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In May of 2002 we had the opportunity to teach Focusing to a group of three girls and five boys between the ages of 7 and 11. The children, from a low socio-economic background, had experienced family problems (alcoholism, sexual abuse, etc.). They were residents from the Madrid neighborhood of Vallecas and were part of a program which included many activities. We offered Focusing as one activity, moved by the desire to provide a new way of managing their difficulties and out of interest in observing what would happen in the process.
The study continued over six weekly sessions of one and a half hours each. We worked with the group of 8 children divided into two subgroups. In the last two sessions we practiced Focusing individually with four children, for half an hour each.
We began by reading a story, something well known by the children. Since, in principle, the sessions would lead to Focusing on personal problems, we chose the story of “The Ugly Duckling” because the plot allows contact with negative life experiences, such as rejection by others, poor self-image, and being discriminated against for being different. By reading and commenting on the story we sought to create a favorable climate for the first step of Focusing, to make an inventory of concerns and to clear a space.
As the sessions went on, we followed the steps of Focusing, adapting them
to the children’s concrete way of thinking, using physical materials
to externally manifest what happened in the interior space.
In the first step, clearing a space, the children wrote in a notebook those things they wanted to complain about in that moment, things that bothered them, that made them sad or angry. Then they were given pieces of paper of different sizes, and they wrote a complaint on each one, the one that bothered them most on the biggest paper, and so on. Most of the complaints grouped around two areas: rejection by their peers, and not having enough alone-time at home. They were invited to place their papers wherever they wanted to in the room and to contemplate them from a distance, noticing how that felt inside.
To make contact with the felt sense, the second step, we asked the children to choose, among all their complaints, the biggest, the one that made them feel the worst in that moment. Once they had chosen their “problems,” they were invited to sit down in a special place, “the seat of looking at yourself inside.” We explained that this place (a cushion) was special, because when we sit down there we can look at ourselves inside and see how we feel. In the special seat, the children should remember the bothersome thing and observe how they feel inside, in their gut, when they think of it.
To find a handle, the third step, we put out paper and boards of different
colors and paints of all types, in the center of the table, and we invited
the children to draw how they felt when remembering the thing that bothered
them. They were asked about the global sensation of it as expressed in the
drawing, and these are some of their answers: “it rages in my stomach;”
“it’s as if it caught me by the neck and punched me in the gut;”
“it feels bad, in my stomach;” “it’s like a bitter
flavor, in my head, neck and feet;” “I hate when they leave me
alone, I feel like a worm in my stomach; it rages, in my belly and head; it’s
like a knot that is blocked in my throat, and I cannot breathe;” “I
sit down as though paralyzed, and I am very afraid.”
To resonate--the fourth step--they were told they could modify or complete the drawing if it was not completely right, if it lacked something or needed changing. We offered them plastilene and varied collage materials to complete their drawing. Once the drawing was “totally right,” they should give it a title. These are some of the titles that the children gave to their drawings: The room of the panic, My sister bothers me, When I am alone, Sara’s nightmare, When they bother me, The forest is in danger. Most developed very elaborated scenes.
For the fifth and sixth steps, to ask and to receive, we sat down with each child inviting him or her to tell the story that was expressed in their drawing. We asked how he/she felt about each one of the elements of the drawing. At the end, we asked if everything felt right or, if there was something it needed that would make it feel okay.
As the sessions went on, we encountered difficulties specific to the dynamic of this group: the limited space, the meeting time--after the school day--and, mainly, the climate of hostility among several children and toward one in particular. Looking toward future experiments, we think that Focusing in groups of children could best be studied if these factors can be controlled, with individual Focusing being more suitable for a group of children experiencing marked interpersonal conflict.
Inevitably, these factors affected what happened during the process of Focusing, somewhat hindering or diminishing the experience. That is to say, if all these conditions had not converged, perhaps the children would have experienced the process of Focusing at deeper levels. In fact, when we worked individually with some of them, we could observe better concentration and a deeper contact with their internal space. Having stated these reservations, we believe that our study shows certain results worth noting, being clear that our observations are qualitative, not quantitative.
The Story has been revealed as a valuable instrument when preparing children to Focus on problems. Focusing offers an approach to what is painful in a friendly way and helps remove the obstacles that interfere with the child’s well-being. Usually children don’t stop to contact their difficulties; they don’t want to know anything about what is wrong. The Story, used in Focusing with children as a technical resource for preparing the process, provides material on which they can project, in play, some difficulties that, if not approached, would continue to block their full development. We propose, also, another way of using the Story in Focusing with children, using different sentences and/or scenes like probes.
The power to place their problems to one side seems to provide the children
with a deep and immediate relief. It makes explicit a strong implicit necessity
to clear their internal space. Once they identify their difficulties, children
very easily place them where they won’t interfere. This seems to be
much more complicated in adults, who have some difficulty in separating from
The speed and confidence with which children locate the most urgent problem in the moment is impressive, probably because they are subjected to much less mental “noise” than adults. In general, the whole process seems to happen in them a lot more speedily and--one may say--more cleanly than in adults.
The expression phase was the part most enjoyed by the children, and in which they put the most care. For them it seems to be the culminating moment of the process, in which they contact deeply--perhaps for the first time--that which doesn’t feel right in their lives, and they express an overwhelming necessity to explain it and to give it a name.
The last steps of the Focusing process seem to happen in children in a synthesizing way. When resonating with the sensation, simultaneously they experience what is bad in it and how it can be changed or solved. In some children, even, the original felt sense of the problem contains the step that they needed for its solution.
We are very satisfied with this experience, because we were able to complete our double purpose: we provided some children who had complex family and personal conflict the opportunity to remove some of the obstacles that interfered with their development; and we were able to observe certain rules that seem to be innate to Focusing with children. We believe that Focusing with children not only presents specific characteristics in the formal and external aspects, but also in its most internal process. In children the process is essentially different from that in adults. We hope our work can be useful to people who are interested in deepening the study of this difference.