‘What’s wrong darling?
‘Are you sure?’
‘Yes, I’m fine.’
Does this sound familiar? Or something similar? We expect children to be able to explain to us how they’re feeling, but how can they, when they may not have the language to do so? Even as an adult, I can sometimes find it really difficult to put how I’m feeling into words. How do I get that tightness in my tummy, my clammed-up throat, or the tingles in my hands and arms – into ‘feeling’ words? How do I know if what I’m feeling is anger, sadness or fear? Did anyone ever teach me how to name them?
I spent years as a Primary School Teacher, seeing children battling with their feelings. Struggling with all their emotions scooting around their bodies and not knowing what to ‘do’ with them. More often than not, I was seeing children pushing their feelings away into a secret place inside and withdrawing into silence. Or ‘acting out’ – hitting other children, kicking over chairs or screaming out abuse. I spent years helping children to talk about how they were feeling – and realised that I was expecting them to talk about something they simply didn’t always have the words for. Most feelings were subsequently labelled as ‘sad’ or ‘cross.’ This felt better than nothing, but I knew that these words weren’t really getting into the depths and the real truth of what was going on inside them.
And then a couple of years ago, I studied an Advanced Diploma in Arts Therapy. Through this, I discovered a magically powerful way in to a child’s inner world – using clay, poetry, movement, drama, sand play and paints to give feelings colour, shape, form and texture. ‘What are you feeling?’ became ‘what is happening in your body?’, ‘where in your body are you feeling it?’, ‘Does it have a colour?’, ‘Does it have a shape?’, ‘Does it have a sound?’ And so on. I now use questions such as these, regularly in my creative therapy sessions with children – and I’m always enamoured by the ease with which they respond. And they don’t need to respond with words. They can show me with their body, with paint, with clay, with sounds and with figures and objects in the sand tray.
Recently, one of my young clients, having created some colour and shapes on paper with paints, was then able to describe a happy feeling as green and heart-shaped. He felt it in his chest. Through our work together he was then able to describe his anger as red string that he feels down in his feet, which can climb up through his body and wrap itself around the green heart in his chest. When that happens, he said, he can’t feel the green anymore. It becomes completely covered up by the red string. We gently experimented with unwrapping the red string from around his green heart. He went on to describe beautifully to me how the green heart was growing bigger and bigger until eventually it expanded out of his body and into the whole room. He was now lying on the floor, bathing in a sea of green.
So, if you’re struggling with communicating with your child about their feelings, see what happens if you let go of the very adult ‘how are you feeling?’ questions and climb into their colourful, shapely world. Join them there and see what you can discover together.