Although mental health professionals acknowledge that clinical issues often look different in young children, treatment practices continue to rely heavily on adult literature. These mostly miniaturized forms of adult treatment are often scaled down using more basic language and vocabulary, but they still depend on discovering ways to encourage the verbal communication of children. Furthermore, major deficiencies exist in the mental health care delivery system for children. General neglect and fragmentation of services create obstacles to effective service provision for this population.
Over the past decade, scholars have begun exploring early childhood development and effective counseling interventions, the role of traumatic stress in the presentation of emotional and behavioral symptoms, and the prevalence of attachment issues for young children. In this article, we aim to provide a brief overview of these key advances in what we have named “pediatric counseling.” We also offer 10 evidence-based counseling interventions that stem from our work with young children over several decades.
Early childhood development and counseling
Children are not miniature adults, meaning a paradigm shift and specialized skills approach are required to help them most effectively. Children also go through rapid developmental stages, strengthening the argument that therapy with children should be vastly different from therapy with adults. Thus, professional counselors and other mental health professionals must consider various concepts, issues, techniques and interventions that are cognitively, emotionally, psychologically and developmentally appropriate for children.
During early childhood, defined as birth to age 5, rapid development of gross motor skills (running, climbing, throwing) occurs. Fine motor skills (drawing, writing, manipulating small objects) are slower to develop at this stage, but children should be able to copy letters and small words sometime during the latter half of early childhood. Cognitive development at this stage is based primarily on preoperational thinking. Hence, children in this stage rely heavily on what they see. They can now recall past events and anticipate future experiences that may be similar. At this stage of development, children are very egocentric, commonly overestimate their abilities (e.g., thinking they can carry things that are too heavy for them), and gain increased control of their impulses.
Play is extremely important to social development during early childhood. At about 3 or 4 years old, children engage in associative play in which they learn how to share and interact with one another. During associative play, there are no clear goals for the play and the roles of those engaging in play are not assigned. At about age 5, children begin to create games, form groups and take turns. Children are expanding their vocabularies at this stage, but the words and phrases used to express feelings and emotions remain limited. Because of their limited emotional vocabulary at this stage, children are more prone to act out their emotions behaviorally.
Deficiencies in service delivery:
Some of the major deficiencies in the mental health care delivery system for children include:
- How children are categorized (i.e., poor conceptualization of children within their ecological context, including culturally marginalized children being over represented in the most severe clinical categories)
- Environmental factors (such as racism and poverty)
- Lack of empirical data
- Fragmentation of services
First, children are typically placed in categories of clinical, subclinical and at risk, and they are often in need of services such as remediation and prevention. However, they are largely neglected within the system. This is partly due to clinicians’ lack of training to provide developmentally appropriate clinical care for this age group. Lack of adequate funding and poor communication between providers (such as pediatricians, child care workers, parents/caregivers, social services personnel and professional counselors) are also factors.
Second, some environmental factors associated with higher rates of mental health problems include poverty, racism, abuse and familial problems. Systemic oppression is also linked to both behavioral and affective problems. However, insufficient research has been conducted with young children to provide adequate information about how these environmental factors affect them.
Third, there is a lack of empirical data on effective treatment for young children. Although the literature is replete with community agency programs and hospital-affiliated programs designed for young children and their families, there is insufficient support for the effectiveness of the treatments and interventions provided.
Finally, there is fragmentation of the services that exist for this population. Mental health services for young children should be initialized by a social service agency or primary care physician. However, this rarely happens. Even when it does, it is unlikely that these professionals have included or interacted with counselors. Thus, many children slip through the cracks and remain unidentified until a crisis arises, meaning they are most likely to receive psychological first aid via psychiatric services.
Counselor training: Experts stress the need for counselor trainees to acquire foundational skills that serve as underpinnings for effective counseling of this population. The major challenge within the discipline of counseling is how to transform these base-level skills into effective techniques and interventions for young clients. Many beginning counselors feel ill-prepared and are often frustrated when they encounter child clients — and preschool-age children in particular. Most counselors begin their training by practicing their counseling skills on classmates and never encounter younger client populations until they are out in
Traumatic stress issues
Researchers have suggested that symptoms of traumatic stress in early childhood include interrupted attachment displays of distress such as inconsolable crying, disorientation, diminished interest, aggression, withdrawing from peers, and thoughts or feelings that disrupt normal activities. Traumatic stress, a condition caused by pervasive, systemic external forces, can result in physiological, psychological and behavioral symptoms that negatively affect everyday functioning.
Symptoms of traumatic stress can include hyperarousal or hypoarousal, avoidance and re-experiencing. Hyperarousal in early childhood is often observed through displays of inconsolable crying, flailing about, arching the back and biting. Hypoarousal involves emotional numbing that may be observed as a child who sleeps excessively, displays a dazed expression or averts his or her eyes. Avoidance is characterized by withdrawal, which is often demonstrated as displaying less affection, consistently looking away or avoiding facial contact. Other observable features of avoidance include a fear of being separated from caregivers, refusal to follow directions, disorientation and extreme sadness.
Re-experiencing is often the most subtle of the three symptoms, but it can be observed through the presence of rigid and repetitive patterns. These patterns can include common play leading to outbursts or withdrawal if the pattern is changed or interrupted. The play or reenactments have a noticeable anxious quality to them, or the child appears to space out when engaged in these patterns. One of the most consistent observations of re-experiencing is the presence of nightmares.
Neurological responses to traumatic stress include:
- Increased levels of adrenaline (activation of the sympathetic nervous system)
- Decreased levels of cortisol and serotonin (a reduced ability to moderate the sympathetic nervous system or emotional reactivity)
- Increased levels of endogenous opioids (which result in pain reduction, emotional blunting and memory impairment)
In addition, chronic stress can interrupt cognitive functions such as planning, working memory and mental flexibility. Hence, it is important to systematically assess how children use relationships, interact with others and interact with their environment. Furthermore, when traumatic stressors deplete the coping resources of caregivers, they can become neglectful or show signs of chronic danger, leading to the potential disruption of the attachment system for young children.
Attachment research describes children’s behaviors along a wellness spectrum from secure attachment (most well) to insecure attachment (where children are at highest risk). With secure attachments, caregivers display relaxed, warm and positive interactions involving some form of direct expression of feelings or desires and the ability to negotiate conflict or disagreement. In this manner, caregivers are encouraging, sensitive, consistent and responsive. With insecure attachments, the child loses confidence to varying degrees in the care giving system, believing that the caregiver lacks responsiveness and availability during times of distress or trauma.
Securely attached children typically display the following healthy behaviors during the different phases of growth:
- Phase I (0 to 3 months): Newborns often seek out connection (eye contact and touch) and respond to familiar smells, sights and sounds.
- Phase II (3 to 6 months): Infants begin to orient to familiar people (preferring those who are familiar to them while avoiding those who are not familiar) and are emotionally expressive, responding to others’ emotional signals.
- Phase III (6 months on): Infants become wary of strangers and actively seek out familiar caregivers. Additionally, they begin practicing verbal and nonverbal displays of happiness, sadness, anger and fear.
- Phase IV (from the second to third year on): These young children notably gain increased abilities to negotiate with caregivers (sometimes resulting in short-lived tantrums), are better able to coordinate goals with others (showing adaptable and responsive goals), display increasingly empathic responses to others, and progressively develop greater walking and complex verbal communication skills.
Insecure attachments styles are divided into three categories: avoidant, resistant and disorganized-disoriented. Avoidant attachment styles often can be associated with caregivers who minimize the perceptions of young children, are emotionally unavailable, and assign care of the child to others. This results in young children becoming indifferent to the presence of the caregiver, displaying detached/neutral responses to others, and minimizing opportunities for interaction with others.
Resistant attachment styles are associated with caregivers who resist distress (showing avoidance verbally or physically) and often wait for the child to get highly upset before attempting to sooth. This conditions young children to maximize distress, to resist or display difficultly in being soothed, and to under-regulate their emotions (e.g., responding dramatically to change and acting out dramatically when expectations are not met). Additionally, these children readily perceive experiences as threatening, get frustrated easily, and often approach life anxiously or as if helpless. These children initiate their interactions with others through their distress.
The third and most unhealthy attachment style is disorganized-disoriented. It is associated with caregivers who are often confrontational, helpless, frightened or disengaged (avoidant). These caregivers often passively place children at risk due to the caregivers’ lack of involvement or preventive parenting skills. Their children respond by attempting to adapt to the caregivers’ emotional needs — either care taking or avoiding. These adaptive behaviors are often observed as consistent displays of confusion, hostility, freezing responses or care giving responses (e.g., reassuring, pleasing, cheering up).
Counselors’ role: As counselors, we are uniquely trained to meet the needs of young children because of our emphasis on human development, prevention, ecosystems and wellness. Counselors can use three main restorative skills to intervene with young children experiencing attachment issues related to traumatic stress. We can:
- Set up a safe and warm environment in our clinical settings
- Display trust through culturally sensitive gestures, tone of voice and facial expressions
- Nurture a nonjudgmental understanding of young clients while focusing on exploration, empowerment and acceptance
By engaging in these three practices, professional counselors should be able to aid young children in working through a variety of social, emotional, behavioral and learning challenges. Counselors can foster warmth and vitality by employing mutuality and relational socio-dramatic play experiences. Additionally, counselors can create mediated learning so that young children can develop the ability to self-define, contextualize and transform their reality into healthy developmental journeys. This gentle, nonthreatening rebalancing of the energy can create restorative opportunities.
Ten evidence-based interventions
In 2000, Cirecie A. West-Olatunji (one of the co-authors of this article) and a colleague created a program called the Children’s Crisis Unit, in partnership with a local YWCA rape crisis unit, to provide clinical services to young children in a five-county area when referred for allegations of child sexual abuse. Over a four-year period, the Children’s Crisis Unit provided assessment and intervention for children and provided consultation to clinicians, law enforcement, medical professionals and legal professionals, both locally and nationally. During this time, training was provided for counseling, psychology and social work graduate students who learned how to work specifically with clients from birth to age 5.
The following techniques were used systematically with hundreds of clients. Although these interventions may be similar to those used with non symptomatic children, in working with young children, there are several unique features, including:
- Assessment for degree of severity
- Involvement of the caregiver
- Bookmarking for interventions at later developmental periods
1) Popsicle sticks: This intervention can be introduced in the first session with the primary caregiver and the child. One of the appealing things about the use of Popsicle sticks is that they are very inexpensive, meaning nearly any family can afford them. Counselors can use nontoxic crayons or markers and other craft tools such as glitter, buttons, yarn and nontoxic glue. Counselors direct the caregiver-child dyad to use the Popsicle sticks to create individual members of their family as dolls. This activity can be continued at home between sessions. This intervention facilitates bonding and trust, decreases anxiety, is client-centered and culturally appropriate, and allows children to tell their story.
2) Feeling faces: This activity provides easy access for the counselor because various versions can be downloaded from the internet. Use of the feeling faces allows children to identify with other children and their facial expressions. In the exercise, the counselor directs the child to select those faces to which he or she is drawn to determine thematic links between the selected faces. The counselor then hypothesizes and contextualizes the presenting problem. This activity is useful in remediating flattened affect, with the counselor directing the child to mimic faces that match a range of emotions.
3) Storytelling: Narrative activities allow children to tell stories of their own choosing or give a particular recounting as directed by the counselor. Storytelling also allows the caregiver to recount or read the child a story that represents some resolution to the problem. Additionally, this activity permits the counselor to a) read the child a story representing some resolution to the problem and then engage in dialogue about feelings or b) collect pre- and post-observational data regarding the child’s responses.
4) Puppets: This intervention is helpful in allowing children to use dramatic play to express their feelings, recount a story or “restory” prior negative events. It can be particularly useful when the caregiver is actively involved in the puppet intervention. Puppets can be of the caregivers’ own making or ones that are available in the clinical room. Smaller and isomorphic puppets work better with infants and toddlers, whereas 3- and 4-year-old children are more likely to respond to animal-shaped and larger puppets.
5) Anatomically and culturally correct figurines: These figurines can be useful in cases of physical and sexual abuse because children are more likely to provide an accurate accounting when directed to engage in dramatic play. This intervention allows children to reenact situations that they have experienced. Additionally, it offers opportunities for children to point to parts of the body on the figurines as well as on themselves. This activity can provide the counselor with an assessment of the child’s developmentally appropriate knowledge about sexuality.
6) Dollhouse: This intervention offers a physical example of the home that can be used to explain what happens in the home from the child’s perspective. Use of a dollhouse can aid in accessing the child’s memories more easily based on familiarity with household items rather than starting from scratch. This activity allows counselors to be either:
- Directive with the child, using prompts such as, “Tell me what happens in this room” (while pointing to a specific room in the dollhouse)
- Non directive with the child, permitting the child to have free-flowing play with the items in the dollhouse (while making observational notes)
7) Play dough (modeling clay): Modeling clay provides a kinesthetic, moldable medium that children can use to contextualize and express feelings involving sensory experiences. This intervention permits children to create representations of their family members by providing definition to body parts and facial expressions, and thus connecting emotions, experiences and people to the critical event. Play dough activities allow counselors to direct children to mold important people (both family members and non family members) in their lives.
8) Freehand drawing: This activity offers children the opportunity to creatively express what is happening for them in the moment. Tools for this activity are based on the child’s developmental level and might include crayons, markers, pens, pencils or chalk, depending on the child’s age and motor skills. Counselors can use this activity to promote comfort, connection, nurturance and fun for children.
9) Kinetic family/human figure drawing: Kinetic family drawing is a more directive technique that allows children to articulate how they see themselves in relation to other family members. This activity allows for dialogue between the parent and child in terms of perspectives of the family. The counselor offers paper and drawing instruments and directs the child to draw a picture of her or his family. (Note: Try to avoid stick figures, depending on the age of the child.)
10) In vivo parent-child observation and feedback: This intervention permits the counselor to assume an observer role as the parent and child interact. It can be either directive or non directive. This activity allows for a real-time view of the interaction quality between the parent and child, providing insight into parenting style and skills as well as attachment issues. In vivo observations afford counselors the opportunity to prepare the clinical room with play materials and direct the parent to engage with the child (or, in a non directive way, allow the parent and child to interact without instructions). Thus, the counselor can step back to observe (either in the clinical room or in an adjoining room with a one-way mirror). If the counselor is in the room, she or he can provide instant feedback and redirection, if necessary.
It should be noted that when working with preverbal children, counselors should rely on nonverbals such as body language, facial expressions, physiological responses and the child’s attention and focus. Also, be aware that children’s comprehension develops earlier than their language abilities. It is important to remember that children understand more than they can communicate.
Extending our reach
The counseling profession is poised to serve as a leading provider of much-needed services to young children. Our focus on prevention, environmental context, development and wellness makes us uniquely trained to assess, intervene with and investigate clinical issues in early childhood. The benefits for us as a profession are numerous and extensive.
First, by incorporating a focus on young children, we can increase our role definition by providing psychological consultation to children, parents, and child care providers in day care centers (such as Head Start) and preschools. Second, we move from the implicit to the explicit. Many practicing counselors are already working with young children in their agencies, schools and private practices. However, without counselor educators and policymakers explicating guidelines for practice, the profession lacks a systematic response to ensure application of evidence-based interventions. Third, we can expand our involvement in addressing the needs of this clinical population by securing grants from federal agencies and private foundations; attending think tanks and conventions where other health professionals are gathering to discuss the needs of young children; and advocating for increased coordination of service providers across all service delivery platforms and agencies. Finally, we can advocate for ourselves by becoming more visible within the larger health care community.
Recommendations: Existing courses in counselor education need to incorporate a paradigm that includes training specifically geared toward clinical populations from birth to age 5. The major challenge within this discipline is how to transform base-level skills into effective techniques and interventions for young clients.
School counselors especially need to have specialized skills and training so they are equipped with tools that acknowledge characteristics and cultural nuances that are specific to child populations. Allowing graduate students to become familiar with the pediatric population early in their training begins the process of conceptualizing young children in the context of a holistic, strength-based and culture-centered approach.
Some professionals have offered a solution to this dilemma by suggesting a framework that incorporates exposure to a variety of populations or the use of various subspecialties. In such a framework, counselor educators systematically incorporate broad content knowledge of specialized populations that is applied throughout the curriculum. Family courses could focus on the specific issues that pediatric members of the family system face and how these issues affect the entire family’s functioning. In addition, family courses could focus on interventions geared toward young children that incorporate the entire family, hence aiding the family to function more effectively. Counseling courses on theory and technique might add discussions on how to incorporate young child development and issues into concepts and interventions that are specific to various counseling theories.
Finally, to further develop our understanding of what practicing counselors actually do when working with young children, it is important to perform additional counseling research. One way of advancing our knowledge in this area might be the use of a Delphi study. This systematic approach, which would gather a panel of experts through a nominations process, could be used to generate ideas, gain consensus and identify opinions of a wide range of counseling professionals without face-to-face interaction. This method could provide a means of bridging research and practice to reach a common understanding of what steps can be taken to explore our conceptualization and assessment of and intervention with young children.
In sum, counselors have the ideal training to work closely with young clients and to provide culturally appropriate interventions to address the unique needs of this client population. Use of developmentally informed and ecosystemic frameworks will allow counselors to be accurate in their conceptualization and treatment of young children.