Bridging the Gap: A journey with Tom & Mary

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a couple overcome communication weaknesses to build a stronger future together.

Tom & Mary had been together 4 years when lockdown began and had been living together for two years in Tom’s house. They had great plans for the future having sold Mary’s house, and were getting ready to sell Tom’s house to buy a home together – when the pandemic started..

The last 4 years hadn’t been a simple journey for them. Tom’s previous marriage broke down many years ago, and his children, now adults, struggled to accept Mary into their lives. Mary had 3 grown-up children, and while she had had two long-term relationships, they felt threatened by this new relationship. Life wasn’t straightforward but they had begun to build relationships with their stepchildren… another thing put on hold by lockdown.

Tom was then made redundant, and Mary was furloughed, so finances began to get stretched and living in the house all the time together brought out tensions between them that Tom couldn’t make sense of. Mary often lost her temper and would shut down when he tried to discuss it with her. He started  worrying about this relationship falling apart like his marriage had

He knew they needed help, so he got in touch with us at Relate Northamptonshire.

Initial Meeting

Mary is very reluctant to come to the first couple counselling session, but eventually is persuaded by Tom who’s keen to restore their relationship through counselling. 

However, Mary refuses to acknowledge any part in the breakdown of their relationship, and in our first session announces that she isn’t sure she wants the relationship to continue. 

At this point, it is really important to see each of them individually, giving each partner time to share their perspectives on the relationship, and their relationship history. These individual meetings are completely confidential, so give both Tom and Mary the ability to speak openly with their counsellor.

I meet with Mary first. It becomes apparent that her previous relationships were mentally abusive. She is only just beginning to recognise what that abuse did to her emotionally: low self-esteem, low confidence, the inability to make decisions, and particularly struggling to deal well with conflict. As we discuss her past, we notice together a similar pattern from her childhood – her parents didn’t manage disagreements well either.

Tom, on the other hand, feels completely helpless. He’s desperate to get this right. In his first marriage, his wife drove everything and he went along with what she said – but he wants to learn to be stronger and more assertive in this relationship. He’s worried that it’s not working, but he doesn’t want to go back to the way he was before.

It is clear from their two histories that there is a significant communication gap between them. They both bring lots of baggage to the relationship that they haven’t unpacked together. This is leading to a lack of understanding between them.


In our next session, with both Tom and Mary, we focus on the need to rebuild the foundations of their relationship. I start by setting a very simple exercise of active listening 3 or 4 times a week. Tom and Mary sit down together at the kitchen table with a cup of tea. One speaks to the other without interruption, and the other then reflects back what they have heard. They listen not only to one another’s words but also their body language and tone. The listener also avoids inputting their own opinion or comment. They are practicing really hearing each other’s perspectives.

Over a number of weeks, this practice begins to bear fruit. They find that the cycle of arguments is beginning to be broken and instead, they are finding ways to listen to each other.

Through this process, Mary is able to communicate that she feels trust has been broken. Tom spoke to his children about what was going on between them before he started counselling, which felt like a betrayal. It has further damaged the relationship she has with his children. Tom apologised for his actions, but Mary is still left with the sense of broken trust.

Building Bridges

An individual session with Mary helps her to realise that she wants to tell Tom about her previous relationships but feels crippled by fear and shame. We discuss the possibility of telling her story in the dark, where she can’t see his face – but while cuddling to give physical reassurance of his presence.

Mary decides to have this conversation, with Tom using his active listening skills to really hear her. Mary feels safe in the dark with him, and he is able to show that he respects her voice – and that she is emotionally safe with him.

It’s a huge turning point for them both. Tom begins to understand Mary’s responses, and he adapts his words and actions so that he doesn’t trigger those memories in her. And in return, Mary begins to trust Tom, and is no longer acting out of fear.

Ending well

Mary and Tom have been on a huge journey through counselling. Their unspoken past created a big gap in understanding between them. As they leave counselling, they have learnt how to communicate and have started to bridge that gap. They can disagree well, without falling into an argument. And they continue to practice active listening.

It’s wonderful to see them begin to think once again of the future, and plan a life together. They are intentionally rebuilding relationships with their stepchildren, with each other’s full support; Tom is looking for work; and they hope in a year or two to buy a house that’s theirs.

Both Tom and Mary are aware that they may face further challenges in the future – and both say they would be quick to return to counselling again if things go awry. 

We always have an open door at Relate, because we know that building bridges takes time – and relationships are a work in progress. 

This story was told by Lin, a Relate counsellor specialising in couples & families.

Many relationships have been deeply stretched by the coronavirus pandemic. We believe that these crises points can become moments to build new strength in intimate relationships. If you and your partner are struggling to communicate well, get in touch with us. It could be one of the best things you ever do for each other.

Is my child struggling with their mental health?

How can parents know whether or not their child is struggling with their mental health? How do we assess or measure a child’s state of mind?

This matters all the more today and even more now as they step back into the school environment after nearly 3 months away. Many children will take time finding their feet again, especially adjusting to school in its Covid-secure form.

So, what can we do to help them? And how do we assess if they are coping?

Annie, one of our Northamptonshire Relate counsellors who specialises in children and young people, shares here three areas which might indicate your child is struggling, and gives you ways you can support your child.  Bear in mind each child is different; we will notice changes in their behaviour and mood in different ways.

What are the key signs that my child is struggling?

  1. Have you noticed changing sleep patterns in your child? Are they struggling to get to sleep, or waking very early? Sleep is vital for good mental health, and disrupted sleep is a clear indicator that a child is struggling. Take time to notice when a child goes to sleep, how well they sleep and when they wake up. Compare it to what you would consider “usual” for them and notice any changes.
  2. Is your child not willing to talk anymore? Do they spend more time in their room or on their own? When a child withdraws from relationship, it’s likely that they are feeling low. They may have emotions they are afraid to articulate, or perhaps they feel the contrast between themselves and happier members of the family. If you notice your child avoiding connection, you know that there’s something difficult in their inner world.
  3. Are your child’s reactions out of proportion? Do they explode over a small thing, or dissolve into tears over a small problem? Do they seem quickly overwhelmed? Inner turmoil often leaves us vulnerable to ‘overflow’: because we’re already containing so much unexpressed emotion, we have no inner space to cope, even with small things. This sensitivity can indicate that your child needs a way of processing all that’s going on in their mind.

Boy and mumHow can I help my child?

You may have noticed only one of the above, or your child might be exhibiting all three symptoms. Whatever your situation, there are plenty of things you can do to help. If you notice all these symptoms or are unable to shift any of these behaviours, talk to your GP for further help or contact us.

Good sleep

Helping your child get good sleep is a sure way of improving their mental health. There are many things you can do here, but routine is the key. Work with your child to develop a good routine that helps them wind down to sleep well; these work as well for children as they do for us!

Here are some ideas:

  • Turn phones and devices off 1 hour before bedtime, and charging them in another room. The stresses of screens are well documented, so cutting down use of them before bed helps limit their impact on sleep.
  • Set a going to sleep and waking up time for the same time every day of the week – including the weekend.
  • Plan how they will get ready for bed: a bath, clean teeth, pyjamas, a story or reading time and then lights out, for example. With the repeated pattern every evening, their mind will learn that this routine means it’s time for sleep.
  • Plan how they will get up: getting dressed, opening the curtains, having breakfast – a routine to tell their body it’s morning.
  • If your child is kept awake by specific worries or fears, build into their bedtime routine an occasion to write those down or name them. Buy a book to be their worry book, encourage them to write down all the things in their head and then put the book, and their worries, away somewhere outside their room. You could also use a worry monster or a worry box for younger children.
  • If your child is keeping a record of their worries, agree a time once a week where you’ll look through those worries together. There may be some they feel able to cross out and others you can talk about together. Avoid a time too close to bedtime.

Better connection

Every parent knows you can’t force a child to communicate. Nor can you choose the times when they will suddenly be ready to open up! So how can we help improve their connection with family?

  • Notice the times your child is most likely to talk and deliberately make space to be available at that time. Invite them to join you for a drink or a snack at that time. Let them lead the conversation, and be curious about what they want to talk about.
  • Make it a habit to sit down together as a family and look at the week ahead. Talk about the things you would each like to do together that week and when you’re going to do them. This might be going on a walk, preparing a special meal or dessert together, playing a game, popcorn and a film… Don’t fill every day – choose a few things that everyone enjoys. The goal here is to build connection.
  • We all feel love in different ways (broadly, there are five love languages). Try to discern how your child feels love most (the Family Love Languages Quiz can help here) and seek out opportunities to love them in that way. This will increase their sense of connection, and they are more likely to open up to you.

Manage emotions

When your child is emotionally overwhelmed, there’s a need to work through all the things they’re feeling. This can be challenging if they are struggling to name or understand their emotions, but there are ways you can support them in articulating themselves, and ways to help them discharge the power of those emotions.

  • Build family habits around sharing the ups and downs of the day. Meal times together are a great time to do this. Ask one another what the best bit of the day was and what the worst bit of the day was. Model naming the emotions for those moments yourself, to help build emotional literacy. This process helps externalise worries your child might be feeling, and develops their vocabulary around emotions.
  • Plan a regular walk, run or other simple outdoor exercise with them. This can afford surprising opportunities to talk, without the pressure of face-to-face contact.
  • Are there other key grown-ups that your child has a good relationship with? Build a time in their week where they can regularly chat or if possible meet in person (following current restrictions). This gives your child more opportunities for conversation with people they trust.

How can Relate help?

With the trauma of the pandemic over the last year, it’s expected that some children will be struggling with their mental health, and for some, extra help will be needed.

At Relate Northamptonshire, we have significant expertise in counselling children and young people. If you find your child is stuck, and are struggling to know how to help them, get in touch with our support team. We can see children aged 13+ by Zoom or telephone for counselling. Or, if your child is younger than 13, we can support you as a parent in helping your child.

We also may have funding to help support children in particular circumstances, so don’t hesitate to call us on 01604 634400 and find out more.

The Perfect Friday Night Family Quiz

We all love a good quiz! Especially a personality quiz, telling us things that are so true we can’t believe we hadn’t noticed yet. And that’s exactly what this family love languages quiz does…

This Family Love Languages Quiz (found on the Five Love Languages website) is a great way for a family to find out more about each other – and it’s suitable from age 8 up. Check out the five love languages below, each have a go at the quiz and then take on the challenges at the end of the article!

What are love languages?

Love languages are the different ways we experience and express love. We each prefer a different ‘language’ of love. That’s why you might feel very loved by one person, who happens to share your love language – and baffled by another, who shows you love in a completely different way.

There are 5 broad love languages:living out the five love languages at home

  1. Physical touch: holding hands, a hug, a massage, even just simply touching someone’s arm – for some, physical contact with others makes their heart sing.
  2. Words of affirmation: when someone says something positive to you, whether about what you’ve done, how you look or who you are – this is the highlight of your day.
  3. Acts of service: perhaps it leaves you feeling fantastic when someone goes out of their way to help you, even in little ways – helping with the household chores without being asked, tidying away a mess before you’ve even thought about it or popping to the shops when the milk has run out.
  4. Quality time: spending focussed time over a coffee or dinner; playing a game together; going on a walk. Someone choosing to spend good time with you means you feel deeply loved.
  5. Gifts: it might be a bunch of daffodils, or a diamond ring; perhaps they made a card and posted it. Getting gifts is what really makes you buzz.

Love languages aren’t just about how you best feel love – they’re also the most natural way you give love too. So you can often spot someone’s love language by noticing how they show love to you!

Do the quiz

Everyone needs to do the quiz on their own. (Select the relevant age group at the start.) Secretly write down your love language results in order from most to least.

Challenge Time!

Guess the love language

Can you guess each family members’ top love language – and the one that means zilch to them?

Note down what you think for each family member and see who gets the most right!

Write down everyone’s top love language and stick it somewhere in the house, like on the fridge or a pinboard.

Most loving moment this week

See if you can each think of the moment you felt most loved this week. Does it match your love language?

What about a moment when you showed love to someone else? Does it match your love language – or theirs?

Why do love languages matter for my family?

Love languages matter because they are a key way of communicating with each other. Showing love well to each other opens up conversation and connection that would otherwise not happen.

When parents know their childrens’ love languages, they can make sure that they are loving them in a way they understand. And children – particularly teens – benefit from knowing what really helps their parents feel loved.

At Relate, we believe families really matter. Family is the primary place where children learn how to love. It is where they develop emotional literacy, that equips them for the outside world.

There are lots of ways in which family trust and closeness can be broken. It can then become very hard to show love to one another. If your family is struggling to connect with one another, especially after the pressures and complexities of lockdown, our counsellors can help you. We are still running family counselling, via Zoom or telephone. Get in touch with us today to find out more.

Defeating the Poisonous Parrot: A Journey with Sonia

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story recounts how a young woman defeats her poisonous parrot and rediscovers her self-confidence.

Sonia is a bubbly, cheerful, positive 20-something woman with an active social life and lots of friends.

Or she was.

During the pandemic, she regularly joined social Zoom meetings and connected digitally with as many friends as she could. She was working from home, living on her own and feeling OK.

Then friends started to comment on a change in her. “You don’t seem your normal self.” “Are you OK? You’re not as upbeat as normal.”

Sonia realised that she wasn’t OK, something was out of kilter. So, she came to counselling, not sure what the problem was but knowing she needed help.

Initial Meeting

We began counselling over the telephone. Sonia described how something had shifted and she wasn’t herself any more. She felt guilty for not being positive. She was losing motivation for work, for her home, for herself… it just wasn’t like her to feel down, and she didn’t know what to do about it.

We talked about what being positive means to Sonia, and it became clear that much of her self-worth was attached to being happy all the time. If she was negative, people wouldn’t want to spend time with her, so she worked hard at putting on a positive front. Even though, inside, she felt miserable.

She began to recognise that she was being bombarded by negative thoughts about how she felt. She was annoyed with herself for feeling low. What would happen when we came out of lockdown and could see people again? No one would want to be with her if she felt like this.

And those thoughts were spiralling, becoming more and more toxic, more and more unforgiving of herself eroding her confidence and self-esteem.

We agreed that we needed to explore these thoughts and emotions together and unpick what was happening for Sonia.


In our next session, we started by talking about all of these ideas and emotions. Which ones did she feel were acceptable, and which were unacceptable? What feelings did she reject?

We began to reframe those feelings she rejected and look at them a different way.

With anger, for instance, we framed it as a tool that gives drive and focus. It’s how you behave as a result of that anger that brings a reaction in others.

We recognised that she beat herself up about feeling sad. But we reframed sadness as her mind telling her it needed something. What did she need when she was sad? How could she be kinder to herself?

Growing in confidence

As we continued counselling, Sonia quickly noticed the impact reframing her emotions had on her. She found that when she accepted her sadness, it didn’t last as long as it did when she rejected the emotion.

A key moment for Sonia came soon after, as we considered what made her reject those feelings. As a child, Sonia was never allowed to show she was cross, or express herself negatively. She wasn’t allowed to say if she was frightened, upset or angry.

Showing emotions was considered a weakness in her family.

But Sonia found that talking about her emotions actually built resilience in her, not weakness.

With this growth in confidence, Sonia decided to switch to Zoom counselling. It was simpler than she thought, with just a link to click on. She found being in the same ‘room’, seeing one another’s reactions, helped her have courage to open up in a new way.

The Poisonous Parrot

A turning point in counselling for Sonia was discovering her poisonous parrot.

A poisonous parrot is a way of describing the negative feedback we give ourselves. This “parrot” is taught, by us and those around us, to say horrible things to us all day – it is an internalised bully. It is a hollow echo of a long-forgotten lie about who we are.

The problem is this parrot is hidden in our subconscious; we have to discover it, and pull it into our conscious mind before we can deal with it.

When Sonia identified the poisonous parrot in her mind, she became able to tackle the negative thoughts. She learnt to look at each negative thought, and challenge it. She would ask her parrot “where’s your evidence?”.

So when her parrot said “You’re not very good,” she could respond “I am, I did all these good things today. I am a good person.”

Each time she challenged the negative thoughts, she reduced the parrot’s power. She became increasingly adept at spotting the bullying thoughts of her parrot and meeting them head-on.

Finishing Well

As we came to the end of our counselling together, Sonia had grown significantly in her understanding of herself. Her self-esteem and self-confidence were coming back.

One particular response to her poisonous parrot had wonderful side effects for Sonia’s friends. When her parrot told her one evening “no-one wants to talk to you”, she decided to pick up the phone and ring someone. It turned out that the person she rang was having similar feelings.

Sonia’s bravery and increasing resilience led to the creation of a support group amongst her friends. Once a week, they spoke to one another and were as real as possible about their poisonous parrots.

Sonia’s advice to you today is reach out to people. Even if you feel trapped, make connections. You are not on your own – plenty of people feel as you do.

Take the time, with the help of others, to notice your poisonous parrot. When you pull it out of your subconscious, you can challenge it and change it.

This story was told by Debbie, a Relate counsellor specialising in mental health.

Many of us face mental health challenges through this extended period of lockdown, whether we live on our own or with others, but we don’t have to wait for the pandemic to be over to tackle these difficulties. Like Sonia, you can strengthen your mental health and build your confidence right now. Get in touch with our support team to arrange counselling today. You can read more about the poisonous parrot on Get Self Help’s website (adapted from “The Malevolent Parrot” by Kristina Ivings). 

3 #covid Christmas tips for coping with loss

Many families this year have lost someone to #covid, or because of #covid. Facing grief and loss is often harder at Christmas, especially this year. So how do we cope with loss in the midst of Christmas cheer?

  1. Gather as a household and light a special candle, perhaps next to a picture of your loved one. This act of remembering permits all the sadness, anger and other emotions that loss causes, and gives it space.
  2. Share memories and stories together. It can be easy to avoid remembering, especially if those memories come with the pain of grief, but sharing memories can also bring laughter and joy.
  3. When tears come, let them come. They are a natural part of grieving someone we love, and are acceptable expressions of loss even at Christmas.

Remembering those we love at Christmas is always bitter-sweet. Making space for the joy of memories alongside mourning helps everyone to heal.

Bereavement during the #pandemic has been extremely difficult for many. If you need help processing your grief, please get in touch.

3 #covid Christmas tips for individuals

This Christmas may be more isolating for some due to the COVID #pandemic. Here at Relate we believe everyone deserves to enjoy a “Happy Christmas”. If you find yourself alone over Christmas, these three tips will help you create something special for yourself:

  1. Take time to connect with others. The Christmas season can be the best time to reconnect with old friends, to spread joy with those whom you connect to on a regular basis, or to reach out to those whom you know do not have regular communication with others. Whether in person or digital, make a date to connect with others over Christmas.
  2. Take time to care for yourself. Everyone deserves to be treated, and to feel special. Planning time to do the things you love takes us away from the mundane of everyday life. From an at-home spa experience to back-to-back action movies, any activity that absorbs and refreshes you can boost your sense of wellbeing.
  3. Take time to get moving. Get out of the house for a short run/walk. If you’re unable to get out of the house, try working out alongside an online fitness instructor. Or keep it festive and dance along to the beat of your favourite Christmas music! Don’t forget to open the windows to let that fresh air in!

The list of things to do for yourself is endless. Reflect on what brings you joy and peace of mind, and make a date with yourself, for yourself. Have a Happy Christmas and a Happy New Year.

3 #covid Christmas tips for families

The #pandemic has been an intense time for many families with younger children. Five days of semi-normal life may actually feel overwhelming for some young children and (let’s face it) some adults too. And of course afterwards, we are back into our small bubbles, with a very limited social circle. So, planning ahead for this holiday enables families to have positive time together. For our 3 #covid Christmas tips for families, we recommend:

  1. Space to be. Allow all members of the family some time and space to just ‘be’ and not having to be constantly ‘doing’. This can be done together or individually.
  2. Outdoor refreshment. Go out for a walk! It doesn’t have to be a very long one, but try and include a visit to a park or somewhere to play in fresh air.
  3. Family games. ‘Play’ together if at all possible. This can be board games or outdoor games, whatever is easily available.

Embracing this season for what it brings us can really help. The opportunities to bond and hang out as a family are ample – and set the foundation of close relationships for the coming years. A little intentional planning can help this Christmas be a precious time.

If your family needs support because of the upheaval of the pandemic, we can help you find your balance again. Find out about family counselling.

3 #covid Christmas tips for teens

This Christmas may seem exceptionally challenging for teenagers. It’s a time where friendships outside the family are a priority. Here are 3 Christmas tips to help you support your teens:

  1. Talk about and plan this Christmas break together. This helps in two ways. Firstly, it can give space to share internalised feelings (anger, sadness at not being able to socialise with friends and family) and for these feelings to be accepted. Don’t brush over them or minimise them: give them air and time. Secondly, in a year where many decisions have been out of their control they can help make some decisions about Christmas.  Do they have any ideas what they would like to do as a family or group over this different Christmas, or any ideas for new Christmas traditions? This can bring positive feelings about the Christmas break.
  2. The end of the year is an ideal opportunity to reflect on the year gone and how resilient you have been as a family or group. Why not find a way to look back together as a family. What were the highlights of the year? What helped you all get through the more challenging times? How did you look after yourselves when things felt difficult?
  3. Let them know you are available if they want to talk. You don’t need answers or solutions, just listening is enough.

These two weeks can be a positive and refreshing time for us and our teens. Bring them into the journey to help them process and reflect, ready for a new year.

Some teenagers will be struggling to cope with the emotional and mental burden #covid has put on them. Our counselling services for young people can help them develop coping strategies and see a way forward.

3 #covid Christmas tips for couples

#Covid has put immense pressure on our relationships, testing strength and resilience as a couple. So how do can we do Christmas well? Here are our 3 tips for couples:

  1. Make a rough plan together for your Christmas. Many disagreements can be avoided if you have similar expectations for the holiday – and you can work together on a plan that reflects both of your needs over Christmas.
  2. Don’t underestimate the value of alone time. Balance time with others, time as a couple and time alone. Give each other room to rest, emotionally and mentally, so that your time together can be blessed.
  3. Make a date night together to reflect on the past year. Talk about the things you’ve gotten better at as a couple, and how you can build on them in the coming year.

Whether this year has been difficult for you as a couple, or has brought you closer together, these tips can help bring refreshing and closer intimacy in preparation for the year to come.

Does your relationship need a bit more help? Find out how couple counselling can help you to flourish together.

Skills for Life: A Journey with Joe

This series tells fictional stories of the counselling journey. Drawn from our counsellors’ extensive experience, this story explores how a young teenager learns to name and handle complex emotions.

At the Start

13-year-old Joe’s life, like that of many young teenagers, had been in significant turmoil since March. All of a sudden, half way through year 7, he was at home with his parents. He had only just begun solidifying friendships with new classmates. His parents were both adjusting to home working and both had huge work demands on their time and energy. They were pleased that Joe seemed content to look after himself and do his schoolwork by himself, mostly in his room.

Fast forward to September and the picture is entirely different. At first, Joe’s mum thought he was just struggling with back-to-school anxiety. But his increasing anger over the following few weeks, especially in the mornings, became harder and harder to deal with. Eventually, one day, he point-blank refused school. Mum and Dad had run out of ideas.

The school were surprised too. During year 7, he’d seemed calm, capable and friendly. Now he was volatile in school or simply not showing up.

Joe’s school and his parents agreed that counselling was the next step, so they registered him with our team at Relate Northamptonshire.

Visualising complex emotions

When Joe arrived for counselling, it was clear to me that he didn’t want to be there. We spent the first session talking about what counselling was. I explained confidentiality – the fact that I wouldn’t be reporting to his parents or teachers, it was just between us. We also talked about the fact that he could choose whether to come back after this session. It was his choice.

I then made some space for Joe to tell me his story of the last 6 months. He found it very hard to verbalise what was happening for him. Like many young teenagers, he struggled to find the language for his complex emotions.

Joe did decide to come back for another session. I started this session by asking him to draw a picture of his house and where he and his parents were in it. One one half of the paper, he drew his house now, and on the other, his house before coronavirus. In his picture of now, he drew his parents downstairs, and himself upstairs on his own, in his bedroom. I gently began exploring his picture, paying attention to his body language as well as his words. He noticed that he was upstairs on his own, and we added some emoji faces to his drawing to illustrate how he felt and how he thought others were feeling.

We then looked together at his picture from the past. How did everyone feel in that picture? What was different? What had changed for them, and why?


As we looked at Joe’s pictures in our following session, we talked about the changes that had taken place. We noticed together that he used to be with the rest of the family but was now alone. He’d got in the habit of being separate from everyone, and when he thought about it he actually did want to be with everyone else.

This was a significant revelation for Joe. He realised that he didn’t want things to be the way they were.

We spent some time over the next few sessions talking about emotions and how to recognise them. Using a firework as a model, we broke down our emotional responses into chunks. We identified the “match”: the thing that starts the emotional response off. Then we thought about the “fuse” – what begins the process towards the explosion? How does his body feel at that stage? What are the signs to notice? And we talked about what it’s like for him when the firework goes off. Joe and I developed together some techniques for him to cope with the explosive emotions he was feeling. This helped him to feel more in control of his internal world.

Accepting Emotions

It came up during our discussions that he hated being angry. He hated himself for losing control in that way. But having strategies to manage his anger legitimised it as an emotion. He was allowed to feel anger – it didn’t mean he lost control of himself or his internal world.

I noticed with Joe that his anger was actually rooted in sadness and loss. Culture had taught him that boys don’t cry; sadness is a weakness. This build-up of sadness in him eventually would explode in anger. We thought about the idea of sadness as weakness, and whether or not it was true. We also discussed what happens when we don’t express our emotions. Joe began to understand himself and his emotions, and to see that it was better to share those emotions.

He finally found the courage to begin talking to his mum about how he was feeling. It was a huge thing for mum to realise that Joe’s anger was rooted in sadness and a sense of loss. It changed her perspective on Joe’s behaviour, and the increased understanding between them began to remove the heat from Joe’s anger. Their relationship improved as they shared his journey together.

As Joe and his mum began to understand what was going on, they made some changes together in the house. Joe began joining the family for meals again. His mum consciously invited him to join them at other times of the day. They set up better boundaries in their house around working times. They limited conversations about coronavirus and lockdown. These changes began to change Joe’s picture of his house.

Ending well

As our counselling sessions came to an end with Joe, we looked back at the journey we’d been on. We saw that he had learnt to recognise and express difficult emotions. He had better relationships with his parents, and was attending school regularly.

He’d developed some skills for life – strategies to deal with big emotions.

Perhaps most significantly, his view of himself had changed. He no longer hated himself for feeling anger or sadness. He recognised the legitimacy of how he felt, and he was able to be kinder to himself when he felt sad, angry or lost.

Not everything was fixed for Joe. But he felt empowered, with the tools he needed to manage all the chaos inside him. And his restored relationship with his mum had given him the support he needed to manage the ups and downs of the coming months.

This story was told by Annie, a Relate counsellor specialising in children and young people.

At a time of significant change for all of us, many children will be struggling to make sense of both the world around them and their internal world. We are counselling children & young people online, from ages 13+. For younger children, we can work with parents to support them in helping their child process their emotions and adjust to new circumstances. Get in touch with our support team today to discuss how we can help your child or teenager.