When your child needs counseling

Counseling can help children and parents reorient to the direction they want to go together

Manju Sapru

Even a decade ago, in India, taking a young child or adolescent for counseling would have been considered reason for high anxiety and embarrassment in their parents. Today, though meeting with a therapist has been normalised to a certain extent, it still is an understandably difficult space for most parents to comprehend and navigate.

As parents, teachers and adults, we realize that the social landscape and family environment have become more complex and challenging for our children, and that though children need protection and guidance, they also need exploration and freedom. How can we be supportive without taking away their strength? How can we be encouraging and yet teach them to respect their fears? Can we uphold the values of empathy and sensitivity while helping them demonstrate leadership and initiative? How do we help them be both expressive and self-contained in a world that pushes the limits of privacy, while blurring the boundaries that hold and contain?

Not being able to manage some of these conflicting needs can be bewildering and frustrating for both parents and children. This results in escalating levels of unhelpful behaviors on both sides, that can leave both parents and children feeling angry, anxious, tired and sad.

At such times, the counseling space can offer a safe refuge where both sides can slow down, take a breath and see what other choices there might be that could reorient them in the direction they want to go together.

The following is an example of how a young nuclear family can be helped to navigate the fairly typical ups and downs of modern living.

Six-year-old Shanti was referred for counseling because her mother was very worried about her. Shanti’s mother found out that Shanti had seen some sexually explicit adult videos with older cousins. She was highly anxious about her daughter’s behavior, which over the past two months seemed to have become more fearful and withdrawn in school, but more clingy towards her mother at home. Most conversations with the child ended up being about this ‘incident’, with the mother feeling guilty and worried and Shanti feeling she was a ‘bad girl.’

In first session, only the parents came in to share information and history regarding the child. Some pertinent information about the arrival of new baby sister was explored, as well as the father's and mother's involvement in both children’s lives. As counselors we know that when parents or guardians are involved directly in the therapeutic process with younger children, it is easier to facilitate more positive outcomes.and how that would be handled was explained to the parents, underlining the fact that Shanti would be the primary client and that anything that Shanti said would be shared with parents only if there were any serious concerns for direct physical or psychological safety.

Shanti herself was then brought in for sessions once a week for around 30-45 minutes. The story that emerged through play therapy and different activities, showed Shanti trying to cope with the loss of her mother’s attention and time because of the new baby’s arrival. At the same time, she was trying to manage conflicting feelings of love and jealousy for the younger sister, and saw herself as a ‘bad girl' because of the video incident. Now having a better idea of what changes could be helpful, sessions were set up once again with the parents.

After hearing the insights and suggestions, the parents were willing to then make a few changes in routines and interactions. With the father taking on more time with the new baby (which until now the mother was uncomfortable with) and the mother spending more time in free play with Shanti, rather than just engaging in homework and need-to-do tasks. A marked change for the better was noticed in Shanti’s behavior within a couple of weeks.

While this might seem like simple common sense in hindsight, just having a space for each family member to say what they needed, and express their feelings in a validating atmosphere, helped to bring in different patterns of positive behavior.

While working with younger children, it is usually helpful to involve the family members as can be seen from the above example, while a slightly different approach would be taken with an adolescent.       

When 15-year-old Abhishek came in for counseling, I met with him first, to understand what his perspective and need was. As a teenager, Abhishek was already developmentally at a place where he was able to respond more positively to an interaction where his individuality was acknowledged. The parents were met with after this to get their viewpoints and concerns as well.especially was emphasized, with Abhishek being reassured that his privacy would be respected.

In this case, while parents were worried about his falling grades, lack of concentration and refusal to go to school, Abhishek was in emotional distress because of the break-up of his first ever romance. Finding a space to talk about all the newer and vulnerable softer feelings, as well as being able to express his anger and sense of frustration, led to a space where a more problem-solving approach could be explored and skills of communication, emotional management and relaxation could be taught.

Here, helping the adolescent client more directly while keeping parents minimally involved helped Abhishek feel more independent and self-reliant. These are developmentally appropriate goals for an adolescent.

In today’s world with its fast-paced changes in all aspects of life, having a counseling space that can provide an objective, non-judgmental and accepting atmosphere for both parents and their children is invaluable. Parents should not hesitate in accessing this resource, when the challenges of parenting threaten the very family structure they are doing their best to protect.

(The vignettes presented here have been used for the purpose of illustration and do not represent actual clients.)

Manju Sapru is a counselor with PARIVARTHAN Counselling, Training and Research Centre, Bangalore.