School counsel

Any professional who works closely with children is aware of the
depth and severity of problems which some children have to deal
with. Most of the time their personal struggle and emotional
anguish takes place in their own concealed inner world.

It is perplexing that in our society, therapeutic help for
children is still rare, costly or even unobtainable.

Yet counselling and psychotherapy for adults has become
established as a means of support to them in difficult times. When
we see counsellors or therapists, we anticipate that most of the
issues talked about will revolve around our childhood, early
traumas, our parents, their relationship with each other, and our
memories of being with them. We rarely underestimate the influence
of our early years in the shaping of our personalities, future
relationships and careers.

Many of us are accustomed to dealing with such issues when we
become adults. But surely the best time to deal with them is when
they arise in childhood. If this were to happen, at least some of
the traumatising long-term effects of childhood could be prevented
from becoming life-long repeated patterns of dysfunctional
behaviour, loss of self-esteem, depression or other mental health

However, there seems to be a dearth of trained psychotherapists
and counsellors able to work in this specialised area.

Parents looking for free or low cost therapeutic help for a
child showing signs of depression, anxiety or phobia are most
likely to be put on a waiting list at a child and family
consultation centre. The centres provide an excellent NHS service
but are stretched to their limits and the waiting time is unlikely
to be less than one year. Parents and carers are also unlikely to
find either a private or voluntary counselling or psychotherapy
service for children.

Similarly, children with special educational needs – those who
have a learning difficulty or some form of communication disorder –
have almost no access to counselling or psychotherapy due to a lack
of appropriately trained child counsellors and therapists able to
use Makaton or similar tools for reaching them.

There are of course some fundamental differences when providing
counselling or psychotherapy to adults or to children. In the first
instance a child is not aware that such help is available. A child
cannot even decide to come for the sessions; it is up to an adult.
And unlike adult clients, who as a result of a therapeutic
intervention can make some life-changing decisions, children are
often unable to change their personal circumstances.

Teachers, school nurses, classroom assistants, social workers –
professionals who work closely with children and have an insight
into a child’s emotional state and family situation, may see
the desperate need for therapeutic intervention, and understandably
feel helpless.

Isn’t it time that we recognised the needs of all children
to have access to a trained child counsellor, psychotherapist or a
play therapist as a resource in every school, in every social work
team, residential home and family centre?

The main professional accrediting organisations reflect the
small number of professionals trained to work with children. The
British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy has more than
17,000 adult counsellors and therapists. But only a small number
work with children. The UK Council for Psychotherapy has almost
5,500 members of whom fewer than 300 are registered as child
psychotherapists. The Association for Child Psychotherapists has a
membership of only a few hundred.

Most universities and colleges now acknowledge the importance of
counselling and provide a service for students and members of
staff. More secondary schools are looking into the possibility of
employing at least a part-time counsellor. Many approaches to
working with children experiencing emotional and behavioural
difficulties have already been developed: counselling,
psychotherapy, art therapy, play therapy, drama therapy, music
therapy and many others.

A new school established in London, which from January will
train professionals in therapeutic work with children, can only
partly reduce the problem by providing more staff for this kind of
work. Ultimately, if we are to incorporate psychotherapy and
counselling into children’s educational and residential
settings we will need a major investment programme to train and
recruit the skilled staff who can do the job.

Bozena Merrick is course director at the Terapia London
School for Child Psychotherapy. See, or telephone
020 8446 0809.

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