Metaphors are a big part of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. For children and young people, they need to be concrete and clearly linked to their lives to be accessible. For very young children, they may need to be made or acted out so they can literally experience the metaphor. We’ve been having fun with metaphors recently so I thought I’d share some of our favourites which may have wider appeal. When you consider how many metaphors the average fairy tale or Disney film contains, the power of the metaphor for engaging children in talking about their feelings becomes clear. Inside Out and Frozen are both packed with metaphors about coping with feelings – and I’ll admit I watched both before having my own children as an excuse.
As we move into the uncertainty and change of the return to nursery, school, social lives and workplaces for many of us, both families and the individuals that make them will diverge on the right path through for them. While wherever we live there are likely some government rules, people may have different views on how strictly they follow these with some people choosing to abstain from visiting places that are technically permitted while others are keen to max out their allowance of what is now permitted and still others may be sceptical about the need to even follow any rules. Some may find it too hard or just feel safe with socialising more. There’s huge potential for conflicts and arguments, with a side order of psychological distress. A couple of favourite boat quotes come to mind. One very apt one is “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” by Ivan Joseph and another “We may sail our own path but we can sail side by side”. Our own values can be a compass as we try to navigate uncertain seas with no port vaccine in sight yet and crashing waves of other’s views in a high wind of doubt. For me, I choose to value family and showing compassion for both my family and other’s families by continuing to make choices that fit with safety and health. I also choose to try to respect other people’s right to make their own choices based on their own values. My daughter and I painted and decorated the boat pictured while sharing these ideas along with our latest Q & A on coronavirus.
Like most families, we’ve had our moments during lockdown and beyond when there have been tantrums, frustration, tears and impatience. But we’ve also had more moments of love, joy and laughter. My daughter and I were talking in the garden about how our family members are like roses – beautiful people with thorny spikes. We talked about how all people do things we like and don’t like, and when you love someone you are open to the idea of accepting all of it, not just the preferred parts.
Waves on the beach
Like most people but especially 3 year olds, my daughter has strong emotions. We’ve talked about how big feelings are like waves – they can surge and knock over the windsurfers but the surfers can get back up and carry on – just like we can carry on with our lives while big feelings come and go. For a young child, this might mean accepting some tantrums and meltdowns are inevitable. If both parent and child can let go of the blame and shame game that can show up with tantrums, we can channel our energy instead into picking up the pieces when the waves pass and dealing with the needs underneath the feelings (hunger? thirst? need for more outdoor play? need for 1:1 time? need for a screen break?).
Boomerang on the beach
My husband and daughter love throwing our boomerang on the beach, watching it arc through the sky and running after it. Often it’s tricky to tell how or where it will land as it depends on the wind speed and direction. We’ve talked about how random acts of kindness are similar – you don’t always know who it will land with or how they’ll receive it, but you can enjoy the process and hope for the best. Writing blog posts is like that for me – I don’t know who will read them or what they’ll make of my writing. I enjoy the journey of it and my intention is to share both my professional perspective as a Clinical Psychologist and my personal take on how ACT applies in my family life while I’m on maternity leave during Covid-19 for anyone who’s interested and might want to try it with their family.
Crossing the Bog
There are of course lots of ways to cross a bog, the challenge being to avoid sinking in and getting wet feet. My husband jumped over it, I walked round it and my daughter stepped on the grassy islands through it to get to the other side. The same is true for most problems – people choose different solutions based on their own strengths, weaknesses and preferences even in the same situation. Sometimes we fuse with our own solution though which can blind us to the possibility that other options might suit us – or others – better. This often applies in parent and toddler groups – different solutions suit different families when it comes to feeding babies, getting everyone a decent night’s sleep and responding to meltdowns among other challenges. With these, it can also be worth considering that if your existing solution isn’t working, it might be time to defuse from it and try something new. With your children, it can also help to remember that they might experience the same problem you did as a child, but find a different solution. For example, I solved the problem of being scared of falling off big climbing frames by not going very high up. My daughter at 3 is already happy to feel the fear and do it anyway, and to climb 20 feet up over my head. I constantly need to remind myself to hold my thought that she might fall lightly and have some faith in her.
Accepting your path has poo on it
When you go hill walking, this literally comes up all the time. It also comes up in ordinary life. Often families can fall into traps or bad habits, especially if we’re operating on auto pilot. Similarly, if we’re not looking where we’re going, it’s too easy to step in the poo on the hill. If we practice using our noticing skills, we can choose better how to move through in both situations. Another way I’ve used this metaphor is to talk about distress tolerance. If we stopped walking and turned around as soon as we saw poo, it’d be a short and uninspiring walk minus some beautiful views and good times. Similarly, if we bail on social activities whenever someone says something we don’t like, stop working on a puzzle because it’s hard or stop working on weaning or toilet training because of the mess, we’d end up with a life that would be harder and poorer with less of what we value in it. If we can keep going and tolerate the poo being there without walking right in it, life can get richer and more rewarding.
The cloud with the silver lining
During lockdown in the garden we often saw the sun disappear behind a cloud, leaving a glow around the edges. We talked about how this was a bit like how our relationships with friends and family were during lockdown – and some relationships still are that way. Our friends and family are still around, even when we can’t see them, and if we tune into it, the warmth is still there for those relationships. At some point, the sun will come out from behind the clouds and we will see our loved ones again. Similarly I like this line from the musical “Les miserables” – “Even the darkest day will end and the sun will rise”.
The big book of ACT metaphors by Jill Stoddart, Niloofar Afari and Steven Hayes
Here’s a description of metaphors that would often be used in therapy, some of which are accessible for children and young people. The beach ball and passengers on the bus are two of my particular favourites – https://www.getselfhelp.co.uk/metaphors.htm
ACT Auntie has some great video clip doodles about using metaphors to teach skills for coping with feelings on YouTube, like this one –