Seven-year-old Eabha (Ava) came by my office. She would occasionally drop in to tell me one of her stories or to sing me a song, but she seemed preoccupied and wasn’t her usual bubbly self. She played with a fidget she found in the toy box and after a short while, without looking in my direction said, ‘my dad has moved out and my mum has been crying a lot.’ She continued to play with the fidget.
‘Things were not right!’
Eabha stopped playing and then she came and sat down opposite me, settled in her seat, and grabbed a teddy that was nearby. Her eyes betrayed how she was feeling, and I wondered how a seven-year-old processes such a traumatic episode unfolding before her and around her and within her.
I asked her how she was feeling, and she lowered her eyes and said, ‘When my mum told me that dad was leaving my brain felt sad and then I cried.’
I asked what she meant when she said that her brain felt sad. She said that she was thinking about why this happened and if her mum and dad loved her. She said, ‘I was thinking it was my fault.’ I asked her about how she felt when she said, ‘my brain felt sad.’ She said she felt sad and scared. ‘And because you felt sad and scared what did you do?’ I asked. ‘I began to shake, and I went to my room, and I cried,’ she said.
I reflected back to her what she said and asked her if I had her story right. She said I did, and we continued to chat.
‘She knew I was listening.’
I worked with Eabha in a one-to-one counselling situation on occasion and I also had done some work in her class. We talked about feelings and strength of feelings and that they were connected to our thinking and behaving. She understood that feeling, thinking, and behaving were connected to each other. We called unhealthy (irrational) thinking Brain Bully thinking which we agreed made Brain Bully feelings and actions. We called healthy (rational) thinking Brain Friend thinking which we agreed made feelings and behaviours that were helpful to us.
‘Brain Bully thinking makes Brain Bully feelings.’
That Eabha was familiar with these REBT (Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy) principles afforded us a common language with which we could talk about our strength of feelings, where they come from and how to work out ways to help Eabha help herself.
Eabha discovered that, for instance, ‘it’s all my fault’ thinking was Brain Bully nonsense. We also agreed that ‘it’s not fair’ thinking and ‘my dad or mum doesn’t love me’ thinking was Brain Bully trying to make her feel worse than she needed to be. We talked about different ways of thinking about things and we decided that what happened was a decision made by adults and that she had nothing to do with it. We also established that her mum and dad would still love her no matter what and that even though they would not be living together she could get used to the idea that she had two places to visit and have fun.
‘Flush stinking Brain Bully thinking down the dunny!’
We talked about bad things that could happen and we decided that there were other things that could be worse than the situation she found herself in. She said that ‘this is really bad, and I wish it didn’t happen but it’s not the worst thing that can happen (compared to other things we talked about).’ Eabha began to look at things differently, more from a Brain Friend perspective and she felt a lot better.
As a rational emotive behaviour counsellor/educator I find it useful to be able talk to children in ways that make sense to them. The idea that their emotions and behaviours are caused by someone or something apart from themselves reinforces the idea that someone or something makes their feelings and behaviours! Hence, they say things like, ‘it made me sad when my dad moved away, and I can only feel happy again if he comes back.’ In adult terms this irrational view could be framed as; ‘Things must be or remain the way they’ve always been. I can’t handle it and I can never be happy again if things aren’t how they must be.’
As it happened Eabha adopted a different view of the situation:
‘Change my thinking and the world changes.’
Did she still feel sad? Yes, she did on occasion, but it had a different intensity than before. She had changed the way she assessed a very difficult situation and in doing so modified how she felt and how she behaved in a self-helpful way.
PS Eabha bounded into my office the other day and said, ‘guess what?’ I said, ‘the sky is blue.’ ‘Mum and Dad are back together.’
PPS. This is a true happening and details have been changed to protect the subject’s identity.
Giulio is an ED.D. candidate at the University of South Australia. He is a student counsellor in the public school system and specialises in Rational Emotive Behaviour Education. He is also a consultant to schools in counselling-based behaviour education systems in school. He is the author of two self-published teacher/counsellor resources; People and Emotions and Have a Go Spaghettio! both endorsed by Dr Albert Ellis, creator of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. He is a member of the International Committee for The Advancement of Rational Emotive Education.
Image by RDNE Stock Project