Interview with Creative Arts Therapist, Stephanie Russell, M.A, RP, RDT
In recent years, there has been a growing understanding of the importance of therapy for children and families. Mental wellness is a critical aspect of a child’s overall health and wellbeing, and it is never too early to start prioritizing it. In recent years, especially in COVID, there has been a growing understanding of the importance of therapy for children, as it equips them with the tools and strategies they need to manage their emotions, cope with stress, and navigate life’s challenges. Just like physical health, mental health can face difficulties and challenges that may require professional support. At Meems, we understand the importance of supporting mental wellness for children and their families. As a family of six that has moved regularly and uprooted our children’s lives, we have come to recognize the value of therapy in helping children cope with the challenges of our transient lifestyle. In this article, we sit down with Creative Arts Therapist, Registered Drama Therapist and Psychotherapist, Certified Counselor, Stephanie Russell from Evolving Flow Wellness to discuss the importance of therapy for children and share mental wellness techniques parents can use at home to help their kids thrive.
Can you tell us about Drama Therapy?
To provide some context around my therapeutic lens, I work from an embodied and experiential approach. Drama Therapy is a complementary therapy to many populations including children, as it is rooted in storytelling, play, role-playing, and rituals, which children often leap towards.
What are some common signs that children may be struggling with their mental health?
Dysregulation in a child's system is a tell-tale sign of struggle. This can look different for each child, but sometimes reveals itself in the form of a stomach ache, difficulty eating, sleep issues, change in mood, lack of participating in a once-loved activity, or change in behavior at school. Having a sense that something has shifted with your child is a good indication that something is going on. A child’s behavior can often be a symptom of the home or family unit. If adults are struggling, children can also show signs of a similar struggle.
Looking at your wellness as a circle can be helpful; is there a piece of that circle that is less full or cared for? We break up the circle into four parts: physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological. Breaking down your wellness will make it more manageable. Different symptoms can appear in different parts depending on what the struggle is and having professional support to work through your child’s struggles is definitely recommended!
How can you normalize therapy for children?
Normalization happens when it is modeled! This means that if parents/caregivers can take the leap and attend therapy for themselves, this will demonstrate to their child that therapy is part of the family’s wellness routine. Going to therapy does not need to occur only when someone is in crisis. It can be part of maintaining a healthy space for all family members. Therapy can build emotional intelligence, improve communication skills, shift conditioning, and expand overall self-awareness!
How do you approach a therapy session with children to make them feel comfortable?
The unique part of Drama Therapy and Creative Arts Therapies is leaning on creativity in sessions. We often find children are especially excited and willing to participate when they get to create, play, or even make a mess! We will often invite clients to explore the space, especially the objects in the space to see what they gravitate to. Often this can include toys, drawing materials, and games. It is in this unique therapy setting that children can “play out'' different emotions. One model we use is “projection,” which is when a client expresses feelings consciously or unconsciously onto objects, images, or even the therapist. This is giving the child an opportunity to express their inner world. When the invitation to therapy comes through play it is often well-received from children and creates a less intimidating, more comfortable space to explore.
I also think the therapeutic alliance between the child and the therapist is paramount. It is important to ensure your child is safe, seen, and heard during therapy. It is important to listen to your child’s feedback to ensure they feel that safety and comfort with their therapist.
Why is it a good idea to help children settle into therapy at a young age?
Starting therapy at a young age sets the stage to normalize this space for the rest of their lives. Providing a space that they feel seen and met in their own experiences can contribute to overall wellness. We see improvements in emotional intelligence, healthy attachment/boundaries, self-awareness, and awareness of others thanks to therapy.
What are some good coping skills that parents can do/teach their children?
Every person has a different style of giving and receiving information. Perhaps the way your child is expressing their needs isn’t translating to the way you, as an individual, receive information. Therapy can help create a better understanding of everyone’s needs in the family unit. I encourage parents/caregivers to learn self-regulating techniques and get to know their own systems. We regulate through co-regulation! Learning techniques for your own regulation will help when trying to meet your dysregulated child.
Some coping skills include:
1) Turn on music and have a dance party. Encourage your children to sign along, sing loud, sing quiet, move their bodies, shake and jump.
2) Belly breathing. Invite your child to hold their belly and count their breaths in and out. They can also count using their fingers or drawing a square. Perhaps they would prefer to touch your belly and feel you breathing in 1,2,3,4 hold, and then breathing out 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Try to breathe out longer than you breathe in, and take deep breaths from your belly.
3) Connect to your senses. Ask your child 5 things they can see, 4 things they can touch, 3 things they can hear, 2 things they can smell and 1 thing they can taste.
4) Giving space to allow your child to experience what is happening for them, not telling them to stop crying, or that whatever is happening is “okay.” You cannot underestimate the power of being with your child during a difficult or hard moment, and letting them ride out their emotion. Although it may seem like you are not doing anything, being with them is caring for them.
How do you work with parents or caregivers to support their children's mental wellness outside a therapy session?
In the work of therapy, it is imperative to have a collaborative approach with the parents/ caregivers. Attuning to the needs of their child happens when there is a grounded, present, regulated adult. Supporting the parents/caregivers is an essential part of the work. This happens through open dialogues, check-ins with the child and parents/caregivers, and also individually with the parents/caregivers. It is important to share what is working with your therapist and what may not be, so your therapist can shift to better suit your child’s needs.
What advice do you have for parents who may be struggling to support their child's mental health or identify when their child may need professional help?
Parenting can be the hardest job you’ll ever do. I often share with families that the days are long, but the years are short. Building healthy attachment with your child during the beginning years of their life can impact all future relationships. Both you and your child deserve to get the support you need. The old saying is true, “it takes a village,” and that includes supporting the whole family. I have been witnessing the transformative power of the therapeutic space. There is tremendous benefit in getting support and learning about mental health, especially at a young age.
Can you recommend any helpful books to parents?
The Awakened Family by Dr. Shefali Tsabary.
There has been growing support for mental wellness for the whole family, and therapy is just one tool to support emotional and psychological development. Whether it is through creative arts therapy, or other forms of therapeutic interventions, children can benefit from the support of trained professionals to navigate life’s challenges and learn tailored coping strategies. At Meems we are dedicated to providing caregivers with interesting interviews that can expose them to new ways of best supporting their children!