Pre-Teens Seeking Self—-How to Help Overcome Power Struggles

A few years ago I attended a Play Therapy one day workshop, focusing on the how-to’s of professionally interacting with that very difficult age–PRE-TEEN.  Difficult because Play therapy is well, about PLAY and this age of kid either wants to TALK or NOT ENGAGE at all.

It was a low-key, bring your sack lunch-type of workshop.  Most of us were in-the-trenches clinicians looking for an “ah-hah” moment of “wow, why didn’t I think of that?”  We had a couple of individual speakers, then a panel and then back to our one-day expert-in-the-field presenter.

By late afternoon it was clear that our presenters were struggling with their topic.  Getting pre-teens to talk about feelings, about fears, about goals–when they only want to filter out all adults is Very Difficult. And no one on stage seemed to have any FRESH, NEW, IMPROVED ideas for what brought about a successful conclusion when a parent brought in their PRE-TEEN to TALK to the THERAPIST (oh my gosh, a power struggle to the death has occurred before our child has even entered our office).

I finally raised my hand and asked, “Doesn’t anybody use experiential games?”

Apparently not.  But it did start a rather “awakening” of discussion within the audience.

Here’s how this works (at least for me) using the following example:

Our 11-year-old boy would rather seclude himself in his room, earphone super glued to his ear canal, watching a monitor (be it computer, phone, pad, etc) than to have to share a meal with his family, go on a family outing “all together,” join a club (including sports and scouts) or enjoy any sense of communal living.

I believe that we wrongly assume, most of the time, that this 11-year-old creature (boy or girl) truly enjoys their own company to anyone else (except for maybe one friend for the boy and as many girls as can be packed into a bedroom for the girl). It is a painful time of uncertainty which is cocooned into power struggles that often have little to do with the internal battle for self-approval and respect.

This is an intense time of exploring that inner self that asks questions of “WHO AM I?”  How do my peers see me?  How do I see myself?  If an adult approves of me, isn’t that the kiss of death?  The absolute worse thing in the world is to be viewed as “ugly.”

And when I look in the mirror what do I see?  UGLY!  When I try to do anything, I’m pretty much a failure, at least I judge myself to be a failure before all my friends see me that way.

There is no WINNING with this type of developmental formula.  And almost everyone passes through it to some degree (or a huge degree).  Who wants to repeat Jr. High?

So, enter playing GAMES.  The kind of GAMES that are thinking outside of that old box.  Once I know what is important to the child sitting in front of me, I work to establish a “detective game.”   Mystery, suspense, being able to tell an adult “you’re wrong,” and solving “the problem” (remember, the child is NOT the problem–the PROBLEM is the PROBLEM).

  • I outline to the child that I am like a detective in this story and that the child has total say in how we approach it.  I am here solely for the child’s usage.
  • I respectfully ask the child to tell me the PROBLEM for his/her point of view.  (If “telling” doesn’t work, I will use drawing, sand tray items, etc, to give the child freedom of expression.  To control what he/she “says.”
  • And then what would be the best outcome for the PROBLEM, according to the child.  (If need be, I interject the conflict between parent and child in “best outcome” and allow for more determination or compromise.)
  • I give verbal permission and promote that the child needs to “correct” my perceptions of what he/she is telling me.

Then this can take many different forms.  I can weave a fictional story about the same set of circumstances, which is “just talking.”  Or, I can turn to my sand tray and ask the child to build his/her world using sand tray techniques.  Or, depending upon developmental levels, I can create a whole “table top” Adventure Based Counseling Game, involving the child in PLAYING a “can you figure this out and win” game.

By now I have a client/child who is invested in telling me his/her story and working WITH me to come to a successful conclusion.  It is an extreme compliment when the client/child “gets it” and begins to reach ahead of me in the process.

Whew, this was a long post, but I hope that it has helped with the RELATIONSHIP between you and your Pre-Teen.

Be gentle with yourself and your children.

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