Frequently, I’ve heard from parents of a child I’m counseling, the child’s rendition of our session.
Parent: How was your session today?
Child: We played checkers. I beat him.
Parent: Did you do anything else?
Parent: Did you tell him about what happened at school yesterday?
I usually anticipate this type of interaction and explain to parents how careful they must be asking their children questions about counseling sessions, inadvertently inserting expectations, and not necessarily taking what’s said (by the child) as the whole story.
It’s hard for kids to report on counseling sessions, and in fact, it’s best not to expect them to. We want kids to feel free to say whatever is on their mind. This freedom is essential to explore thoughts, feelings, and life experiences. If the child has to report on their communication with me, it might influence what they actually say, inhibiting their deeper exploration. For example, if the child is asked directly by the parent about a particular topic and the child is not ready to discuss it, then what is the child to say? It’s a terrible dilemma for the child.
But this is hard for many parents. They really want to know what their child is saying because they’re worried. Of course I understand this and try to be sensitive to what parents are going through, too. I tell parents that we can talk about the important issues and I can give guidance based on my understanding of their child, but I can’t really tell them what the child literally says. Parents always understand this, but it’s still hard.
Playing checkers and other activities often gives kids a way to feel more at ease, which can facilitate talking about important matters. It’s also a way for us to get to know one another and helps build a relationship. And it’s fun, unless you always lose!
Although talking about meaningful issues is important, sometimes it hardly happens when working with kids. Sometimes we actually address the issues indirectly through play, metaphor, and just developing a meaningful relationship. Addressing problems through play and metaphor are more easily understood than addressing problems by developing a meaningful relationship. The latter can sound a little “out there.”
Relating to someone in an on-going meaningful way, someone who comes to understand you and cares about you, can have a powerful, positive influence. Sometimes I think of this type of experience as a type of mentoring. I give direction and am encouraging, helpful, understanding, and thoughtfully challenging. For some kids, this way of being with them is just what they need. If I talk to them too much about the problems that brought them to me, they will shut down and feel criticized regardless of how careful I am to avoid this happening.
Focusing on the quality and development of the relationship becomes the focus of counseling, which is naturally validating and can result in the child having more confidence, greater self-understanding, and an improved self-image. When I talk with parents and hear them describe their child as, for example, more flexible or confident it helps me (and them!) to know we’re on the right track.
Although this is rare, I have had some counseling relationships where I’ve never talked directly (other than in the initial meeting) with the child about the problem that brought them to me, yet they made solid gains in overcoming those obstacles and found greater inner strength. And in the spirit of transparency, I’ve second guessed myself under these circumstances and wondered if all I really was doing was playing checkers with a kid!
Counseling does not follow a cookbook approach. There is some movement within the profession to lean in that direction, however, which underplays the importance of the working relationship. I believe this is a dangerous shift where an essential ingredient in the helping process—the relationship—will get lost.