Some Differences in Child and Adult Work

  1. Work with children is in small segments. They may make one statement, as “yes, I get mad like that tiger sometimes,” and then close down.
  2. Resistance in children must be honored. When they close down it means they don’t have the support they need to go further. Adults can handle much more than children. I might say to an adult, “Stay with that resistance—what’s happening?” or “What are you afraid of?” I would never push a child.
  3. Sometimes a child does not understand what you mean. If I say, “Does anything you said in your story fit for you?” the child might appear to close own, break contact, appear resistant. If I say, “the tiger in your story is mad. Do you feel that way sometimes?” the child lights up and continues.
  4. Children need prompting sometimes when asked to imagine things for a fantasy exercise. So if I say, “Imagine you are a rose bush” I need to say things like, “You can be tall or small, do you have thorns?” etc. Children who are anxious need help to open up the imagination. (Even adults need this kind of prompting sometimes.)
  5. Children don’t come into sessions saying, “I need to work on my step-father who abused me.” I need to say, when I feel the child has enough self-support, “make your step-father out of clay.” Etc.
  6. Therapy with children is like a dance: sometimes I lead an sometimes they lead.
  7. I hardly ever say to a child, “What are you feeling?” The response will be “fine” no matter what, or “I don’t know.” But if I say “What are you thinking about right now?” she will often say a feeling, sometimes an intense one.
  8. Paying attention to the self is so important with children. They don’t have the self- support that most adults have to do emotional work. So we work on the self which consists of giving them experiences with their senses and body, mastery, self- statements to identify the self, choices, a feeling of power and control, and so forth. (See chapter on Enhancing the Sense of Self in Hidden Treasure.)
  9. With adults we work for awareness of what they do and how they do it. With children we emphasize experience.
  10. Adults may respond to questions; but children often feel on the spot when asked questions. Questions should be asked casually, quietly. Or with young children, say, “I bet you were mad when you father didn’t show up to pick you up.”
  11. If a child cries, especially older children, do not focus on the tears. With an adult I might say, “Stay with the feeling.” With a child I might say, “That’s hard” if I say anything at all. Just keep talking with the child. Older children hate to cry in front of you.
  12. Can you think of other differences?
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Violet Oaklander, PhD.

Violet Oaklander was the author of the books Windows to Our Children: a Gestalt Therapy Approach to Children and Adolescents (now in 17 languages), and Hidden Treasure: A Map to the Child’s Inner Self (now in 7 languages), as well as several journal articles, book chapters, and audio and video recordings on psychotherapeutic work with children. She earned a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, a Master of Arts in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling, a Master of Science in Special Education with emotionally disturbed children, and is a certified Gestalt Therapist.

Dr. Oaklander’s unique approach to working with children, which combines Gestalt Therapy theory, philosophy, and practice with a variety of expressive techniques, has won international recognition. She recieved a lifetime achievement award from the Association of Play Therapy, U.S. as well as numerous other awards for her contribution to the mental health field. In February of 2012 she was honored and awarded by the Edna Reiss-Sophie Greenberg Chair at the Reiss-Davis Child Study Center in Los Angeles.

Dr. Oaklander traveled extensively in the United States as well as throughout the world giving training seminars on her approach to working with children and adolescent. For 27 years she conducted a highly successful two-week training program drawing people to California from all over the world. In addition, she was a regular instructor for many years with the extension programs of the University of California campuses in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and San Diego, and the Pacifica Graduate Institute.

Dr. Oaklander grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and lived in Miami; New York City; Denver; Albany; and Long Beach, Hermosa Beach, and Santa Barbara, California. After 21 years in Santa Barbara, Dr. Oaklander moved to Los Angeles to live near her son and daughter-in-law in her retirement. She was married for 26 years to Harold Oaklander, a licensed social worker and Gestalt therapist (deceased). Together, they had three children: Mha Atma S. Khalsa (Arthur), Michael (deceased), and Sara.