For years in graduate school studying counseling I learned about various therapeutic interventions as well as building a helping relationship with clients in a classroom sitting down with calm and insightful adults. During my internship, I worked with clients who were generally calm adults and kids who were usually happy to play therapeutic games, draw, play doll house or sand tray, or puppets. Then…oh then….I started working in the field of domestic violence with traumatized children and their mothers. This can be a challenging group to work with. These kids are experiencing major changes and transitions in their lives. They may have recently moved, started a new school, may be aware that Dad is in jail or that their parents are getting a divorce. Many have witnessed the abuse or have even been abused themselves in some way. There is just SO MUCH going on all at one time. Kids, being the little sponges they are, soak up the behavior they see modeled around them in the home. They often act like little mirrors, reflecting the chaos that is taking place or has taken place in their homes. They often mimic behaviors the abuser had such as throwing things, cursing, hitting, name calling, blaming others for problems they caused, and expecting everyone to cater to their “might makes right” attitude. These behaviors can be difficult to handle in a group setting when you have 10-15 kids all acting out their pain, trauma, and negative learned behaviors.
Traditional therapeutic activities and interventions work with some kids or groups of kids, but sometimes you get the “perfect storm” of personalities, trauma histories, and then mix in a little ADHD or other disorders and the nice activity we had planned for the group therapy session just has to go straight out the window. I cannot be rigid in my approach. If I am rigid, I will fail these kids. I must go with the flow or, like trying to stand still in a rushing white water river, I will be taken under. I have to ride the waves. We have to be flexible and constantly asking “what does this group of kids need right now in this moment?” A while back, I had a “perfect storm” situation in my group. The plan had been for the kids to work on a puppet show about families and then to do some crafts with clay. It became very clear that there was so much kinetic energy, anger, and frustration in these kids that chaos was building. The puppets were being thrown and used to hit each other rather than to do the puppet show. Kids were upset at each other for taking each other’s puppets. The clay was being broken into pieces and thrown. Redirection and other techniques weren’t working. Normally, this would be my cue to take everyone outside for some recreation therapy. But, of course, it was raining. So, dance party it was! I turned on the CD player. A child had thrown it and broken the top. It wouldn’t read the Disney movie songs CD. Improvising yet again, I turned the radio on to a station I was pretty sure wouldn’t have any inappropriate music and thankfully it worked. One child volunteered to be the “DJ” and turn the music off periodically so we could play “Freeze Dance.” Sounds good to me! So all of the kids put on costumes from the dress up center and even gave me a cape to wear so that I could be Little Red Riding Hood as I danced. They all cleaned up the toys to clear the “dance floor” (a sheer miracle since just minutes earlier toys were flying around hitting me in the head and everyone was refusing to clean). Then…we danced! For an hour! Smiles, laughter, giggles, kids who were previously at each other’s throats holding hands to spin each other or try a little bit of the swing dance moves I showed them. One child who would usually shy away and look sad was all smiles and laughter. Time seemed to stand still and I realized this was exactly what she needed. My heart swelled as I danced my heart out with her.
Then the mamas came to pick up the kids from group and they all smiled and erupted in laughter watching me and my assistant dancing with the children and everyone giggling and smiling. It was a teaching moment for them as well. I said “yes, anytime the kids are crawling the walls with energy and you can’t take them outside to run, just do a dance party in the house with them!” Everyone left smiling and happy. The moms were grateful that the kids had gotten some energy out after being cooped up for so many rainy days. “Freeze dance” or “dance party” was not in any textbook of therapeutic interventions that I can recall reading in grad school. However, this is what these kids (and I) needed in that moment of chaos. They needed a physical outlet to release the inner chaos and they needed the feel good brain chemicals that dancing and music releases to help calm their traumatized nervous systems. Sometimes, instead of fighting the chaos directly by trying to get the kids to sit down and follow our plan, we just have to allow that chaos to erupt and channel it in a positive direction. We can try to build a dam to shut it down and keep it pent up or we can get in our kayaks and ride the rapids with them while laughing.
Whether it is parenting or counseling or just living life, winging it is all about flexibility, being willing to learn by trial and error, letting go of our picture perfect plans for new plans, and enjoying the adventure amidst all the chaos. Let go. Don’t fight the chaos. Jump in it and dance. Let me know how it goes.