Conversations that Matter – how to help a child who is hurting

Tim and Dawn recently attended a workshop in London by Child Psychologist Dr Margot Sunderland, ‘Conversations that matter’. Here they share their reflections on the day, what they have learnt and how they intend to put some of this learning into practice. If you have any thoughts after reading this why not start a forum topic and encourage some discussion on the issues Tim and Dawn raise in their article.

Report on recent lecture attended by Tim Pochin & Dawn Dunn 6th July 2016

‘Conversations that Matter’
Dr Margot Sutherland

As carers, one of the biggest challenges we face is helping a child who is hurting. To quote from Margot Sutherland, “more and more children in today’s society are depressed and anxious.” So how can we help?

I will begin at the end with everyone’s training day ‘groan’ question: what three things have you learned? These are three things that we brought away from the day.

  • Use ‘Empathy Drawing’ to help construct a meaningful dialogue
  • Name the Pain
  • Engage in conversations containing narrative to help understanding of an abusive past

Empathy Drawing
The principle is to quickly draw a picture or pictures in front of the young person you are working with. This technique helps with engagement and connection. It should preferably be interactive with the child working with you. This practice gives you opportunity to empathise with the child and understand what they are feeling. Empathy Drawing often works where verbal communication alone would not. Empathy Drawing will take pressure off the child, ‘leaving them feeling as if everything is not always coming from them’. Empathy Drawing enables the carer to verbally connect with the child by suggesting that ‘it must have been awful for them to have spent so long feeling like that.’ The developing dialogue gives the child time to reflect on any emotional spikes. The carer can help rebalance the child’s thinking while referring to the drawing. Very raw feelings can be addressed and processed.

Name the Pain
Put simply, talk about the issue causing the pain. It is not enough to only sympathise. Bring to your dialogue incidents the child has experienced and are causing pain and anxiety. You may say:
“Perhaps you are feeling so angry and miserable because you are missing your brothers and sister right now?” (name the pain).
“Maybe you need to run right now because when you were little, no one came to help you and you felt safe when you ran away?”(name the pain).
“Perhaps you did that because when you were smaller, X happened?” (name the pain).

Conversations containing narrative
Troubled children will often be unable to reflect or communicate what it is that is troubling them, their defence mechanisms being permanently set to danger mode. They may not have a reflective habit or an ability to analyse their feelings. Using any number of tools available to us, we can model how to think psychologically. Converse using ‘feeling weather maps’. Draw your emotions and relationships (Empathy Drawings). Conversations can change brains. Repeated constant responsive conversation has positive effects on the brain pathways, calming fight, flight or freeze responses and enabling reflective thought process.

So what does all this mean for us in our day to day life? How does one day’s training change the way we work? How are we going to benefit or more to the point, how are the children in our care going to benefit?

From information learnt in our initial four day ‘Prepare to Care’ sessions to more targeted training such as ‘Managing Behaviour’ or the ‘LADO Safer Care Training’, we have been exposed to current thinking and good practice in working with traumatised children. We have used some of these tools but now perhaps have a more joined up approach in thinking about them and dealing with situations using them collectively.

‘Conversations that Matter’ took many of these themes that had been previously touched on and linked them in a clear useable way. The day gave us further insight into how we may enable children to get in touch with their feelings in a reflective way and not a reactive way – not only a good thing for the children, but for us as carers!

To summarise; we were privileged to hear Margot Sutherland speak. She has over 30 years experience as a child psychotherapist, more specifically, spending 17 years studying the neuroscience of adult/child relationships. Her knowledge and understanding of the subject was at times difficult to keep up with however her enthusiasm and easy nature helped the information come across. New understanding that we came away with made the journey totally worthwhile.