How and When Therapy Can Help Kids
At the beginning of my career, during my internship at one of the local hospitals, my youngest client, whose developmental milestones I was checking, was three months old. When I extended my hand toward her, she would grab onto my finger; this is known as the Palmar Grasp Reflex. I was so touched by the first time she held onto my finger with her strong grip, that I have emotionally marked the moment as the beginning of my work with children.
I have worked with infants, toddlers, preschoolers, grade-school children and teenagers. A lot of parents of grade-school children reach out for therapy when the school emphasises the need for intervention. Adult clients who have benefited from therapy are more open to addressing their children’s concerns, as they feel early intervention is crucial. However, as a culture, we are still warming up to the idea of seeking psychotherapy. When it comes to seeking therapy for children, many parents of my clients initially feel anxious and apprehensive. I imagine that feeling prevents many parents from seeking therapy for their child at all.
Yet therapy is an integral part of health care. The World Health Organization’s constitution states that “health is a complete state of physical, social and mental wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Often in therapy for children, the focus is on creating nurturing and positive environments where the child can thrive; many sessions involve an element of family counselling, along with the child. Another goal of therapy is to gently assist children challenged by bullying, low self-esteem and sibling rivalry. Here, the aim of therapy is to teach children life skills such as problem-solving, assertiveness and resilience.
Dr. Martin Seligman, in his book The Optimistic Child, states: “We aimed to teach children that thoughts are verifiable and changeable; that they do not need to believe the first thought that pops into their head.” Therapy builds on this and helps children develop a greater sense of control over their thought processes and moods. Dr. Seligman’s research provides evidence on how teaching optimism can safeguard children against depression. As parents, educators and therapists, we need to address children’s pessimistic notions and teach them alternative ways of thinking, feeling and behaving.
The fact is, most children benefit in therapy from being heard, understood and not judged.
Therapy can help children of all ages. Parents of toddlers often seek therapy for assessing developmental delays in speech or social skills. I have worked with preschoolers to overcome separation anxiety, poor eating habits, discipline, restlessness and short attention span. Grade-school children may seek therapy for help dealing with discrimination at school, general anxiety, low confidence, aggressive behaviour, mood swings, manifestation of physical illness (such as stomach aches during exams), and even learning disabilities. In the last couple of years, I have seen young children dealing with addiction to gadgets, obesity, body image issues and difficulty falling asleep.
Therapy for children can also help when they are dealing with major life changes – such as separation, divorce, bereavement, or chronic illness in the family – and traumatic events, such as abuse. For a time, I worked with a 7-year-old boy, who had was saddened by the loss of his beloved pet dog. His parents were worried as his appetite dropped and he became noticeably quieter. Within a few sessions, we were able to address the grief along with his helplessness about not being able to save the pet. After few more sessions, when we were reading a book about love and kindness, he expressed a desire to have another pet whom he could love. Therapy uses art, books, toys and humour to establish a bond with young children; these mediums become a safe place for children to vent their feelings.
Sometimes, parents need more counselling than children. One of my adult clients, with an extrovert personality, struggled to accept that her daughter was an introvert who enjoyed alone time. I had to counsel her to understand that introversion is a strength and not a vulnerability. With the best intentions, parents can become too controlling or too lenient, which in turn can impact the child’s emotional development. And parents who use their children as mediators in a dysfunctional relationship, could benefit from an objective, third-party confidante as much as their children, who likely feel emotionally torn.
One of my adult clients mentioned once that his childhood baggage has continued to haunt him for years. He said, “When I have my own children, I would choose to invest in counselling so that they can have better emotional health and be more satisfied with their life.”
We need to look at psychotherapy as a positive step in building a child’s emotional wellbeing.