Therapy for children and how it helps
by Georgina Taylor
Our therapeutic work with children takes place at our base in Cotham, as well as in schools across Bristol and its surrounds. We help over 500 children and young people each year, and our quality monitoring shows that we bring a consistently positive impact on children’s mental health.
So, how does therapy for children work, and what does it involve?
We specialise in a type of therapy called ‘psychodynamic’ therapy. This is a recognised and effective treatment, which works with whatever the child or young person brings into the room to be thought about – there’s no ‘agenda’ in advance.
Every therapeutic intervention starts with an assessment to work out what’s going to be most helpful and so that the therapist can listen carefully to the thoughts of the child and parents or carers about their perspectives and what has been going on.
Helping with issues children face
The therapist pays close attention to whatever goes on in the therapy room, notices the themes and patterns, and starts to put this into words. Through this process they begin to make thoughts and feelings that can feel like a muddle a bit less muddled. In doing so, they help a child or young person to make sense of whatever issues they are facing.
What this looks like is different for every child and young person we work with. Some might arrive ready to think about their most difficult feelings or challenging relationships, while for others there’s a longer period of building trust and starting to explore what’s troubling them.
The therapist remains a consistent regular presence through ups and downs of everyday life as well as during times when things are really tough, through bereavements, trauma and any other events. Our child and adolescent therapists work with children right from birth up until the end of adolescence.
Therapy for infants and parents
When we work with parents/carers and infants together, we pay very close attention to the relationship between them, and draw the parent(s)’ attention to aspects of the infant’s behaviour and non-verbal communications. This helps parents to think about the relationship – perhaps in ways that they might not have considered before. It’s also a space for the parents or carers to put into words their own anxieties or struggles with parenting. Parents can find it helpful to explore their own past struggles, relationships or current wider life in so far as this might affect their parenting.
There are many reasons why a parent and infant might come for therapy, which could include the impact of disruptions in an infant’s early life (such as medical problems or significant losses), a parent with postnatal depression or anxiety or an infant who has had difficulty feeding or sleeping. It may be that just a few sessions will be enough to make a difference to the difficulties they are experiencing. Or that a longer process is needed to support the relationship as it grows and develops.
Therapy for preschoolers and young children
“I used to fight a lot but now I don’t have to.”8-year-old
Older children may attend most of their therapy sessions alone, if they are needing some space to explore their own worries and struggles. Alternatively, they might attend with a parent, parents or even the whole family if the focus is more about the family relationships.
Our therapists offer the child an open space without agenda; allowing the child to play or talk in whatever way they choose. Some children express their thoughts, feelings and worries using drawing and craft materials. Some might engage physically with the room e.g. hiding, running around. And others might use their personalised box of therapy toys they are given in each session – such as dolls house figures, cars or dinosaurs – to act out themes that are important to them.
Our expert therapists are trained and experienced in making sense of a child’s communication and feeding their thoughts back to the child; helping children start to put some of the muddle in order and be able to have words for things that are troubling them.
Children might come for all sorts of reasons, but this could include issues such as struggling with relationships or behaviour at school or home, anxiety or low mood or the impact of losses in their life.
Therapy for teenagers
Teens are less likely to play in the therapy room, although they might use art materials, fidget toys or sometimes other toys. Everyone is different.
They are encouraged to talk freely about whatever comes into their mind and the therapist is alert to the nuances and patterns of this. It could include dreams, memories, the events of the day or week, grievances, worries or fantasies.
There is no agenda at all, but over time the therapist builds up a picture of how the young person’s mind is working and some of the areas that might be stuck or causing particular issues. Gradually and sensitively, at the young person’s own pace, these issues can start to come out into the open.
“I don’t know how I would have coped with secondary school without my therapy at The Bridge”16-year-old
There are many reasons a teenager might come to therapy, but some would include anxiety, anger, low mood, self-harm, the impact of bereavement, explorations of gender or sexuality, relationship difficulties (with parents or peers) or anxieties about growing up and becoming an adult.
Building trust and working at the right pace
Whatever age a child or young person is, we don’t necessarily expect them to come to therapy able to explain the issue and ready to face the challenges of this. Some children or adolescents might be silent in the room at first. Some might feel that they are only there because their parents want them to come. And others might have difficulty staying in the room or might want to hide behind the furniture.
It can take a while to build a stable, trusting relationship and to work out what is needed for each individual.
Therapy for anyone, whatever their age, often takes place at the very edge of someone’s comfort zone but not so far outside it that it becomes a major source of anxiety: we go at the pace is needed for it to feel safe, secure and helpful.
Supporting parents and carers
We always support parents alongside a child’s therapy. This might include exploring specific challenging situations or dilemmas, helping to understand a child’s thoughts and feelings (‘internal world’) or offering a space to offload.
We don’t offer ‘off the peg’ strategies, but instead work with each individual parent and child to work out what is causing the issues and what is going to help. Hearing from parents and carers about their concerns and worries as well as hopes for their child helps the therapist gain a deeper understanding of the child’s world.
We ask parents to tell us about their child’s whole life story, from the pregnancy onwards, as often there are connections between events in a child’s life and some of their struggles later on.
“My daughter and I spent two years with The Bridge, and we have both taken away so much from it.Parent
Sometimes we work just with the parents or carers without a child needing to attend at all, as they are the most important people in a child’s life, and supporting them can often lead to significant improvement for their child.
Working with schools
As well as children and families coming to us, we offer outreach work within the safe and accessible place of children’s schools. Placing our therapists in local schools, and embedding them in pastoral teams to work with children, teachers and support workers helps us to overcome barriers to access.
Our Bridge in Schools team has been collaborating with many Partner Schools across the region for nearly 15 years; providing a therapy service to children all over our city and beyond at no cost to the family. This work is particularly focused on areas of deprivation, which helps us to bring the best support to the most vulnerable children.
Our specialist team of skilled therapists works alongside leadership teams and staff, thinking with them, not just about the children they teach but also the pastoral care they provide.
“Having a mental health expert in school directly on hand enables us to give timely support to those children and families that most need it. This is invaluable.”Head Teacher
In this schools-embedded work it is valuable to be able to consider both the individual child and the wider school and community context.
The difference therapy can make
In the various ways we work – with children or young people directly; with parents, teachers and support workers; or by connecting to other professionals where needed, we are able to help to join up the thinking around a child.
Our evidence shows that we make lasting differences to the ways that children think about and manage difficult experiences and emotions in their present lives as well as for their futures. And that our holistic approach helps the parents, carers and others in a child’s life be best equipped to support the child’s journey.
We focus on high quality and an individual service in the context of safe and trusting relationships, so that every child, family and school we work with can be supported to the highest level.
Contact us if you would like to know more about our 1:1 therapy, parent groups or embedded work in local schools.
And if you’re reading this as you prepare to begin a therapy journey with us, you may find this video helpful: