Every child lives out his or her unique life story. Each one is a story about an individual human being on his journey through life, living through countless unique experiences. Inevitably, many of these experiences will be difficult and stressful. It may make a huge difference to his future life if he can share these difficulties with someone.
Can we as parents and child caregivers be there for our children in their difficult times? And how do we best support them through their difficulties? This article attempts to address these questions.
An understanding of the child’s constitution, awareness of critical stressful developmental periods and improving the child’s environment may be helpful. It is critical to recognise the signs and symptoms of stress early on and where possible, determine the cause to ascertain whether it would be helpful to the child to remove it.
Yet with all the best intentions and useful information, if one has not learnt to listen and speak to children compassionately one cannot offer them true support. Both as a child and as a parent I have lived through regrettable experiences where vital opportunities to make a difference to a child’s life were missed through lack of or poor communication. These experiences have moved me to search for some basic guidelines and conditions to promote healthy communication with distressed children.
COMMUNICATING WITH CHILDREN
Many if not most children find it difficult to speak about their problems. Even if they feel safe, trust their listener and have permission to speak, there are many reasons why they do not speak; they often don’t know how to, can’t articulate their feelings, may feel shy, frightened, ashamed, embarrassed, guilty or worried about displeasing their parents. Yet it may be life transforming for a child to share her pain or secret fears with an adult or to know that an adult understands and accepts her perceived weakness. How many of us have carried secrets out of fear, shame or guilt throughout our childhood into adult life at huge cost to ourselves and others?
Painful experiences in early childhood cannot be processed consciously as in adulthood and are very often pushed out of conscious awareness into the subconscious life. Here they remain stored and encapsulated psycho-organically as if trapped in certain tissues or organ systems, remaining either buried for years to be triggered by similar experiences later in life (e.g. the 5-year-old child who was hijacked with her parents develops severe panic attacks 15 years later when she goes for job interviews), or they give form to personality structures (e.g. the child who is bullied often himself becomes a bully), or they remain active causing functional disturbances such as irritable bowel syndrome, later structural disturbances such as polyps and diverticular bowel disease and ultimately cancer of the colon.
Negative unresolved experiences of childhood are never forgotten and do not go away by themselves; they can only be resolved by bringing them out of the darkness of the subconscious organic world back into the domain of experience-awareness where they can be transformed and integrated into the growing personality. This is why it is so important that children be given every opportunity to speak about their troubles.
There is no doubt that parents and other adult caregivers can be of the greatest help to children in distress when they find the right way to be with these children. This way of being begins with respect and trust for the human Spirit in every child.
We may understand the constitutional, environmental and developmental factors as predisposing factors to childhood stress and know a lot about effective ways of counselling children, but if one is lacking the respect and trust for the human Spirit, one is missing the child herself. This feeling for and understanding of the essence of the child’s being is the beginning of any authentic communication with or counselling of stressed children and underpins everything else that is said below. From this standpoint one realises that one needs to relate very differently to a child in his 4th, 9th or his 14th year who is having problems, e.g. with his school teacher. It is therefore essential to know where the child is in his developmental journey.
THE LIFE JOURNEY OF THE CHILD
I have often refer to a way of viewing the developing child as a physical and spiritual being.1,2 The physical bodily material is provided through heredity by the germ cells of the mother and father. The child’s psycho-spiritual nature, however, comes from another place. Conception is the moment when the child’s psycho-spiritual nature unites with the inherited fertilised egg cell, setting in motion the child’s odyssey on earth. All further development is an expression of this soul-spiritual journey into the physical world.
Three cycles of 7 years are needed for the human self to take hold of its earthly body. During this period 3 gestational periods and 3 births take place, an understanding of which is crucial for a conscious approach to counselling children.3,4 For the first 9 months after conception, the physical body of the embryo is nourished by the mother and protected from the outer world by the embryonic sheathes of the mother’s body; in this gestational phase it has no protective skin of its own and only gradually develops its own forces and autonomy.5 At birth – the first birth – it is liberated from its sheathes and exposed for the first time to the influences of the environment. It is important to realise that only the physical body of the child has been born; the rest – life body, soul and spirit – are still unborn or in a gestational period waiting to be born.
The life body (etheric body, chi) of the child which provides the physical body with all its living processes, takes approximately 7 years to be born; during this period it is growing and developing within its etheric sheath just as the physical embryo develops for 9 months in the embryonic sheathes provided by the mother’s body. It is primarily active in the organic maturation of the body, working its way down through the neuro-sensory system, then through the system of rhythmic processes (cardiovascular and respiratory systems) and finally through the metabolic system.6 This life body has likewise no skin in its gestational phase and over the next 7 years is highly vulnerable to the influences of the environment; it relies on the protection of mother, father and its close family community. Because the life processes underpin every physical-chemical process, environmental effects of all kinds will have a profound impact on the development of both the etheric and physical body; the health condition especially of the mother will impact powerfully on the child’s developing organism. Every counsellor knows that many childhood problems in this phase can be resolved by sorting out problems in the immediate environment of the child.
During this period the child absorbs by imitation and example through its sense organs, like a sponge absorbs water. To the extent that the child imitates what it perceives in a healthy environment so will it develop a healthy physical-etheric body, e.g. good eyesight will develop if the child is exposed to adequate light and appropriate colours, good hearing will follow the right level of sound, etc. We must also be clear that injurious life experiences will also be imitated, absorbed and stored in the resonating life body where they can impact negatively on physical and soul activities.7 The change of teeth in the 7th year heralds the second birth, the birth of the life body from its gestational sheathes. We may say that the child now has an etheric skin which protects it from the environment to a greater degree than before.
The psyche (astral body, soul) which makes it possible for the child to have an inner life of personal and sentient experience is still unborn at this 7th year threshold. It will require a further 7 years of gestational development, 14 years in all, within its soul sheath before it is born in the 13th or 14th year. In the first 7 years the soul works powerfully through the life of the senses and the activities of its will (drives, desires), expressing itself through mobile willfulness. From 7 to 14 years it becomes very active in the soul sphere of the feelings and emotions and after 14 years becomes active in the sphere of thinking. Like the physical and life bodies in their gestational phase, the soul life has no protective skin for the first 14 years of life; it relies heavily on the guidance and protection first of its close community, later on its group community. This is why the group psyche, the gang, fashions and fads, the best friends, etc. will feature prominently in the child’s soul life, representing as it does the psyche of the primary school child until he or she comes of age. The unprotected soul life of a child is therefore especially vulnerable to psycho-emotional impressions.
Whereas the physical-etheric body takes the brunt of environmental assaults in the first 7 years, it is the developing psyche in its different aspects (sensitivity/volition – drives, desires, creativity/feelings, emotions/and cognitive processes) that is directly injured in the second 7 year period. Naturally through its intimate connection to the psyche, the vibrating life body will receive into itself an imprint of this stimulus, storing it as ‘remembered’ life experience to surface later in life as physical dispositions, illnesses or personality dysfunctions. To the extent that this sensitive developing soul can revere and respect good authority and be allowed to express its feelings in a free way, so will the soul life develop healthily. The astral body only becomes free of its sheath at puberty when the third birth takes place. The child has now the beginning of a soul skin which allows it to open itself more safely to the outside world.
Within the inner sanctuary of these three developing bodies, the I of the child follows its destiny. By choosing life, the child’s self sets in motion a power of will to continue its evolutionary journey where it will strive to master life’s challenges at every stage of its development. It has its unique life plan, its goal is to evolve and become whole and it will do this at any cost, even in the face of pain and suffering. Through this power of will, the human self passes through many trials and tribulations in the 3 cycles of 7 years. Each hurdle is a continuous learning process of trial, error, pain success and joy. How many times must the child fall down before he learns to stand securely on his own two feet! This developmental process brings him into contact with an inner and outer world.
And every encounter is a challenge, small or big for the human self as it confronts a resistance against which it has to assert itself. It is by coming up against resistance that he gets to know who he is, and who he is not. He finds thereby his self identity through meeting new experiences that continuously test and challenge his knowledge, abilities, self reliance, self control, endurance as well as countless other human attributes. As he thus grows in his inner experience and awareness, he will of necessity encounter problems and conflicts that may result in enormous difficulty and in stress of various kinds.
UNCONSCIOUSLY SKILLED COMMUNICATION / COUNSELLING
I believe that every adult who has the interests of children at heart will have the unconscious skill to help a child in need. While some people have a natural way with children, making them feel immediately at ease, all of us can help children by simply showing interest in them and learning to listen to them. This begins with providing a good ear and an open heart. Beyond this we can enhance our skills in listening and speaking to children by understanding and practising certain essential guiding principles and conditions which I have found fundamental in my counselling practice. They can become the highest ethical standards out of which wisdom and healing can flow to our children in distress. I am indebted to the psychophonetic counselling work of Yehuda Tagar which has added new depth of insight and practice to my counselling work with children.8 His article ‘The guiding principles of the psychophonetic counselling process and its application to children’, forms the cornerstone of these principles (In press: Tagar Y. The Guiding Principles of the Psychophonetic Counselling Process. From the literature of Persephone College Advanced Diploma In Psychophonetics).
- In his full being, the child is inwardly equipped for the journey of his life. He has the inner wisdom, strength, resources and endurance needed and he will know intuitively the next step if we allow him the freedom to express it. Very often the child cannot articulate this wisdom and needs the adult to do this for him. ‘It could be that you are not wishing to go to school because you are afraid they will tease you.’
We need to provide options for the child, our words may then strike his soul like a bell in order for his wisdom to resonate from him. The assumption is commonly to regard children as inexperienced, helpless, weak and unable to take responsibility for their lives. The caregiver will then consciously or unconsciously take over the problem from his point of reference, thereby disempowering the child in his necessary learning experience. This violates our enshrined principle to respect and trust the human Spirit.
- The child, in his unborn and born nature, carries the innate guidance for his own life journey. This arises out of the power of will that is the very essence of the human I of the child. Instincts, drives, desires, motivation, wishes, intuitions and resolutions are part of this inner guidance. Every crisis or difficulty in which the child finds himself is a learning and growing opportunity, and the child’s authority with regard to his own growing process should be completely respected.
We should respect Peter’s wish to sleep with the passage light on as long as he needs it. Our wise counsel should be carefully and tentatively offered to the child out of the feeling-knowing resonances that the child is allowed to bring forward himself. There is always the temptation, as the knowing, caring and responsible adult, to take charge of the process and to give guidance that may well be right for the carer but completely off the mark for the child. Many children will choose not to speak about their problems even to the most trusting adults. We should respect the child’s freedom to be silent and to choose to whom they wish to speak; they well know the reasons why they need to be silent.
- The child as the author of his experience will create his own meaning out of this experience. Respecting the spirit means trusting that what a child experiences is real; the meaning he gives it is to be fully respected. We may well regard Ben’s experience of forgetting his lines in front of the class as minor and consider the meaning he assigns it trivial, but for him it was a deeply traumatic experience. We have to learn to fully accept and validate his experience and the meaning he gives it.
- The child is always in the process of rhythmical incarnation and development. This will have a profound influence on our connection to the child and the way we counsel him. As we counsel a child under 7 years we are present inside his life sheath and will therefore be affecting his life forces according to the way we interact with him; we will need to invest in his environment to help him. Between 7 and 14 years we live inside the child’s soul sheathe and our psyche will have a direct effect on his developing soul; one will need to work with the child within the context of his group identity. Between 14 and 21 years we are present within the sheathe of the incarnating I of the child; he will respect and be inspired by an I that is mature and well integrated.
- The child is preparing for the birth of her ‘I nature’. This begins to happen in the 21st year of life. Until then, the I is imprinting itself step by step, as outlined above, into the physical-etheric and soul life of the developing child. The I is not yet free of its other organic responsibilities to be able to invest in pure psycho-spiritual activities and therefore needs to be protected by the developed I of an adult. Like the picture of Christoferous carrying his tiny but mighty child on his shoulder through a strong flowing river, so the protective power of the adult I should look after the budding life and power of the child’s spirit with love, care and deep respect.
- The child needs to feel safe and accepted before she will speak freely. This is the very first precondition of effective counselling something that is often forgotten even by experienced counsellors, and that wastes time and energy. By establishing safety conditions at the outset, you are signalling to the child that you are on his side. All the things that would make the child reluctant to talk such as fear of consequences, shame at divulging information, fear of rejection, of hurting parents, displeasing, etc. must be cleared up before any other work is done.
- Empathetic listening tells the child you are interested in him. Carl Rogers was the first to draw attention formally to this essential element of client-centered counselling. Some people are born with this gift, others have to train themselves to acquire it. Listening with an open heart to a child is half the job done. Children know intuitively when an adult is listening to them fully, partially or not at all. This will tell them to what degree the adult is interested in them. A child will feel more self-esteem the more an adult is interested, and she or he will naturally open up more quickly and much more deeply.
- The child needs to feel that his talking and sharing is team-work. Children love nothing more than to work in groups. They need to feel that they are part of a team, that they are equal, important and valued partners, bearing the respect and trust that a successful partnership necessitates. At the same time the child needs to feel the support of an adult whom he feels understands where he is at the moment. If the child feels that the adult has ‘been there’, knows what he is going through, understands, accepts, encourages and supports him, then he can get through almost anything.
CONSCIOUSLY SKILLED COUNSELLING
Using the above guiding principles and supportive conditions, ‘home’ counselling can deal with most common problems that children encounter. More serious issues will need the support of professional counsellors. There are different schools of thought and practice regarding childhood counselling. My exposure to counselling has come through the methodology of Psychophonetic Counselling and Life Coaching developed by Yehuda Tagar, an expression-based self development counselling modality based on the work of Rudolf Steiner.8 This form of counselling is eminently suitable for children. Its use of non-verbal expressive modalities of body sensing, gesture/movement, visualisation and sound work connects it directly with the imaginative world of the child, allowing for rapid access to deep psycho-emotional layers of experience. Its strongly client-centred orientation and its spiritual-scientific insight into the nature of the child, allows for natural adaptation to the particular stage of the child’s development. The counsellor will need to know the position of the various sheathes at any given time, whether a particular sheathe has been born or whether it is still in gestation. Just as one would deal differently with an unborn fetus or an infant in distress, so one will communicate in a different way with a child whose psyche has or has not been liberated from its protective sheathe. This understanding will guide the psychophonetic counselling procedure in children.
It can make a great difference to the health and future wellbeing of a child that we recognise and address his distress with sensitivity and interest. Careful listening with respect and trust for the child’s journey will help us to know his level of distress and ability to cope. We will be guided to allow the child the opportunity to find his way through the crisis or to know whether he needs more active intervention. At the same time we can become aware of our own responses to the child’s experience thereby setting in motion our own journey of self discovery.
- Goldberg R. Childhood illnesses – a developmental challenge for life. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2001; 5: 44-45,73.
- 3 Goldberg R. Protecting the heavenly years of childhood. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 10: 47-49.
- Goldberg R. The three births of childhood. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2003; 11: 44-46.
- Steiner R. The Education of the Child. Hudson, New York: Anthroposophic Press, 1996.
- Goldberg R. Where do I come from? South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2002; 8: 44-48.
- Goldberg R. Enhance the developing child’s potential. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2001; 3: 47-49.
- Goldberg R. Psychosomatic illness. South African Journal of Natural Medicine 2004; 14: 44-47.
- Tagar Y. www.psychophonetics.com