I don’t see too many small children in my psychotherapy practice. We’re not really set up for it…no toys, no play area. That’s going to have to change, as I have had an increasing number of little ones coming in, and I love them. I learn something from each and every client I have, but the kids are amazing little teachers.
One thing I love from Narrative Therapy is the idea of externalizing a problem. “The person is not the problem. The problem is the problem” is a simple statement but a profound paradigm shift in the way we view ourselves in relation to our struggles. Let’s say you identify depression as a problem in your life. You may refer to yourself as a depressed person. In therapy, we would explore shifting that around a bit. Depression is a part of your life, yes, but we work to extract it from your identity and look at it for what it is – depression, and how you relate to it. I ask things like “How does Depression worm its way into your day?” or “If Depression had a name, a shape, a color, what would it be?” Some clients find this a helpful way to tackle life challenges in a detached, effective, non-shaming way.
Children seem to take to this idea like fish to water. We can spend a whole session describing the sights and sounds of fearful things like boogymen and those monsters that show up in nightmares. The idea of stepping out of the role of frightened victim to, first, observer/describer, is the first step in feeling powerful and confident. Kids can externalize like pros, becoming animated and incredibly descriptive as they tell me all about the look, shape, color, sound, dietary habits, hobbies, and name of their “monsters.” I scribble this all down as thoroughly as I can, and have had more than one child stop me, take the pen, and begin to draw what words fall short of.
Recently, a little girl I’ll call Sara experienced trouble with nightmares. Her dreams were always the same – chased by a monster, feeling terrified and helpless, and waking up in tears, unable to go back to sleep. When I asked Sara to describe the Monster, it took her aback for a second. She thought about it. Then she began talking. And talking. We placed the imaginary creature in the middle of the room and she referenced it often as she described its filthy fur, its ragged hot breath, its rotund shape, and its diet – “It wants to eat my happiness.” At the end of this session, I offered to keep the Monster in my office for the week. Sara gave me a sidelong, worried look. “Will it get you?” I promised her it would not. She looked down at the spot where we had placed “Spiky” (its name), then back at me. “Are you sure you will be all right if he stays here?” I told her I was tougher than Spiky and that I would make sure he had an extended time-out for the week so she could sleep. I told her, if she wanted, she could write Spiky a letter before her next appointment.
A week passed and Sara burst into my office at the appointed time. She held a well-worn, wrinkled sheet of notebook paper in her hand. I could see several different colors used, large clumsy writing, and a picture on the page.“I want to read my letter to Spiky.” I sat back and gave her the floor. Standing, she unfolded her paper and began to read. “Dear Spiky, I am sorry to tell you this but you have to go. It is time for you to leave. My bed is mine and my room is safe. You are mean. I am tough. You haven’t been listening to me, though. So now I have a Monster Killer. Her name is Tammy. She is tough, too. We are going to make you go away together. Goodbye.” She folded her paper with a firm nod and smiled at me. She looked at the spot where Spiky had been and if I didn’t know better, I’d swear there was a palpable change in the energy of the room.
Monster Killer. Me? Monster Whisperer, maybe. I tend more toward deconstruction and peacemaking than wielding a sword when it comes to Monsters. Yet here was this fierce, tiny, 8-year-old warrior, claiming victory with a bona fide Monster Killer at her side. We spent the rest of the session focusing on Sara and her courage, her skills, how it felt to write the letter – in short, putting the focus of the victory on her brave little shoulders.
Monster Killer. I kind of like it. Even more, I like that Sara is sleeping better. I hope she carries that sense of empowerment into her teen years and beyond, when Monsters change shape and become all the stuff we adults struggle with. Maybe she’ll still feel brave and capable. Maybe we all can. 🙂