“When I Feel Sad,” by Cornelia Maude Spelman, is a great book that I frequently recommend to parents. It’s a book for children, ages 2-9 or so… There are only a few words on each page, and the book starts with descriptions of times that kids feel sad:
“Sometimes I feel sad. I feel sad when someone won’t let me play.”
After several pages of examples of age-appropriate sad situations for kids, the main character (a guinea pig) describes what sad feels like. It’s a wonderful explanation for a child:
“Sad is a cloudy, tired feeling. Nothing seems fun when I feel sad.”
Then main character talks to a loved one, which starts her on the road to feeling better.
“When I feel sad, there are ways to feel better. I can tell someone I’m sad.”
She plays with friends, feels even better, and the book closes with:
“The sad feeling goes away and I feel good again. When I’m sad, I know I won’t stay sad!”
While the plot isn’t quite as entertaining as “Knuffle Bunny” or “Where the Wild Things Are,” it’s still an excellent book to have on any child’s shelf. Teaching our children about emotions is a very important gift we can give them, and this book is a useful aid. Click below to buy it on Amazon.
As an MSSW first-year intern, I worked at a residential treatment facility for teenage male sex offenders. I didn’t ask for that job, and it was really-really challenging, but I definitely learned an enormous amount there. This is one of my favorite stories from that time.
I worked with a psychiatrist who was a super smart guy. He was completely dedicated to the kids, but not terribly patient with the interns. One day I made the mistake of complaining to him. One of the kids had just interacted with me in a sexually inappropriate way, and I was feeling gross and uncomfortable and just icky all over. I tried to evaluate the interaction in a professional, clinical way, but mostly just came up with the conclusion that the kid was “wrong” and not working his treatment program appropriately. So when I ran into the psychiatrist, I described the kid’s behavior, probably in such a way that I highlighted how “bad” and resistant to treatment the kid was. (“Bad kid, bad!”)
The Dr looked at me, and immediately said: “Good for him!”
Oh my goodness. I was just a wee bit offended and righteous. But, thankfully the doctor didn’t care, and his desire to educate me prevailed. Here’s what he taught me that day:
We really must view a child’s behavior as communication, and communication is good. That doctor wanted me to be able to recognize that a child in a treatment center for a sexual offense, who hits on a staff member, is sending a message loud and clear. And the doctor wanted me to get the correct message. The message wasn’t: “I’m a bad kid.” Rather, the message I needed to get was: “I’m not done learning and growing. I need more help with healthy relationships.” (*)
To be clear: I’m not saying that the behavior itself is good-or even okay. Rather, I’m saying that if we look at it as a communication, then we can find the good behind the behavior. There IS good behind the behavior, and our kids NEED us to choose this perspective. So, we can look at the kid as though they are intrinsically “good,” and that their “bad” behavior is a communication of need. Compare this with assuming that a “bad” behavior is a reflection of a “bad” child. Which of these perspectives will allow us to be more loving and helpful to the child as they grow? Which perspective discourages growth?!
Our kids need us to look behind their behavior. They need us to assume the best, and help them grow and learn.
So, parents, when could you say “Good for him/her!” about your child?
(*) It’s also possible that the child’s message included either (a) “Are you safe? Can I trust that you won’t be unhealthy with me even if I try to be unhealthy with you?” or (b) “I know that you are safe, and that’s why I can trust you with this communication-that I am still not safe.”
Therapy is good stuff. Kids usually LOVE going, and parents love the progress they see. You want your kid to get what they need and their health (physical and mental) is a top priority. But, money doesn’t grow on trees and you want to make sure that you’re maximizing your time, money and energy.
So, here are a few tips from a therapist on how to get the most out of your child’s therapy.
- Have a “grown-ups only” meeting with your child’s therapist every month or two.
- The more you and the therapist talk, the better you’ll both be able to help the child.
- Have both parents participate/attend.
- Ask for homework. (Homework is like getting an extra session per week, for free!)
- Do the homework. ;^)
- Show up early. Use the 5 minutes you’re sitting there to talk with your kid about your week, your goals, your feelings, the homework. It helps transition to “therapy-time.” Plus, Murphy’s law guarantees that
the one time you show up late for a session, will be the time when something deep, meaningful, and difficult will come up. Those few minutes make a difference!
And my best tip:
Participate in family therapy. Children are deeply affected by their parents. I tell every parent I work with two things:
- The single most effective thing that you can do to get your child to change is to let them see you changing.
- You are probably the most motivated ‘client.’ Children, whether due to age or inexperience with the world or something else, don’t usually know that their world/emotions/interactions/relationships can be changed, and that talking about these things can help them change.
There are many more (whole books have been written, in fact) but this is short list will get us started!