By Kenzi Dirks, M.A., R.C.C.
Twelve-year-old Willow sat on the corner of my office couch, handling some Play-Dough from my box of fidget toys. From the outside, no one would suspect that this intelligent and confident pre-teen was used by her biological father for sexual purposes. Having been adopted for almost two years, Willow’s parents felt like she was continuing to “bottle everything up”. She just would not talk about how she was feeling. Furthermore, Willow’s parents were receiving school reports that she would react explosively with her peers. They would ask Willow a myriad of questions like, “How was school?”, “Do you miss your sister?”, and “How are you feeling today?” They felt like police officers badgering her for information on a case, searching for a shred of emotional evidence.
And how did Willow respond? “I dunno”, “Yup”, and “Fine, I guess.” They even tried texting her to solicit a single emoji from her. Yet the more they tried, the more they felt like they were pushing Willow away.
As she sat on my couch, I noticed her eyes wandering over to a colourful children’s book called, “In My Heart: A Book of Feelings” by Jo Witek. I grabbed it from my bookshelf and, although almost a teenager, she sidled up close to me and looked with wonder at the playful drawings.
Upon finishing, I asked which feeling page she liked most.
She hesitated and then admitted the one with the big grey elephant squirting rain on the girl.
“Sadness?” I asked in shock.
I was not expecting that. “Have you ever felt sadness before?” I inquired further.
“Nope. Don’t think so…” she responded matter-of-factly. In the silence that followed, I noticed her eyes were brimmed with tears.
“What’s happening for you right now?” I asked.
This response felt vastly different than a child who did not want to answer. She was answering: she really did not know.
Like many others who have had traumatic backgrounds, Willow had no words for her feelings. Scientists call this alexithymia, in which children and adults are unable to notice how their bodily sensations are indications of different feelings. Often when people cannot identify how they are feeling, they are left feeling disoriented and overwhelmed. It is no wonder that they tend to dissociate or react uncontrollably.
As part of our interventions, we helped Willow’s parents to increase their family conversations around emotions (including the very difficult homework of watching the movie Inside Out with popcorn and licorice). We also introduced body scanning, feeling charts, and mindfulness exercises to increase Willow’s emotional literacy.
Willow’s parents were tasked with noticing whenever Willow showed physical signs of emotionality and to help name her feelings for her. For example, Willow came home from school one day and started stomping around the kitchen, bashing the cupboards closed. In a gentle and attuned manner, Willow’s father fixed her a PB&J sandwich and tentatively mentioned, “Hmm, it looks like you might be feeling frustrated.” In the context of her loving attachment, Willow was able to learn to identify her feelings.