Young children do not have the same verbal ability as adults to express themselves. It is important for everyone - adults and children - to express what is happening in their inner world in order to connect to the outside world and thrive. To learn more about therapy with children, click here.
With children, it is important to find alternative ways for them to express themselves.
First and foremost, what is important is to ensure that you are in a position to receive whatever it is they need to express, and that you are in a position to support them. It is important that we take care of our own mental well-being in order to support the emotional well-being of others.
So, how can we help children to express themselves?
1. Let them know it is okay
A lot of the time we are in such a rush that we accidentally don't leave time to express ourselves, let alone allow our children to express ourselves.
Picture it now; you're in the queue at the supermarket, a trolley full of food being loaded onto the conveyor belt, and your child starts crying for no apparent reason. "shh, shh, it's okay, don't cry" we try to placate them. It's easily done, and we are all guilty of it.
A lot of the time, children end up becoming used to this and eventually learn to placate themselves. Soon they stop crying altogether, and further along the line they may actually loose touch with their emotions altogether.
Do NOT feel guilty for this. What are you meant to do in the supermarket queue, sit down and have an in-depth conversation with your toddler about what has upset them? I can imagine you would feel the wrath of all of the busy customers in the queue behind you.
Subtle and small changes in language is all it takes. rather than "don't cry" try "It's okay". It's a very subtle shift, but it lets your child know that it is okay to cry, it is okay to express emotion. Carry on with your task and then when you are at a place where you can focus your attention fully on your child, perhaps when you're strapping them into the car or walking home. This is the time to try to get to the bottom of why they are crying.
Modelling behaviour is one of the most powerful ways that children learn. Children are like sponges, this is something that we always hear. This is why mums and dads stop swearing before their child can even talk, it's why parents refer to each other as 'mummy' and 'daddy' before their baby can even open their eyes. We know that our children's brains are busily soaking up everything around them.
So, why don't we try modelling expressing ourselves in front of our kids. Now, I'm not saying that we should tell our kids everything, but there are opportune moments where we can express to our kids how we feel - showing them that it is safe to do so.
For example, your child is refusing to put their toys away. Rather than getting angry and shouting or burying our annoyance and just leaving the mess or tidying up ourselves, try sitting down with them - getting down to their level - and calmly saying something like 'you know, it makes me feel upset that your toys are all over the room'. Something like this is perfect because it is not overly heavy and the consequences of the conversation are minimal.
Another example would be something like 'it really makes me feel happy when we can play together like this.'
Sometimes asking kids how they feel can be a bit bewildering for them - they might not have the language yet to express that - but if we model for them how we express our own emotions, in small and safe ways, they may start to express themselves in this way as well.
Painting, drawing, play-doh, clay, colouring in, anything... any form of art is a brilliant way of allowing your child to express themselves. I cannot tell you the amount of children who have told me that they are not allowed paints or even felt tip pens at home because it's too messy.
It is difficult because we want to protect our kitchen tables - and floors, walls, even ceilings - from the onslaught of paint that might ensue, however, the freedom of artwork can help your children to express themselves in such powerful ways. Perhaps you can find a way of protecting your furniture and floors using dust-sheets, old table clothes, and so on. Or perhaps you can find a local class or group that your child can join in order to free their inner Picasso.
Making artwork can feed our children's imagination, fuel their self-esteem, and show them how mistakes can turn into beautiful pieces of work. Imagine this, a 9-year old girl who is the epitome if the 'good child' - her star chart if full, her parents are always proud of her, and she never gets into trouble at school. So now - she is absolutely and utterly terrified of making a mistake - what would happen? She's never experienced this before.
In the process of painting a carefully calculated picture, this girl makes a mistake and is about to scrunch up the paper and throw it away. Instead, she folds it in half, smooshes it together, and peels it open. "Wow! What beautiful colours!" She is now left with the knowledge that sometimes a mistake isn't scary - sometimes it can become something beautiful.
Children play all of the time - it is their natural instinct. And we can learn a lot about our children in the way that they play. There are often themes in how our children play - goodies vs baddies, naughty children, playing families, and so on. Does any of that relate to things that are happening around the child.
When we play with our children, it can be very easy to fall into leading the play, to try to use the play to teach our children something new, but what can be so important is to allow our children to just be - for the play to be completely pointless, completely lead by the child. It's important that we don't hurry our children along, and that we allow our children the time to just be children.
As always, if you would like to book an initial counselling session with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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