White paper by Ben Furman
— Misbehaviour is children’s way of informing you that they miss a skill and that they haven’t figured out yet what it is.
One of the main challenges in using the solution-focused Kids’Skills approach is figuring out what skill a child needs to learn in order to overcome his or her problem. In this article I am using fictional conversations between a Kids’Skills coach and a parent, teacher or child, to show you how to help clients convert children’s problems into learnable skills.
Kids’Skills is a solution-focused step-by-step approach to helping children overcome emotional and behavioural problems that was developed in the 90s in Finland by a team consisting of psychotherapists and special early education teachers.
A key idea in Kids’Skills is that in this approach you don’t focus on children’s problems, but on skills that children need to learn to overcome their problems. This shift in focus from problems to skills has significant benefits. It fosters hope, improves collaboration with children as well their parents and above all makes it easier to bring about change not only in the children, but also in the entire social network surrounding the child.
However, Kids’Skills requires a new way of thinking – I like to call it ‘skills thinking’ – where an important step is that of converting children’s problems into skills for them to learn. This shift in thinking is, however, easier said than done. Many people struggle with this step finding it difficult to figure out what skill a child needs to learn in order to overcome his or her problem.
In this article I will familiarize you with a variety of solution-focused methods that I have found useful in helping parents, teachers and children convert problems into learnable skills.
The methods that I will discuss are:
Once I have familiarised you with these methods I will offer a collection of examples of how various types of children’s problems, such as fears, tantrums, video game addiction, etc. can be converted into skills to learn with the help of these methods.
In this method you aim to find out what specific situations are challenging for the child. Once you have an idea of the situations that are difficult for the child to handle, you can proceed to ask a parent or teacher how they would want the child to learn to handle those situations better in the future.
Mother: The kindergarten teacher told me that my daughter hits other children.
Coach: In what situations does she hit other children? What kinds of situations are difficult for her to handle?
Mother: From what I understood, it happens when she wants to play with a toy that another child is playing with.
Coach: And what does she tend to do in those situations where she wants to play with a toy another child is playing with.
Mother: She goes over and tires to grab the toy from the other child and when the other child refuses to give it to her, she becomes mad and hits the other child.
Coach: How would you like her to learn to handle those situations instead?
Mother: She is already five years old. I would want her to be able to handle those situations in a more mature way.
Coach: I can understand that. And in what way would you want her to learn to deal with those situations in which she gets an urge to play with a toy that another child is playing with?
Mother: I would like her to ask kindly if she can have the toy and then, if the other child refuses, she should be able to take no for answer.
Coach: Yes, and what would she need to learn to do, or say, that would signal to you that has learned to take no for an answer?
Mother: I would want her to say something like ‘can you give it to me when you don’t play with it anymore?’.
Coach: Is that a skill you would want your daughter to learn?
Mother: Yes, that’s exactly what I would want her to learn. But how can I get her to learn to do that?
Coach: I’ll be happy to help you to think of some creative ways to get your daughter to learn that skill. It happens to be the topic of our next chapter!
The coach starts by asking mother what situations are difficult for her child to handle, then acquires a description of the daughter’s typical behaviour in those situations, and finally helps her think about how she would want her daughter to learn to deal with those situations in the future.
When you ask parents to describe how they would want the child to behave (instead of behaving in the problem way), they often answer ‘in the negative’, that is, by telling you what they would not want the child to do. For example, if you ask a mother, how she would want her son to learn to behave in the future in given challenging situation, the mother might respond by saying: “I don’t want him to yell at me.” This is not a description of how the mother wants the child to learn to behave, but a description of how the mother doesn’t want the child to behave. In this situation it usually pays to repeat word-for-word what the parent has said and then add “and how would you want him to learn to behave instead?” In other words, you would say “I can understand that you don’t want him to yell at you but what would you want him to do instead of yelling at you?”
Helping parents or teachers to turn their complaints about undesired behaviour into a description of desired behaviour is an important step in getting from problems to skills, and may need to be repeated persistently before a description of the desired behaviour is reached.
Coach: What would be sign for you that you son is starting to overcome his problem.
Father: He would not get mad at me when I tell him that he cannot have something he wants.
Coach: So, if he wouldn’t get mad at you when you tell him that he cannot have something he wants, what would he be doing instead?
Father: He would not shout at me and he would not use foul language. Sometimes he even spits at me.
Coach: So instead of shouting at you, and using foul language, what would you want him to learn to do?
Parent: I don’t know. I just want him to stop behaving in the way that he does.
Coach: It’s often difficult for children to learn to stop behaving in the wrong way. It’s easier for them to learn to behave in the right way. That’s why I am asking you how you would want your son to learn to behave in those situations where he tends to shout at you and use foul language. What would you want him to do instead?
Parent: I want him to act normally. I want him to behave.
Coach: Makes sense. And suppose he learns to behave, how will he be responding? What will he do, or say, in those situations that up until now have been so difficult for him to handle?
Parent: He will accept me decision.
Coach: And how would you want him to indicate to you that he has accepted your decision.
The term ‘exceptions’ in solution-focused literature refers to situations or times when the problem does not occur. Exploring exceptions is a simple way of finding out what skills children need to acquire to overcome their problems. The key question in this method is, “Are there times when the problem does not occur?” and presuming that the answer is ‘yes’, you follow by asking, “And what do you do at those times to avoid the problem?” The answer to the second question gives you reveals the skills the child needs to learn to overcome his or her problem.
Child: I talk back to my teachers all the time. That’s why I get in trouble.
Coach: Are there some teachers that you get along with better than others?
Child: I get along fine with my P.A. teacher.
Coach: How do you explain that? What is that you do to get along fine with your P.A. teacher?
Child: I never talk back to him.
Coach: What do you do instead?
Child: I listen to him, I nod, and say things like ‘OK’.
Coach: So that works with your P.A. teacher. What do you call that kind of behaviour?
Child: Good behaviour.
Coach: I was thinking about what skill you might benefit from learning but it seems to me that you already have a skill that works for you, the ‘good behaviour skill’. Where did you learn that skill? Where does it come from?
Child: Nowhere. I didn’t need to learn it. I can behave well if I want to.
Coach: But it is not so easy to do the “good behaviour skill” when you have to deal with some of teachers that are not your favourite teachers. Would you be interested in trying your ‘good behaviour skill’ on some of the other teachers as well?
Instead of asking parents or teachers to describe the child’s problem, or the situation in which the problem occurs, it is also possible to skip those questions and, instead, help the parents to think about what is the positive opposite of the problem. For example, the opposite of unhappiness is happiness, the opposite of sloppiness is being orderly, and the opposite of meanness is kindness. Once the positive opposite of the problem has been discovered, you can focus on figuring out what specific skills the child needs to learn to achieve the identified positive opposite of the problem.
Mother: My daughter has very low self-esteem.
Coach: What would you say is the opposite of low self-esteem?
Mother: I don’t know. Maybe ‘self-confidence’, or the ability to be proud of herself.
Coach: So, would it make sense to say that you would want your daughter to have more self-confidence?
Coach: What would be a sure sign for you that your daughter is starting to have better self-confidence that her self-confidence is improving?
Mother: She would not crumple or tear her drawings into pieces.
Coach: And when she no longer would be doing that, what would she be doing instead?
Mother: She would be proud of her drawings.
Coach: And what would tell you that she is proud of her drawing?
Mother: She would give the drawing to me and let me hang it on the wall.
Coach: So, would you say one important skill that you would want your daughter to learn is to hand you her drawing and to let you hang it on the wall?
Mother: Letting me take a photo of her drawing would already be a step in the right direction.
Father: My son is shy.
Coach: What would you say is the opposite of shy?
Father: Not shy.
Coach: And what do you call a person who is not shy?
Father: I don’t know, maybe ‘brave’?
Coach: Sounds good to me. So, what would be the first small sign for you that your son is becoming braver?
Father: He would not hide in his room when we have guests coming over.
Coach: And when he would be brave and he would no longer hide in his own room when guests come over, what would he be doing instead?
Father: He would come out of his room and he would greet the guests.
Coach: How would you want him to do that? What would you want him to do and say and, by the way, how would you call that skill?
To help parents or teacher discover what skill they want a child to learn, it is not necessary to know the details of the child’s problem. Useful skills can also be discovered by focusing on the goal, or the whatever is seen as the positive opposite of the problem.
When parents and teachers speak about children’s problems they often use words and terms that point to their explanations of the child’s behaviour rather than describing the child’s actual problem behaviour.
For example, a teacher might describe a child as ‘having no empathy’. Lack of empathy is not a description of the child’s problem behaviour, but one possible psychological explanation of why the child behaves in the way he or she does. When parents or teachers describe children using explanations rather than descriptions of behaviour, it can be helpful to ask them what does the child do, or say, that has lead them to their explanation.
It’s easier to think of skills for children to learn when the discussion does not focus on why a child behaves in a particular way but on how the child behaves and how adults would want the child to learn to behave instead.
Father: My son annoys everyone with his egoistic and attention seeking behaviour.
Coach: What does he do that makes you say that he is egoistic and attention seeking?
Parent: One thing that he does a lot is interrupting other people. When a thought pops up in his mind he blurts it out without letting other people complete their sentences.
Coach: Would you say that he has the bad habit of interrupting people?
Parent: Yes, but that’s just one of his bad habits.
Coach: I understand, but I think it’s easier for you to help him if you don’t try to change all his bad habits in one go, but instead, you pick one, and then help him overcome that one first.
Parent: OK, makes sense.
Coach: What would you say your son needs to learn do in order not to interrupt other people?
Parent: He should learn to be more patient, to wait until the other person has finished talking.
Coach: So that’s the skill you would want him to learn; to wait until the other person has finished talking. That’s an important skill for many children to learn. Do you have an idea of what he could do to be able to wait till the other person has finished talking?
Parent: He could cross his fingers on both of his hands. That’s what I do when I need to listen to our customers even if I feel like interrupting them.
Coach: So that could be a skill for your son to learn, right?
It is common these days for professionals as well as lay people to talk about children’s problems using medical labels, such as ADHD, AS (Autism spectrum disorder), ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) or PBD (pediatric bipolar disorder). Medical labels may give us a rough idea of what kind of problems children have but often few clues of what skills they need to learn to overcome those problems.
When talking to parents or teachers who use diagnostic labels, it can be helpful to find out what specific problems have led to child getting the diagnosis. One may ask, for example, “What problems does [the disorder] give to the child?” or even better, “What problems have lead the child to get [the diagnosis]?
Teacher: Jack is a very difficult boy. He has severe ADHD.
Coach: I have noticed that children with this diagnosis can differ a lot from one another. What kind of problems does Jack have that have led him to get this diagnosis?
Teacher: I’d say that the dominant feature of his disturbance is impulsivity. He is also exceptionally loud and very hyperactive. It’s very difficult for him to keep to his desk. He often starts wondering about in the classroom.
Coach: So in Jack’s case, ADHD means that he behaves impulsively, speaks loudly and is hyperactive?
Teacher: Yes, I think that’s an accurate description of Jack’s condition.
Coach: Let’s convert these three problems into skills that Jack needs to learn. What situations are particularly difficult for Jack to handle? In what situations does he behave impulsively?
Teacher: Waiting for his turn is next to impossible for him. He always needs to be the first, no matter what it is that we are doing.
Coach: Would you say that one important skill for him to learn would be to learn to wait for his turn?
|Impulsivity||Waiting for his turn|
In this way, with the help of a few useful questions, the diagnostic label can be broken down to a list of problems, and them further, to a list of skills for the child to learn.
The so-called miracle question is a widely used solution-focused method to help people make the shift from describing their problems to describing how they would want things to be in the future. The idea is to get people to imagine how things would be different in the future, supposing the problem would magically disappear.
The answer to the miracle question gives clues to what skills that are needed in order for the ‘miracle’ to come true.
Mother: This is Ellen, my daughter. We have terrible arguments every morning. She refuses to get up and I totally lose it. I shout at her and she shouts back at me. My husband blames me by pointing out, again and again, that he doesn’t any such problems with her when I am sometimes gone, travelling for business.
Coach: Suppose I had a magic wand and just by waving it a few times I could make magic happen so that tomorrow morning you two would have a perfect morning, so good morning that your husband would have a hard time believing what is happening. How would that morning look like? What would be the first thing in the morning that would tell both of you that a miracle has happened overnight?
Mother: I would approach her in the morning in a good mood and I would whisper into her ear something like ‘time to wake up honey bee, it’s morning’.
Coach (turning to Ellen): And supposing the magic is working, how would you respond Ellen? What would you say to your mom? Let’s pretend it’s morning. I want to get a good picture of how your miracle morning looks like.
Ellen joins in as she and mother create a role-play enacting the perfect morning. This make believe role-play functions a basis for looking at skills that both mother and Ellen can learn that will help them make their dream morning come true.
There are lots ways to get people to describe their visions of an ideal future. You can, for example, talk about a magic wand, a time-machine, or even a miracle pill that makes the problem disappear.
The description of the ideal future provides a foundation for figuring out what skills the child needs to learn in order to make the vision come true.
An additional method that is useful in converting problems to skills is to ask the child what changes other people will notice in their behaviour when they overcome their problem.
Suppose I would bump into your teacher sometime next week in town and she would tell me that you have made a lot of progress. I would obviously become very curious, and I would definitely ask her what progress she is talking about. What do you think she would tell me?”
Suppose your football coach called your father next week and told him that your behaviour on the football field has dramatically improved. Your father would of surely want to know from your coach in what way you have been behaving differently as compared to before. What do you think your coach would tell your father?
The answer to the ‘outsider’s perspective’ question is a concrete description of desirable behaviour which in turn is a foundation for figuring out the specific skills the child needs to learn to overcome his or her problem.
Overcoming fears is not easy. Often, when people make attempts to overcome their fears, their fear only becomes more intense. Likewise, when parents try to encourage children to overcome their fears by saying something in the line of “don’t be afraid” or “there’s nothing to be afraid of”, the parents’ well-meant words often only serve to intensify the child’s fear.
A better approach is to convert the child’s fear into bravery and then focus on helping the child to develop that bravery. Children are usually much more interested in developing a particular bravery than on struggling to overcome a fear. For example, a child unwilling to make an effort to overcome his fear of the dark may turn out to be willing to develop his or her bravery of the dark.
Parent: My son has dog phobia. He becomes hysteric when any dog approaches her whether big or small.
Coach: What’s the opposite of being afraid of dogs?
Parent: Opposite of being afraid of dogs? That’s a strange question.
Coach: Yes, I know but to find a skill for your son to learn, it might be helpful to start by thinking what is the opposite of his problem. Seriously, what would you say is the opposite of fear?
Parent: Courage, I guess. Or maybe bravery.
Coach: I think so too. Would it make sense to say that you would want your son to become braver when it comes to dogs?
Coach: And what would he need to learn to do in order for you to be able to say that he has become braver when it comes to dogs.
Parent: He would allow a dog to come close to him and allow the dog to sniff him. He would also pat the dog gently.
Coach: So that would be a skill you would want him to learn, to pat a dog gently after he has let the dog sniff him first?
Coach: And what would you call that skill?
Parent: Dog bravery.
Coach: That’s a perfect name for the skill you would want your son to learn.
When children have bad habits such as biting nails, sucking their fingers, plucking their hair, or picking on a sore, parents often try to help their children get rid of the bad habit by saying things like “Stop it” “Don’t do it!” or “Now you are doing it again!” Unfortunately, such well-meant directions often backfire and only serve to make things worse. A better method for helping children overcome bad habits is to think of some skill for the child to learn, or good habit to adopt, that that will automatically result in the child dropping his or her bad habit.
Parent: My son bites his nails. It’s quite bad. His fingers sometimes bleed. What skill would he need to learn in order not to bite his nails?
Coach: What’s the opposite of biting one’s nails?
Parent: I don’t know. Do you have a suggestion?
Coach: I like to think that the opposite of biting one’s nails is letting one’s nails grow, having pretty nails, or taking good care of one’s nails, so that one can regularly cut them with scissors or file them.
Parent: Makes sense, but how can I get him interested in growing his nails?
Coach: You might suggest to him to start taking care of his nails by starting with growing just one nail. Once you has succeeded in growing one nail you can celebrate his accomplishment and he can move on to growing an additional nail until he has grown all his nails.
What skill does a child need to learn if he or she throws tantrums at an age in which such behaviour is no longer appropriate? The missing skill is obviously what psychologists call “frustration tolerance” but such professional terminology is unlikely to spark creative ideas of how to learn the skill. It makes more sense to focus on what practical things the child can do, or say, to prevent a tantrum.
Ask the child: “When you become upset, what can you do, or say, to avoid getting furious like that?” Give the child some time to think for an answer and whatever he or she says, use the answer to help the child develop an idea of a skill to learn.
Coach: Your parents told me that sometimes, when you are upset, you can become so furious that you start shouting and throwing things around. Do you want me to help you find a way to avoid getting furious?
Coach: When you feel upset, what could you do to avoid becoming furious?
Child: I don’t know. My mother says I’m too old to have tantrums.
Coach: Do you want me to suggest to you something that you could do to stop becoming furious?
Coach: You could, for example, count to five, take a few deep breaths or put your hands in your pockets, or you could say something such as “I am upset!” or “My blood is boiling!”
Coach: Maybe you have a better idea yourself?
Child: I can say, “Caramba!” That’s what my daddy sometimes says when he is angry at me.
Coach: That sounds like a great idea. Let me hear you say that one more time.
Coach: You are good at that. What if you are really upset? Do you think it might work, or do you need to do something besides saying Caramba? For example, do you have to leave the situation, or take a few steps back? Would that be a good idea?
Coach: Ok, let’s try it. Are you up to it?
Coach: Let’s play a game. I will make you upset and then instead of becoming furious, you will respond saying ‘Caramba’ and taking a few steps back. Want to try?
Coach: Do you mind if we use your smart phone to make a video of you using your ‘Caramba’ skill so you can show it to your family and friends. They will need to know about the skill that you are learning if you want them to support you, right?”
It makes sense to practice skills while one is awake but what about problems that occur while the child is asleep? Is it possible to practice in waking state skills that are needed at night? Nightmares and bedwetting are examples of night-time problems that can be resolved by practicing skills while awake.
Parent: My daughter suffers from a recurring nightmare. Is there some skill she could learn to overcome her problem?
Coach: Didn’t you know that there are no nightmares, that all dreams have happy endings?
Parent: I am glad to hear that but it’s not very helpful because my son’s dream doesn’t have a happy ending.
Coach: All dreams have a happy ending.
Parent: What do you mean?
Coach: If the child wakes up in the middle of the dream and fails to see the ending, the dream appears like a nightmare.
Parent: Supposing you are right, how can I help him continue the dream to see the happy ending?
Coach: You can help him imagine what the happy ending could be and then encourage him to try to see the whole dream till the end.
Parent: Ok, I can try to do that. Sounds like an idea worth trying.
What about bedwetting? What skill can children learn that will help them control their bladder at night?
Parent: My son is already 10 and he still wets his bed almost every night. What skill does he need to learn?
Coach: That’s a physiological skill. To be able to control one’s bladder at night is a skill that children usually acquire on their own but for some children it takes more time than for others.
Parent: I know all that. What I’m asking is whether there is some way for me to help him learn to control his bladder at night. I’m afraid that if we don’t do anything about it, he may continue to be wetting his bed when he is thirteen or fourteen.
Coach: Has he already learned to control his bladder during daytime?
Parent: Yes of course, he only wets his bed at night while he is sound asleep.
Coach: So, the question is, how can he learn to do at night what is already able to do during the day.
Parent: Exactly, but how can you help a child learn something like that?
Coach: It is possible to do imagination exercises to practice nightly bladder control. Do you think he would be willing to do something like that?
Parent: He hates his problem, so I think he would be willing to try anything to get over it.
Coach: Would you like me to teach you an imagination exercise like that so you can teach it to your son?
Parent: Yes, of course. What kind of exercise are you talking about?
Coach: To teach the exercise to your son, you would need to start by making sure that he understands the physiology of bladder control. You want him to understand that there is a muscle-operated valve at the bottom of the urine bladder that is controlled by his brain. You should explain to him, using pictures or drawings, how the mechanism works: Most of the time his brain is sending the message to his urine valve muscle to stay closed and only when he wants to pee, his brain tells the muscle to open up. You might want to point out to him that his brain already knows to do this properly during the day, and that the thing for him to do is to teach his brain to do the same thing at night too.
Parent: I can explain all that to him, no problem.
Coach: As soon as you feel that he understands the physiology of bladder control, you can teach him the exercise when he is already in bed ready to go to sleep. You ask him to close his eyes and to ask his brain to tell his bladder valve to stay tightly closed throughout the night.
Parent: I understand. It’s a kind of self-hypnosis.
Coach: That’s right, it’s using your imagination to support your body in learning an important physiological skill.
A common complaint by parents these days, all over the world, is that children are glued to their smart phones or video games. This problem does not differ from other problems; it too, can be solved be figuring out a skill for the child to learn, and then helping the child to learn that skill. But what skill is missing when children are too attached to their mobile phones? The following dialogue offers an idea of how to convert this problem into a skill for the child to learn.
Father: My teenage son is addicted to his phone. Every time I try to restrict his screen-time he becomes infuriated. I don’t know what to do.
Coach: What skill would you want him to learn?
Father: I want him to learn to put his phone away and do other things too.
Coach: Definitely an important skill for most teenagers to learn but it’s probably not very easy to get him to agree to learn that skill.
Father: He hates me interfering with his playing. His addiction is a constant source of struggle for us at home.
Coach: Instead of trying to restrict his playing, maybe you should think of another skill for him to learn? Something he might find easier to agree to learn.
Father: What would you suggest?
Coach: Have you heard about work-life balance?
Father: Yes, I actually struggle with that myself. My wife constantly complains about me working too much.
Coach: Seems like you know something about how difficult it is to juggle work on the one hand and family and friends on the other.
Father: In the recent years I have tried to reserve more time to my family but it’s not easy.
Coach: That’s right. It’s not easy. I think it’s a bit the same with the video games. They can easily take the best of you.
Father: So what are you suggesting?
Coach: I am suggesting that maybe instead of trying to argue with your son about the amount of time he spends on his smart phone, you might get further by talking to him about work-life balance, a topic that you have personal experience about. After all, smart phones are to teenagers like work to many adults. They easily eat up all the waking time so that no time is left for other important activities of life.
Father: That’s true.
Coach: Suppose you stop harassing him about his use of the smart phone and simply talk with him about the importance of balancing computer time with other important activities. You could allow him to think of what those other activities are and then help him learn – not the skill of staying away from his smart phone – but the skill of making sure he reserves enough time each day for other important activities as well.
Father: That could work better.
Coach: I think so too because people hate someone telling them that they are spending too much time for some activity, but they have much less problems with the suggestion that they should reserve more time to something else.
“What if something happens to mommy?” “What if burglars break into our house at night?” “What if our house catches fire?” “What if nobody will want to be with me?”
Excessive worrying – and children can worry just about anything – is not uncommon in children. The opposite of worrying is ‘not to worry’, but what is the skill that children need to learn in order ‘not to worry’? The following discussion offers one possible answer to that question.
Mother: My nine-year old daughter worries. Her main worry is that something bad will happen to me but she worries about many other things as well. It’s painful to see her worrying so much about things. Is there a skill she can learn that would help her stop worrying?
Coach: You may have to start by teaching her about worries.
Mother: What do I need to teach her about worries?
Coach: I think you should teach her where worries come from and what we all need to learn to do with them.
Mother: So, where do worries come from and what do we need to learn to do with them?
Coach: You can explain to her that everyone has worries. You have worries, her father has worries, her friends have worries, all humans have worries. You can explain to her that worries are troublesome thoughts generated in a particular compartment of the brain, ‘the worry generator’.
Mother: I can explain that to her but I don’t understand how that will help her stop worrying?
Coach: When she understands that worries are merely thoughts emerging from a part of her brain, it will be easier for her to comprehend the idea that she will need to learn a skill to deal with them.
Mother: And what skill is that?
Coach: I think the skill is to be able to brush off such thoughts, or to ignore them. I’m not saying it’s easy to let go of such thoughts but it is a skill that every one of us has to learn because ‘the worry generator’ never sleeps. It keeps on sending worrisome thoughts, one after the other, into our mind. If people wouldn’t learn to let go of worries, they would be worrying all the time, and they would not have time to do any other important things in life.
Mother: It’s true. Some years ago, I had a difficult period in my life. At that time I worried a lot. I worried so much that I couldn’t sleep.
Coach: What did you do to manage your worries?
Mother: My therapist told me to reserve ten minutes every evening for worrying before going to bed. I followed her advice and during those ten minutes I wrote down all my worries on a sheet of paper. When I went to bed a little bit later, I didn’t need to worry any more as I had already done it.
Coach: The method worked for you?
Mother: It did. It helped me to let go of my worries, and not think of them when I was in bed.
Coach: Your daughter needs to learn a similar skill, the skill of letting go of worries. The good news is that letting go of worries is a skill that can be learned and my hunch is that once you explain all this to your daughter, you two together will probably come up with some ideas of how you can help her learn the skill of letting go of worries.
‘Bad things happen to good people’ is an old saying that makes the point that there is no way to avoid adverse life events. Fortunately, however, human beings are resilient, or able to cope with even the direst of circumstances.
Resiliency is a psychological term that refers to the human ability to survive, and cope with adversity, or difficult life circumstances. Consequently, we can use the word ‘resiliency skills’ to talk about the skills that children need to be able to cope with the adversities that they face in their life.
The following dialogue shows how a coach can help children find resiliency skills that can benefit them when they are experiencing adverse life events.
Coach: What skill do you want to learn to be happy?
Boy: I don’t know what to do when some of the boys tease me at school.
Coach: Do you mean you would like to learn what to say to them when those boys tease you?
Boy: Yes. I don’t want to fight them.
Coach: And what do you do when they tease you?
Coach: Would you like to learn how to answer them? Would you like to learn some good comebacks?
Coach: Would you like to have some funny comebacks that you can use when they tease you?
Coach: I can teach you. Give me an example of what they say to you when they tease you.
Boy: Sometimes they say that I am a stupid idiot.
Coach: And you don’t like that?
Boy: Of course not. My mother says that they are themselves stupid idiots to call me things like that.
Coach: So what could you say to them next time when they call you ‘stupid idiot’ that will make you feel strong, and that is funny at the same time?
Boy: I don’t know.
Coach: Let’s put our heads together to think up something. What if you said something silly like ‘I know I am a stupid idiot but I was hoping that nobody would discover it ’? Would that be funny, and would it make you feel strong?
Coach: I can see that you enjoy good comebacks. You might even give them a compliment for being so smart that they were able to discover it.
Boy: I should say to them that they are smart?
Coach: Yes, like ‘I was hoping that nobody would be smart enough to find out that I am a stupid but now I realize that that was just my wishful thinking’.
Boy: I can try.
Coach: You can practice with me first. I will call you ‘a stupid idiot’ and then you snap back with something like that, OK?
Imagine that for the next few minutes the boy and the coach play a game in which the coach pretends to tease the boy while they boy practices the skill of answering the make-believe bully with funny comebacks. Before they depart the coach explains:
Coach: You are getting really good at this. And guess what. Now that you have some ideas of how you can snap back at them in a funny way, you may not even have to say anything to them. You can feel strong even if you only look at them kindly and simply think of what you might say to them.
A special type of resilience skills – perhaps more aptly called ‘recovery skills’ – is called for when reactions to a stressor linger on after an adverse life event.
Counsellor: She is so unhappy. It’s painful to see a child who is so unhappy. But I can understand her pain taken into account all the things she has been through. She is suffering from PTSD.
Coach: What skill, would you say, she needs to learn in order to recover and be happy again?
Counsellor: I think she needs to open up and to talk about the things that she has been through.
Coach: Suppose she does open up and talks about the things that she has been through, what skill do you think she will be able to gain, that will help her feel happy again?
Counsellor: What do you mean? What kind of skills are you talking about?
Coach: The word ‘skill’ is perhaps not the best word here. What I meant to ask you is what do you think she will be able to do, that she is presently unable to do, as a result of opening up and talking about the things that she has been through?
Counsellor: I think that once she has dealt with the things that have happened to her, she will be able to initiate contact with other children, play with them and enjoy some fun with them.
Coach: Could that be a skill for her to learn; to initiate contact with other children, play with them and to have some fun with them? Do you think she would be willing to learn that skill?
Counsellor: I could speak with her. She might agree, but it’s not easy for her. She is so miserable.
Coach: You are right. It’s a skill that children are born with but which they can easily lose when sad things happen to them. To restore that skill she will need some help and support form her family and friends.
A practical way of helping children overcome problems and difficulties is not to focus on the children’s problems but on skills they need to learn to get rid of their problems.
This shift of focus from problems to skills, or ‘skills thinking’, impacts the way adults talk with children about problems. Instead of focusing on what children do wrong, and why, with ‘skills thinking’, you talk with children about skills they will benefit from learning.
However, ‘skills thinking’ requires is new way of thinking which many people find challenging. The good news is that ‘skills thinking’ is in and of itself a skill that can be learned and practiced. With the help of a few thoughtful questions and a pinch of creativity, any child’s problem can be converted into skill the child can learn in a enjoyable way with the support of his or her family and friends.