As a Dramatherapist and Systemic Practitioner working primarily with children and young people, I always meet first with the parents or carers so that I can get a better understanding from them of their concerns about their child, and start to gather a fuller picture of the child’s background and history.
This usually involves, among other things, creating a basic family genogram alongside the parents, asking about their parents, aunts, uncles and siblings, and anyone else who may play an important role in the family, even if not related by blood. I have included goldfish, guinea pigs and other furry and scaly friends in many family ‘trees’!
I also talk to parents about their own approach to parenting and their own experience of being parented too – how were they disciplined, loved, touched, spoken to, encouraged and protected?
This initial meeting will uncover a wealth of information for me as the therapist about to start work with any child and, I believe, this is where the therapy starts. As stories unfold from the adults – their tales of childhood adventures, loving and/or distant parents, best friends, sibling rivalry and solidarity, breakdowns of relationships, misunderstandings, family traditions, romances, expectations …… a picture is drawn which often leaves them astonished at their own story – and its relevance to their child.
Many times I have heard the story of the parents’ worries about the child who is about to become my client, along with the comment ‘and we just don’t understand why she’s feeling like this’, or ‘his behaviour is just so out of the blue’.
Just as many times I’ve heard and seen a moment of recognition – often encouraged by the simple question ‘who would you say your daughter takes after?’ or ‘where do you think your son gets that idea from?’
It is too simplistic and linear to say that I can neatly trace every problem my young clients experience back to their parents’ approach or own experiences, but what I have learned is that the exploration I undertake with parents before even meeting the child is the start of the therapeutic process. As two parents recently explained to me their wider family background including births and deaths, remarriages, an emigration and various house moves, it became clear to me and a revelation to them that these upheavals had mostly happened within an 18-month period prior to the start of their child’s anxiety. No single event had been particularly difficult or traumatic for them as adults, but they reflected on the cumulative effect for their 8 year-old son and recognised it may have felt very different for him. Combined with a spoken ‘family script’ that change is exciting, adventurous and fun and an unspoken message that only boring, dull people don’t like change, this left little room for the needs and feelings of an introverted 8 year-old.
Before I met this little boy, his mum and dad were able to go home and start rethinking how they could support him playing his part in the family drama – a different part from theirs and their other children, but one that could now be recognised and valued.
That was when the therapy started.