CONVERSATIONS WITH… A Child Therapist

Katy Harris has made it her life’s work to use behavioural therapy to help kids cope with tough life situations.

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While we love our kids unconditionally, one of the biggest challenges we face as parents is managing difficult or defiant behaviour in our little ones.

Such behaviour can manifest from a young age in the form of full-blown tantrums, refusing to cooperate (such as putting on their shoes), or speaking in a rude manner even after being admonished told not to repeatedly.

Bad behaviour doesn’t make for bad kids. They are usually a result of an inner turmoil that’s upsetting your child or may be due to a developmental delay, such as autism. Whatever the reason, many parents find themselves at their wit’s end as to how to respond to their child’s challenging behaviour.

For these parents, working with a child behavioural therapist like Katy Harris can make all the difference. With 15 years of professional experience under her belt, Harris knows the struggle all too well, especially since she herself is a mum of two children with autism and ADHD, whom she had adopted as babies. Her kids are now in their late 20s.

“As my own children experienced a range of anxiety, anger, friendship issues and classroom problems, I moved from early years teaching to special education and then counselling to help myself help them,” explains Harris as to how she got started in this area.

“Just because you take a lot longer to grow up than most doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s all about finding new resources and the patience to keep going to get them on their feet.”

Harris, who operates mainly from her clinic, Family SOS, works with expat and local kids with varied needs from all walks of life. As a mum of two kids with social and emotional ​delays, she can also identify with and reach out to the parents of the kids she works with.

“When my kids were growing up, there was much less support for social learning. The emotional challenges, with several school switches, and quite a lot of family drama really made me want to ease the suffering this creates for parents and children alike,” says Harris.

“I’ve spent years as a teacher handling the hard-to-manage kids, but it’s much more painful being the parent facing the tough teacher talks and hearing that my children were seen as disruptive, especially when I knew they were skill delayed.”

Instead of writing off behavioural issues or developmental delays as a disability, Harris prefers to see it as a “diffability” ― a different ability. With that in mind, and using various techniques, she helps her clients explore their issues in a safe space as well as find the right tools to help them address it, so that they can move forward in life.

“Just because you take a lot longer to grow up than most doesn’t mean you’ve failed,” points out Harris. “It’s all about finding new resources and the patience to keep going to get them on their feet.”

Hi Katy, what are the biggest obstacles faced in your job?
It can be hard for a family to be confronted with new perspectives of their child or new ideas. So, I must balance the client’s need for trust with my own ability to trust myself and take risks and be open and engage with honesty about their children’s issues.

And what you love most about your job?
I see children from ages 3 to 23 with a huge variety of issues, and parents too, so I have the opportunity to really stretch and gain knowledge all the time. My clients are my greatest source of learning. I love being with children ― it’s energising. I enjoy the change I see and the ease within their social or family circle as they gain the learning they need. Every child, hour and day is different and although my room is a safe space for anger or tears, there is a great deal of release in laughter and some sword fighting, obstacle courses and silliness, too.

 

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Working with children can be hard, especially if they’re not cooperative. How do you get them to open up?
I think two of my client’s greatest obstacles are feeling uncertain and worrying about error. So, I make my room a place where making mistakes is taken lightly and can be useful ― and I model that with my many mistakes! I also try to involve the children in making their own plans, so they can develop a sense of ownership of the session. Talk is not the only way to get communication going ― play, painting, play dough, pretend play, these are all ways to connect, too.

What methods do you use in your therapy?
I trained in sand-tray work many years before it become popular here. It is a method of storytelling and expression using sand, water, and miniature objects. It allows inner emotions and struggle to surface and acts as a safe way to give space to feelings that are too hard to talk about. This is a popular tool in which boys can fight out their frustrations with mini-warriors or feel strength through stories of super heroes. Scared kids create themes of threat and like to lock the baddies away.

“Talk is not the only way to get communication going ― play, painting, play dough, pretend play, these are all ways to connect, too.”

Could you talk about your most difficult cases?
Some of my most difficult cases involve selective mutism whereby a child can talk but does not talk outside the home. Building their ability to take risks and gain confidence is key but it is a slow process that I need to take care in case they revert to non-talking. I often have to start the first session without any words expected at all, and yet if I can gain trust that there is no pressure to use words, over time words will arise. Of course, some of my most difficult cases involve the loss of a parent or significant health concerns for siblings and these really impact a family over time. Working through the stages of grief in ways that are sensitive, age appropriate, yet still empowering is a delicate process.

How do you work with the parents of the children you treat?
Every parent is doing their best with the knowledge and perceptions they have, and new information and new outlooks can adjust that. Of course, big feelings arise in families as an expression of care, but many parents are open to shifting their usual responses once they understand a better “fit” can be achieved between themselves and their children using new methods. Parents are usually grateful for ideas that create breakthroughs in the relationship with their children or in their children’s functional or emotional management of the world.

 

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What are some misconceptions parents have about counselling for kids?
I think counselling is seen as problem-focused and invasive, whereas the best children’s therapy is not past or problem focused, but forward orientated towards what could be better. Also, to be honest, it is less personal than people think it will be. I tend to take the approach that all of us represent the whole of humanity, so we don't have to work on the individual’s issues. If I say to a child, “What do other 7-year-olds get scared about at exam time?’” I can move to the side of their personal fear and yet still start the process of investigation in which we face fear and see whether it is real or imagined. Parents often feel their family will be “under the microscope”, but honestly, humans all carry the same wiring for feelings and have thought patterns with huge similarities. So, therapy is not always personal, problem focused or permanent. It is a short period of unpacking issues and finding new responses.

What should parents look out for when deciding on a therapist for their child?
They should trust their inner gut. Does the therapist appear both friendly, capable and dynamic? If the therapist is too tame, the work will be slow, but if the therapist is too pushy, the child will resist. Ask about the timeframe the therapist usually works within and their attitude to how comfortable they’re going to keep the child. Too much comfort and they might not be working the muscle of change!

Therapy is not always personal, problem focused or permanent. It is a short period of unpacking issues and finding new responses.”

How do you stop yourself from bringing work home?
In the initial years of my practice, home life was as crazy as the stuff in the clinic and it trained me to just be “in the moment”. At the same time, I also don't see people who come in to see me as victims or as problems (both parents and children). I see our struggles as ultimately strengthening and I totally believe that each individual has the capacity to work through their challenges towards more capability. I trust my clients, my work and my results, so I don't need to worry about setbacks.

What improvements would you like to see on a government or school level, so that more support is given for children with behavioural issues or special needs?
Gosh, where do I start? Social and emotional self-management is the foundation of a happy life. Schools are beginning to incorporate “wellness” in terms of what is required to feel strong physically, academically and emotionally. But so far, this has not yet been integrated into the curriculum, it is mostly a sort of add-on. Similarly, schools are starting to incorporate newer concepts such as “growth mindset”, but still the focus is on qualifications rather than quality of life. Since this is not confined to schools but to this society, it’s going to take a while to see change.

Photos: Katy Harris and iStock

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