Al Trieschman (1931-1984) of the Walker Home near Boston, USA, was an author of the book The Other 23 Hours, one of the best-known texts for child care workers. His great contribution was to translate the daily living environments of children into powerful treatment contexts — allowing child care workers to contribute materially to clinical goals. Some excerpts from his writings illustrate his gift for combining simplicity with therapeutic relevance ...
Helping children to master their sadness
Children who hate often are children who have suffered so many losses that they are “cried out,” unwilling or unable to deal with any more sadness. The child’s sadness and sense of loss am easily overlooked in our eagerness to “get things under control.” We are inclined to help them deal with anger, when perhaps we should focus on developing their competence to deal with loss.
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In our work with hyperaggressive children at the Walker School, we have been forced to think about ways we could help children learn to deal with loss and sadness, while we were coping with their acting out behavior. We find opportunities for teaching about sadness in the circumstances of daily living. Hopefully, our notions help the adults who encounter the child in the 23 hours outside therapy to be constructive agents of change in the child’s life.
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Some events have the clear ring of loss — the homesickness of new arrivals, the discharge of a child’s close friend, the death of a pet, the leaving of a favorite staff member — these obviously significant events are rarely overlooked. But there are the ‘small’ losses that present worthwhile opportunities to help children develop loss-bearing, including broken or missing toys, no mail, losing a game, difficulty in mastering a skill. Teaching loss-bearing capacities at such times not only helps extend the emotional competence of children, but also helps keep behavior within reasonable limits.
To encourage a child to ventilate his feelings of sadness directly is a useful teaching device. One might say to a child, “one of the things you can do first when you’re feeling sad like this is to cry. It’s all right. The tears won’t last forever; you’ll be able to stop.” One might suggest a private place to an older child too embarrassed to cry openly in the company of peers.
An equally useful device is to help a child develop the capacity to repress or suppress sadness, to “forget about it.” There are times that for the benefit of helping a child repair his life end proceed to grow, crying must stop. If the child is to learn skills and participate in scholastic affairs, the task of “putting the sadness in the back of his mind” has to be given to the child.
The language of feelings can be used to teach and remind children of possible ways of behaving when “sad.” One can teach a child that when he names feelings and can talk about them, he can know them himself and then tell others how he feels. To enhance the awareness of feelings, the techniques of role-playing, improvisation, and acting can be used.
Another teaching device is the use that staff make of their own feelings. When we feel disappointment, experience loss, and then model and share the emotional experience with children, our example may be imitated.
When we ourselves can ventilate, keep working, use a little humor, the children can use the opportunity to be observant pupils.
When we exploit small segments of reality to teach about dealing with sadness; we make use of innumerable opportunities that occur daily such as the end of a pleasant game or the loss of a favorite staff member until tomorrow. At these times, it is also possible to use the technique of encouraging partial replacements for losses, such as reattachments to a new friend, or even transitory withdrawal. The child who does not know how to use solitude has a tremendous temptation to ward off or deny sadness by being constantly in the thick of things. This youngster might need to learn to develop the capacity to be alone and find that there is a “constancy of people” who still accept him on return.
It is important to note that we have not focused on pathological depression or distortions of the mourning process. Indeed, these occur — and with frequency among disturbed children — but we emphasize that learning to master loss is a human necessity, not just a “cure” to mental illness. Our techniques help adults make an alliance with that part of the child struggling against his difficulties. This is an alliance for teaching emotional competence.