Mess Blog 2

Mess and containment: reflections on counselling children in schools


Place2Be’s therapeutic approach draws its inspiration from a range of therapeutic perspectives. Place2Be Volunteer and Art Psychotherapist Emma reflects on her first term in a primary school and the importance of mess when counselling children. 

So much has been going on in this first term as a Volunteer Counsellor with Place2Be. Seemingly ‘easy’ sessions have been laden with unconscious communication. Testing my boundaries has been important – am I able to contain the children’s’ emotions? None of the children have been able to verbally articulate what they are feeling – hence the art and play therapy. Can I be trusted? How much can they take from me? Will I set boundaries? 

Above all, children want to know if I can tolerate mess - their mess. This is not always easy when working in a school which is a disciplined environment with many rules. But how much should I limit the use of materials when, having trained as an Art Therapist, I value free expression but also need to uphold boundaries? Mess has been an important tool for the 5 to 11 year olds I’ve worked with. How else can they communicate to me about the mess in their lives, or find out if I am able to cope with it? This ‘mess’ can include responses to bullying, loneliness and domestic violence and feelings about being in foster care or about not having a permanent home. Children might also show their feelings through their behaviour – by being aggressive to their peers or withdrawn in the classroom and these behaviours can block their ability and availability to learn. 

We usually encourage children to help clean up after sessions, but sometimes the mess is left for me. This is often unconscious and symbolic – the child is communicating that they have a lot of mess in their lives that they need someone else to help them clear up.  

Many a session has ended with me feeling flustered, chaotic and overwhelmed – an unconscious projection of feelings that the children feel unable to deal with. The mess is, essentially, left with me to digest on the child’s behalf, to process with Place2Be’s support during supervision and eventually, to give back to them in a more manageable form in future sessions. 

Could this communication have happened without the artwork and the play? I don’t believe so. Children would find it very difficult to sit down for 50 minutes and talk about their experiences. Counselling using art and play gives them the chance to work through what is going on for them in a way that feels natural and is spontaneous. Children will not usually tell me directly about their issues, but they will express them in play or through art making. They use the play or the artwork to try and process their experiences and traumas and this helps them to gain some mastery over the situation. I have found that all the children at some point or another in counselling have enjoyed paint mixing – often just for the sake of paint mixing and not necessarily to produce a picture. One boy, aged 5, delighted in mixing paints. The more colours he added to the palette, the sludgier and browner it became and the more the paint slopped over the side of the palette and on to the table.  

Hopefully, seeing me not fazed (outwardly) and calmly helping him mop up the spillages he was able to realise that I could handle the mess in his life, and he would also become more able to handle it. Indeed, at the start of the new term he has been much more talkative in sessions, and has asked for my help during play rather than play on his own with me observing. 

Working with these children has been so incredibly interesting and rewarding for me.  In turn, the school values Place2Be’s work because when pupils are experiencing emotional difficulties they find learning very hard and their inclusion in school life can be affected. By having time with a counsellor for one-to-one attention and the chance to play, the child becomes more able to deal with their emotions and their attendance and attention in class improves. 

This blog was written in a personal capacity and does not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation.

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