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.