A few months ago, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson* would have described Hannah* as a typical 8-year-old girl. She liked to play tag and basketball with the neighborhood kids; she did well in school; she talked back sometimes, but overall, she had a good relationship with her parents. Then all of the sudden, Hannah was having trouble sleeping; she did not want to go out and play; she was extra clingy to her mom and she would cry at the drop of a hat. Mr. Johnson’s concern was heightened after Hannah got a splinter, sobbed for half an hour and then refused to go swimming with the family. They decided it was time to take Hannah to see a counselor at Outreach.
Mr. and Mrs. Johnson met with the counselor first to discuss their concerns. The counselor explained that significant changes can trigger the behaviors they were seeing in Hannah as she tries to process and adjust to what is happening. This is especially true for young children who don’t quite have the emotional vocabulary to express themselves. The Johnsons were baffled as to what could be triggering these behaviors; as far as they knew, everything over the last month had been the same.
Hannah and her counselor took a bit of time to get to know each other in the first couple of meetings. Hannah began to feel comfortable and safe at Outreach and even enjoyed coming; their sessions sometimes felt like she was playing games or talking with a close friend. Hannah acknowledged wanting to be with her mom more and feeling upset easily but she did not quite know why this was happening. The counselor had Hannah draw her family and talk about her relationship with each person. They also made a “this is your life” timeline where Hannah got to put important events in order and share what they meant to her. Hannah talked a lot about her grandparents. She had always been close to them, and they spent a lot of time together in the summer. Her grandfather moved to an assisted living facility in the fall, and although she initially coped well with this change, she was now acutely feeling his absence at cookouts, the pool and parks. She explained that it’s not the same to go and visit in his new home; she wanted her family to be all together. Her counselor discovered that Hannah began to worry about other changes to the family structure, she believed that if she was not constantly with her parents, they might go away, too.
The following session was a family meeting. Hannah, with the help of her counselor, was able to talk about her sadness that Grandpa was not there for the summer activities. Her parents comforted her and discussed ways to see him more over the summer, possibly picnics at his new home. They emphasized that they will always be there for her, even if routines change. Hannah made cards with reassuring messages on them that she looked at when she felt uneasy. She also worked on relaxation skills to help her sleep. The Johnsons reported that just finding out what was bothering her and talking about it made all the difference.
*Hannah Johnson represents a typical Outreach client. Details do not correspond with any specific case in order to protect client anonymity.
Outreach Teen & Family Services is a nonprofit, confidential counseling service. We offer counseling and educational programs to youth and parents that are affordable, accessible, and discreet; all within a welcoming, supportive environment.
This column is made possible in part by the Mt. Lebanon Police Association.