Counsellors helping children and young people through play

It may be child’s play but counselling sessions for children and young people in the Lower Swansea Valley are proving to be invaluable in tackling a rising tide of mental health problems.

The Cwmtawe Cluster has teamed up with children’s counselling service REACH to offer play therapy and talking therapy sessions to three to 21-year-olds in need of such support. The service was launched in March 2019 and since the pandemic is being offered remotely although face to face sessions are still available with the necessary precautions.

Patients are either referred by their GP or self-refer through filling in a request form.

Jessie Jones (main picture), a play therapist for REACH counselling service, said: “Play is the language that children speak, as adults we can explain our emotions a bit more but children don’t know how to express emotions. They may use the sand to portray their life or the stuffed animals to symbolise people, emotion or what they have gone through. It’s easier for them to play, it’s is a communication tool.

“Even with teenagers or young adults you can still use the play therapy to symbolise anxiety, it’s not just talking.”

While each patient is unique the common themes are anxiety, anger and grief.

Jessie said: “Anxiety is the main thing we deal with, anger can be one as well, there are lots of issues. We also see grief and loss.

“Typically, when they present themselves with anxiety, sometimes they don’t know what they are dealing with, why they are so sad sometimes.

“Sometimes young children will get a bad belly, as adults we can tell that we are nervous or excited, they are different feelings, with young children, they don’t understand the difference.

“We also see children with big emotions which they don’t know how to process. If it’s anger, they may be overwhelmed by it and end up punching things or hitting themselves, self-harming. It’s about getting them to process that anger in a healthier way so that they are not hitting themselves or others.

“I try to get them to look at what triggers their anger. Help them be able to walk away and place themselves in a safe environment so they can cool down. Calming yourself down through breathing, we can all control our breathing and bring it back down.

“Sometimes we don’t realise the little things which can make us angry or build it up.”

Coming to terms with loss is another common problem.

Jessie said: “There are so many emotions that come with grief, such as guilt, wishing you had done more with that person.

“As children and adults, when you lose somebody, they don’t want to talk about that person in case they make others around them feel upset. They don’t want to remind them that they have lost them. If you have every lost someone no one can remind you that you have lost them, you carry them around with you forever.

“It’s important to talk about them and the nice memories. Being able to process that loss is huge. If you hold it in and don’t talk about it you are pushing down your emotions and not dealing with them and they could present themselves in later life.”

For the vast majority of patients, the biggest and most important step along the road to recovery is the first step.

Jessie said: “I’m in awe of any child, or any person, who has the courage to walks through those doors. I never forget their first session and think how amazing and brave they are. When I first became a counsellor I worked with adults, and I know how difficult an adult can find it going to counselling, yet for a child to want to go to counselling and talk about their emotions, I think that’s huge.

“It also encourages their parents. They must think, ‘If my child can talk about their emotions and what’s happened to them, maybe I can too’.”

Jessie said that seeing a patient come out the other side of therapy was by far the most satisfying side of her job.

She said: “When I see them smiling at the end of it, it’s a lovely feeling. I feel more proud of them because I don’t see it as being on me, it’s down to them. They had it all inside of them, it’s maybe just shining a light on what tools they can use or what they need to do in order to help themselves.

“Everybody has it in them. I think sometimes we just struggle and don’t see it, all it takes is a little bit of support and a safe place for them to explore their emotions.”

(Lead image: Swansea Bay NHS)

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