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.
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.
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.