comes to being in relationship with others, conflict often arises between people when the relational needs aren’t being addressed or acknowledged. We may each have unmet needs and challenges with communicating those needs in productive ways. We may not have the “emotional literacy” to share our feelings and needs with ourselves let alone with someone else! We may not have a road map (from the family we were born into) that equips us with the tools for healthy connection and communication.
While that may well be the case, the fact is we live in relationship to others and the health of these relationships impact us immensely.
We are each connected to a network of people and together we form a finely balanced system.
The way the system operates can be illustrated clearly by just looking at how the parts of a hanging mobile over a baby's cot function. Each part of the mobile is connected to each other part even though they are individual elements in and of themselves. Similarly, each human is interconnected and influential in the lives of the others in the system even though we are distinct and separate identities.
When there is a change in one member, the whole system repositions itself around it. Similarly, when you bump or influence just one piece of a baby's hanging mobile, the whole mobile gets impacted and needs time to reset and rebalance around the movement of just one piece.
Every person is so intricately connected to others. No one exists in isolation. Every relationship is impactful - and changes in just one person, forces powerful shifts in the whole relational system of the people connected to them.
By definition, being in healthy, intimate, authentic relationship with oneself and those we are connected to really inspires wellness. It’s really where it all starts. This breeds more opportunity for wellness within our families and our communities.
This is why relationships are my focus. It is such potent and important work. I feel honoured to do it with you.