“Why won’t she share this with us?”
“How can I get him to tell me what he’s feeling?”
“I just don’t know what I’m feeling.”
I hear these concerns regularly in my practice from parents, from spouses, from people seeking support for themselves. It seems to be a common dilemma. We know that in order to heal from trauma, to build or repair relationship and to grow emotionally, we need to feel, process, and yes, sometimes talk about our emotions, our experiences and our pain. And yet it is all so hard sometimes. Particularly for our children and teens, and especially when those emotions and experiences are vulnerable, traumatic or overwhelming.
Eleven-year old Jasmin is referred to counselling by her teacher, due to aggressive outbursts with peers and plummeting grades. At our intake session Jasmin’s father fights back tears, “Their mom died last year but none of the kids will talk about it.” He looks down at his hands, “Jasmin didn’t even cry at the funeral, so I’m not sure you’ll get much out of her.” He sighs, “She seemed so strong back then, but now …”
The first time we meet, Jasmin, face hidden behind long black hair, tells me she is ‘bad’ because she hit her little brother last week.
Some pain is too painful to touch.
Some words can’t be said out loud.
How can we help children heal from wounds that feel too vulnerable and overwhelming to even name?
It is normal, often necessary, and even healthy to build defenses to protect ourselves from overwhelming vulnerability, trauma and emotional pain, just as our bodies would grow a scab to protect a physical wound. These defenses can be what allow us to survive; giving us the ability to function within an otherwise intolerable world. However, in the longer term, staying ‘stuck’ in defenses stands in the way of our healing. Yet attempts to challenge and remove these defenses ‘head on’ usually result in us clinging to them with even greater desperation.
Fortunately, there is another way; a way to bypass the walls we build up, and to gently touch the pain in a way that promotes healing rather than building further defenses. For our most vulnerable children, for the hurts that hurt too much, and for sensitivities that are too much to bear, we can still find a way through – just one step removed.
Teddy, a fuzzy Shetland pony, also hides behind long, black hair. Yet when I gently comb his forelock and look into his brown eyes, I sense a deep well of wisdom. Jasmin seems to get the same impression and spends much of her initial equine therapy sessions with her arms wrapped around Teddy’s sturdy little neck while I share stories of his antics and he munches contentedly on a pile of hay. After a few weeks I mention the time several years ago when Teddy discovered his favourite herd member, Cutie, had died. I brush another horse alongside and take it slow, “for a long time, Teddy seemed to be pretty angry at Cutie for leaving him.” I keep brushing and Jasmin focuses on the braid she is adding to Teddy’s mane.
Three braids complete, she looks up, “how did you know he was angry?”
I describe how Teddy kept to himself and tried to kick any ponies in his herd who came too close. He didn’t let us brush him and some days refused to eat his hay.
It sometimes seemed like he was so mad at the world that he didn’t care about anyone or anything.
But the look in Jasmin’s eyes as she adds more braids to Teddy’s mane suggests she knows he really did care, very much. Tears well up in those eyes as Jasmin listens to the part of the story where Teddy finally let Skye, the herd leader, approach and comfort him. She hugs Teddy and her gentle whisper reassures him that he is a good horse, and that she loves him.
Jasmin can’t cry or talk about losing her mom, not yet; but I trust she is starting to realise there is often a lot of mad to get through before we can find the sad, and when we find a safe person – or horse – to be sad with, we find the rest we need.
I glance over at Jasmin’s Dad, watching from over the fence, tears rolling freely down his own face, and offer a smile of encouragement.
We are on the right path.
Hopefully in time, Jasmin and many other children – and adults – will be able to talk about why they stopped feeling their emotions; to start to feel – and perhaps even to talk about those feelings – again. Pushing, demanding or coercing this is unlikely to work, and risks causing more harm, as the north wind discovered in Aesop’s classic tale when he tried to ‘blast’ the coat off a man walking through a park, making the man cling to his coat all the more determinedly.
Instead, I believe we can all invite that process more gently. We can touch a child’s pain indirectly, perhaps by talking about an animal in the child’s life, and we can share stories. Like the warm sun in Aesop’s fable let’s start to melt some of those defenses without always needing to name them. And in time, just as the man in the park eventually removed his coat in the warmth of the sun, we can hopefully start to heal their hearts, one (horse) step removed.
Note: This article was first published in the Spring 2019 issues of Connect and Refresh, a newsletter from the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association