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.