VSOF Newsletter – Summer Fall 2010


Mastery, Climbing Stairs, and Box Building

By Christiane Elsbree, MSW


I want to share some thoughts on mastery.  In my notes from one of Violet’s training programs I found a quote from Violet, “Frustration doesn’t teach children how to handle frustration.”   In Hidden Treasure (p.57-58) Violet addresses the issue of mastery and the difference between struggle and frustration.  She discusses the need for an appropriate level of struggle so that children can grow and cope with the frustrations that life brings their way.  She says,   “A baby learns from struggle, and with each mastery experience develops the strength to deal with frustration.” 

The concept of growing through struggle has been central to Gestalt therapy from its inception.  In 1984 I attended a workshop with Laura Perls, one of the founders of Gestalt therapy.  Laura talked about how one grows through incorporation, working through and coping with the other as the other.  I have always been drawn to the Gestalt therapy view of dental development, the analogy that it provides for tackling new things throughout life.  As Laura said in that workshop, “We learn through the chewing process to take time with relieving the tension, being aware of what one tackles.  This sets a pattern for coping with the other in every respect.” 

If a child has been given baby food long after she could chew and digest solid food, she will expect life to be easy and unchallenging.  If she has been given solid food long before she has the ability to bite and chew, she’ll view life as inaccessible to her, overwhelming and unsatisfying. 

So the task is to provide an appropriate balance between struggle and frustration.  The dictionary installed in my laptop defines struggle as “to strive to achieve or attain something in the face of difficulty or resistance.”  Frustrate is defined as “to prevent someone from doing or achieving something … implies rendering all attempts or efforts useless … suggests barriers that impede normal development or prevent the realization of natural desires.”

In my work with children and their parents I often give the following example to demonstrate supporting a child’s attempts toward mastery:

Picture a young toddler at the top or bottom of a stairway, giving every indication of interest and curiosity about the stairs.  The adult caregiver has several choices.  I’ll play with extremes to show how the adult could respond.  To provide absolute and certain safety with regard to stairs a parent could move the family out of this home into a home that has no stairs until the child is much older, or perhaps barricade the stairway with bricks and mortar, or maybe post a sentry at the stairway 24/7 who would threateningly and sternly deter the child from approaching the stairs.  This parent would never allow the child to attempt the stairs.  At the other end of this extreme spectrum, equally absurd, the parent would allow the child to “play” on the stairs at any time totally unsupervised and at high risk of injury, believing that the child will eventually learn from experience and figure it out.  Of course no sane adults would choose either of these approaches.

Ideally, a baby or toddler is closely supervised on stairs.   The parent is just close enough.  Close enough to prevent any injury, but not so close as to interfere with safe exploration.  The parent provides a practicing experience that will allow for success and mastery. 

To successfully create a healthful experience for the child with the stairs, the parent takes many things into consideration.  The parent knows the child, is aware of the child’s needs.  Does the child have what it takes to struggle with this situation at this moment in time?  Or is the child too distracted, hungry, sleepy, ill, or in some other way not able to benefit from the experience?  Does the parent have at that moment what is needed for the experience to end well?  Can the parent be available at that moment to attentively supervise the practice?   If so, the parent sits on the step under the child, or stands below the child, staying just close enough based on the child’s ability, ensuring that if the child missteps the parent can intervene before the child is injured, but not so close or so involved that the child can’t move her body to do what’s necessary to go from one step to the next and gain the necessary confidence and mastery to venture on.

If the parent sees the child’s struggle turning into frustration, the parent may make suggestions such as “Go feet first.” “Try sitting on your bottom.” “Let’s take your socks off so you can use your bare feet.” “Hold the handrail.”  Or perhaps, “All that climbing has tired you out, let’s [do something else], you can practice more another time.”

The parent’s willingness to provide a practice experience helps the child to acquire a new and necessary skill.  The child develops skills and grows in confidence.  The parent then, too, becomes more at ease and confident in the child’s ability to navigate her environment safely. 

Children benefit most during practice experiences (which, by the way, are happening continuously throughout life—not only at appointed times) if the adult can stand by in an attitude of flexibility and acceptance, not rigidly attached to one right way of accomplishing a task, and if the task is in keeping with the child’s developmental stage.

Human beings are faced with opportunities to master challenges throughout life—among these are sucking for nourishment, how to roll over, experiencing gravity, figuring out how to creep, crawl, stand and walk, using a cup, bowel and bladder control, riding a bicycle, losing teeth, writing your name, reading a book, making friends, meeting new people, completing schoolwork, entertaining yourself, dating, driving a car, acquiring sports skills, developing artistic skills, communicating, self-expression, mastering feelings and emotional states, and on and on and on.  Success and confidence in one arena transfers to other areas of life.  Being constricted or judged also impacts one’s approach to other new tasks.

I’ll share a recent specific opportunity to support a child’s sense of mastery that came up for me in a therapy session.  An eight year-old boy had been learning lots of new things at home assisting his father with several home improvement tasks.  He came into our therapy session wanting to make a drum.  He found some cardboard and took the child scissors from my play table and began to try to cut the cardboard to the size he wanted. 

This was not working well, the scissors were not up to the task, and even the adult scissors that I provided weren’t helpful.  His struggle was turning into frustration.  I thought carefully in the moment about this child, what I had been observing about his ability to follow directions and use tools safely.  I considered the level of tasks that had recently been successfully entrusted to him by his father.  I decided to go to my desk to get a segmented blade utility knife that I knew could make the cuts he wanted in this large piece of cardboard. 

Before I gave him the knife to use, I provided information about the sharpness of the blade.  I demonstrated how to use it safely, and I set clear boundaries about its use.  When I was sure that he understood and could be safe, I gave him the knife.   I sat near him and provided support as needed without interfering with his own learning about how the knife, his hand and the cardboard interacted together to accomplish the task.

He was able to cut the cardboard and then was faced with how to put the pieces together.  I watched, without giving a suggestion, as he chose from the available materials. He had difficulty with the plastic tape dispenser.  After several frustrating attempts I demonstrated how he might adjust the angle of the tape as he tore it.  That still didn’t solve the difficulty, so I went to my desk and this time brought over the desk tape dispenser that could be used with one hand and had metal teeth for cutting the tape rather than plastic ones.  He could proceed with his project without getting bogged down by the frustrating tape dispenser.  After all, he was still faced with the challenges of how to best place the tape to hold the sides of the drum together and what length of tape was right, and how to hold the pieces in position while they were being taped together.

This session was rich in mastery experiences, and his face showed his pleasure in what he had accomplished in the end.   We didn’t talk about the many psychological difficulties of his life, the losses and the trauma he has suffered, but in this session, I provided an experience, not unlike the experiential pieces of an adult Gestalt therapy sessions, in which he could sustain his self-support through several challenges, and gain a sense of mastery which will contribute to his sense of self. I tried to step in just at those points where I could see that an intervention on my part would bring the challenge to a more digestible level when his struggle was becoming frustration.  

There are so many ways that adults are constantly faced with the choice of when and how to allow a child to try something new.  Adults have the opportunity to provide children with the tools and opportunities that they need to master the tasks of life.  Adults can say, “No, don’t!” or can inquire, “What is your plan?” They can give complete or adequate information and instruction, or just watch in the wings.   

To discern which approach to take, trust in the emerging gestalt, trust in the unfolding of life, be present and aware, be contactful, and bring yourself into the moment.

Christiane Elsbree, MSW has been a licensed clinical social worker since 1977.  She trained extensively with the Gestalt Therapy Institute of Los Angeles.  She was, under the direction of Violet Oaklander, Ph.D., one of the original founders of the Center for Child and Adolescent Therapy in Hermosa Beach, CA.  She has been living and working in Seattle, WA since 1987.  Her office is in an integrative medical center in the Roosevelt neighborhood of Seattle.  There she does psychotherapy with adults, children and adolescents and offers trainings, supervision and consultation.  Her website is http://www.seattlehealingarts.com/pracs/prac_elsbree.htm She can be contacted at celsbree@earthlink.net.

Trip Report – Slovenia 2010

By Lynn Stadler


It’s great how one thing leads to another. In August 2009, Leja Jecelj Habic came from Slovenia to the 21st Century Perspectives training in Malibu, taught by myself, and VSOF Founding Members, Sue Talley and Karen Fried.   

Leja fell in-love with the Oaklander Model and Aletha Solter’s Aware Parenting philosophy. Her experience in Malibu fueled enough energy for Leja to organize three fantastic events in her home country, so she could bring her new passion to her friends and colleagues in Slovenia. Slovenia is a small central European country bordering Italy, Croatia, Hungary, and Austria.

The first event took place on June 3rd at the 8th Annual Conference for the 
Slovenian Association for Psychotherapy in the gorgeous mountain town of Zrece, home of a healing center and spa built around a natural mineral spring.

This year’s conference theme was “Psychotherapy with Children and Adolescents.” I was honored to give the opening keynote presentation entitled:

“32 Years and Counting: The Expansion of Gestalt Therapy with Children and Adolescents into the 21st Century”

During this plenary presentation and experience for 200 people, I talked about how Violet Oaklander’s 1978 “Windows to Our Children” has made an enormous global impact in the realm of child therapy. Now published in 13 languages with more than 200,000 copies sold, this seminal text has become the worldwide handbook for process-oriented creative projective work with children and adolescents.

My presentation focused on several key concepts discussed in Violet’s new book “Hidden Treasure: A Map to the Child’s Inner Self.” The audience was introduced to Violet’s child developmental theory with an explanation of how healthy infants and toddlers can easily deviate from their naturally thriving paths, get off track, and end up in therapy. Trauma, systems issues, and unavoidable struggles with development can steer children toward a maladaptive course of relating with family members, other children, their environments, and themselves. When children cannot be fully present with some aspects of themselves, they become unable to make solid contact, and do not know nor experience a full sense of Self.

I shared how the Oaklander Model of Gestalt therapy provides a comprehensive therapeutic process of here-and-now relating via creative projective techniques (drawing, work with clay, music, puppets, sand play, games, and creative theatrics). And how these media are more than play and more than art; they are avenues to bring heightened awareness, better contact, satisfying emotional expression, and the skill-building experiences necessary to make important changes inside and outside of the therapy office.

After all that, I invited the group of 200 to stand and do a giant scribble on a huge imaginary canvas, then repeat that process on a standard sheet of paper. Five volunteers came on the stage with me to share their scribbles, one brave soul agreed to be part of a demonstration, so I could provide some guidance on how to do creative projective work that incorporates the senses, the body, the emotions and the intellect.

All this was done with a translator, and proved to be fun, lively, informative and much appreciated.

On day two of the conference in Zrece, I gave a two-hour workshop (in English) for 75 people entitled:

Children & Emotions – Identification & Expression

This workshop focused on one of the key aspects of the Violet Oaklander Therapeutic Process – Emotional Expression. Here we explored how children and adolescents can improve contact and increase self-support to begin a process of experiencing and expressing their emotions in safe and satisfying ways. Participants were introduced to a paradigm of working with four core emotions — anger, fear, joy, and sadness — to help children and parents identify, understand, accept, and express themselves fully. I combined lecture, small group work, demonstration, and first-hand experience with creative projective techniques.
After a soak in the pool, and a lovely drive back the capital city, Ljubljana, I began gathering supplies for training event #3 — a three-day training for 35 participants at a vocational school campus located in the center of town on the Ljubljana River. This in-depth introductory training was sponsored by SLOGES – the Slovenian Gestalt member association that is affiliated with Slovenia’s Institute for Gestalt Therapy (www.gita.si). Leja is a SLOGES member, and worked closely with one of the institute’s founders, Tomaz Flajs, to organize and fund all three events.
The SLOGES training was hard work, interesting, and very satisfying. We used drawing, clay, encounter bats, and projective cards to experience the Oaklander Model fully. Topics included: Gestalt Concepts & the Oaklander Model, Improving Contact and Strengthening Sense of Self, Developmental Issues, Steps of the Therapeutic Process, Assessment & Treatment Planning, Working with Anger and Aggressive Energy, Working with the Field (Parents & Schools).
One thing leads to another, and things can come full circle. Leja fell in-love with the Oaklander Model in Malibu, and I fell in-love with Slovenia in Slovenia. What an amazing place! What an inspiring group of students! Thanks to Leja, Tomaz, and Violet. It really was a great pleasure to bring the Oaklander Model to Slovenia.lub

Appalacian Play Therapy Center Focused on Gestalt Play Therapy and the Oaklander Model


Felicia Carroll, LMFT AND RPT-S, founding member of VSOF, presented June 24-25 at the Appalachian Play Therapy Center at Lindsay Wilson College in Columbia, Kentucky. 
Felicia presented on “Gestalt Play Therapy with children and adolescents:  The Oaklander Model.”  She gave new emphasis in her presentation to current material on working with aggressive energy and the findings of the neurosciences on systems of integration.  She finds that the research and discussion on these topics confirm the Oaklander perspective in therapeutic work with children. Her presentations weave this theoretical  material into her discussions on the therapeutic relationship, contact, nature of the self, and the goals and interventions of the Gestalt approach.  Participants in workshops tell her that they find this very helpful and inspiring.


A total of 55 mental health professionals and students from six states attended this regional conference.  In commenting on the conference, Jodi Crane, Ph. D., Director of the APTC, said, “I hate to use the word magic, but that would be a good way to describe it.”    For many in attendance this was their introduction to Gestalt therapy and the Oaklander Model.  Copies of Violet’s books were given as door prizes.   Several persons said that even though they were trained in a different approach to therapy with children, that the Gestalt approach was what they had been looking for—and just didn’t know it.  But after the two day conference they professed that it made the most sense.  “I am going home and beginning to bring together lots of things I was not clear about before,”  one participant told Felicia.
Felicia, who is a Registered Play Therapist-Supervisor, as well as a certified Gestalt therapist, is a frequent presenter at Play Therapy conferences representing the Oaklander Model  of Gestalt therapy with children and adolescents.  
While in Tennessee and Kentucky, Felicia also had the opportunity to connect with current family members and an ancestor or two.   Felicia enjoyed immensely spending time with her grandniece, Emma (16 months), and her parents.   Andrew Jackson is on her family tree, so she visited The Hermitage and is currently reading two good books about the Jackson history.   For her this is one of the best parts of traveling and teaching.   “I learn so much about culture and history, as well as how people are thinking and practicing to meet the needs of children in their communities.  I am the one most inspired!”

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