Meet Shona Innes from Australia – wife, mother, clinical psychologist and children’s book author. I recently reviewed Shona’s two new children’s books, Life is Like the Wind and Friendship is Like a Seesaw, and they are outstanding. Today Shona takes us inside the life of a child psychologist, which you are sure to find as enlightening as I have. You’ll also learn what inspired Shona to write these children’s books, which provide invaluable life lessons for the youngest readers, and parents too.
Can you explain to our readers what forensic psychology is?
Forensic psychology is the application of psychological knowledge to the Law. So, this means, on a day-to-day basis, I may be working with young offenders, or victims of crime, or those who are being raised in Government care systems– assisting them to understand their behavior, emotions and histories so they can lead safer and happier lives. It also means I’m often called upon to advise courts or various other important bodies about the treatment or support a young person may need to reduce the risk that they will re-offend or experience any sort of further harm.
Since you work with children in the welfare and justice systems, how do you manage to stay objective and not let your emotions take over when you encounter children who have been severely abused or neglected?
Separating your issues from the child’s issues is a really, really important part of being a psychologist, and our training gives us strategies to help and our professional consultation networks assist us if we need support. It certainly doesn’t help if helpers are “contaminated” by being emotionally reactive about the trauma a child may have experienced. It’s equally important that a helper isn’t cold and frosty. Self care and knowledge are important to keeping a healthy balance.
© Image of the author and her husband, Michael, courtesy of Shona Innes
It must be difficult to find that balance at times.
Holding tightly to the principle that child safety is paramount is the basis of many of my moment-by-moment decisions with clients. I also heavily rely on a solid understanding of the research and psychological theories about trauma and child well-being, as well as lots of time just being with young people. While it may not be visible to others, I spend a lot of headspace organizing my thoughts and plans into certain categories of understanding and then mapping these strategies to the child’s needs. Then, it’s about ways of explaining this complexity to a child (and their important people) in a helpful way. My head can be a really busy place!
I can only imagine how overwhelming that can be. What is age of the youngest child you have ever counseled?
I have had sessions with pregnant mothers, and mothers with very young children. When a child is very young, it’s their people and environment that I tend to work with to help them settle. In fact, working with a child’s team is always a really big part of the work.
My individual sessions with children might start at around five years and become a bigger part of the treatment package as the child ages. Young children usually start with work about identifying feelings, asking for help from safe people and behavior and as their brains mature, the work becomes more about their thinking and their beliefs.
“A long explanation is not always a good explanation. Children like things to be simple, solid, predictable and factual.”
Death is quite possibly the most difficult subject to discuss with young children, yet you managed to write about it in Life is Like the Wind a most beautiful way without frightening your young audience. Did you find it challenging to get the words just right, especially without the luxury of lengthy explanations?
A long explanation is not always a good explanation. Children like things to be simple, solid, predictable and factual. With Life is Like the Wind I really wanted to make a connection with something that children would know. The concept of life, or death, can be really hard to grasp because it’s not something you are able to see or touch. Once I had the “wind” bit sorted in my head, the rest just spilled out.
What was your inspiration for that book?
Life is Like the Wind was written as a letter to a little boy who had a history of significant abuse and neglect and had been permanently adopted with his siblings by a very warm woman. The child had so much to ask the adoptive mother about her own mother and, as her mother had passed away, she found it a difficult subject to talk about. They both needed a simple way to relate, so that they could talk about it. Putting it in a letter meant that they could read through it together in a quiet and special moment and go back to it if there were more questions that needed answering. Also, many children like to repeat things over and over again as they learn and they often ask things over and over again. If it’s written down in a special place, it can be a “go to” resource.
© Image of Shona in her backyard, courtesy of Shona Innes
“Children rely heavily on the reactions of others to guide their behavior and responses. If there is a change in routine or something that is upsetting someone they are more likely to be upset themselves.”
Generally at what age can children comprehend that someone they know has passed away and they will not be able to see that someone ever again?
I know it’s a psychologist’s fav0rite answer, but “it depends.” If the child has had a very close and secure attachment, a very young infant will likely know that something is not right or something is missing and they may need additional soothing. There are a number of phases that children go through in their cognitive and emotional development and not all do so at the same time or rate. A three or four-year-old will often want to speak lots about the person who has died and will do so in a very matter of fact way. They understand the concept, and they know about feeling sad, but they may not link it to consequence and feelings in a way that helps them to know the best times and places to talk about it. For instance, they might introduce themselves to strangers in the supermarket and tell them – “Hi, my name is Lucy and my Mum’s mum just died and she’s sad.”
Usually as they start school, children start to know that something is sad and that it might also make others sad if they talk about it. They can start to keep feelings in and hold back from expressing them to look after others.
Children rely heavily on the reactions of others to guide their behavior and responses. If there is a change in routine or something that is upsetting someone they are more likely to be upset themselves. The ways that they react can vary greatly.
Friendship is Like a Seesaw is full of life lessons that are invaluable, and I have never read a book for young kids quite like this before. What made you decide to pick this particular subject for the book, and was it your idea to use animals for the characters in the book?
Thanks Debbie – that’s lovely! The concept of balance is important in all kinds of relationships. The seesaw is a metaphor I have used lots with clients of all ages, including my own children. The central tenet is that you shouldn’t try to make yourself feel better by making someone else feel lousy. I’ve pulled the seesaw or balance metaphor out in sessions over and over again for children of all ages who have experienced being on the high end or the low end of friendship issues. I have also used the seesaw imagery for people who have issues with interpersonal problem solving, anger, couples counseling, workplace upset, or managing those super strong emotions associated with first love.
Using Irisz’s beautiful animals meant that any issues associated with gender, race or even age where taken away. I think it takes some effort and maturity to focus on balance and not just go with gut instincts about retaliation. I think animal pictures somehow also strip things back to basic instincts.
In addition to friendship woes and the loss of a loved one, what other challenges are most common for the young children you counsel?
Oh, so many, but the important thing to remember is many children cope and grow stronger through dealing with the most awful of situations.
If I check in on my calendar, the week ahead has me seeing young people with fears and worries, autism spectrum concerns, body image issues, attention problems, family breakdown, school refusal, exam stress, anger, misbehavior and tantrums, bullying (cyber or playground), neglect, abuse and trauma, learning disabilities, parents with mental health concerns and childhood depression.
“It bothers me that we have insufficient resources to support children who have major mental health issues, or insufficient respite for careers and it especially concerns me when the children seem more grown up and sensible than their adults.”
Oh my goodness, that is an overwhelming list. Do you ever get “stumped” when encountering an unusually challenging situation with a child, and in general, what is the most challenging aspect of counseling children?
It’s not often that I’m stumped. If I’m stumped, I just need to listen more, watch more and get more information.
If I’m pulling my hair out, it’s usually about the grown-ups or services in children’s lives and not the children. It bothers me that we have insufficient resources to support children who have major mental health issues, or insufficient respite for careers and it especially concerns me when the children seem more grown up and sensible than their adults.
© Image of Shona enjoying one of her quieter moments, courtesy of Shona Innes
And what is the most rewarding aspect for you?
Ooohhh – this is probably where I do get a bit emotional. I live in a regional town so I often bump into past clients when I’m going about day-to-day activities with my family and friends. I get quite emotional watching young clients performing at school assemblies, playing sports or doing things that are actually really very normal, but I know that they have pushed past lots of barriers to do so. To see them gaining joy from simple, regular things can be my undoing. It’s beautiful and makes me want to sing – but I’m a really bad singer, so I just have to quietly glow (or silently weep happy tears) for them.
If you could give new parents three pieces of advice on raising well-adjusted, happy and kind children what would they be?
- Provide them with a safe base.
- Encourage them to explore beyond the base, test limits, get dirty, observe life and other people, make mistakes, laugh and play.
- Provide boundaries and swift, firm, appropriate consequences if they are crossed.
That’s simple, solid and invaluable advice we can all use. Are there more children’s books in your future?
There are two more Big Hug books due for release in Australia in January. The Playground is Like the Jungle explores the dynamics and interactions of others in the playground and encourages wise observation and safe friendship choices. The Internet is Like a Puddle addresses happy and safe use of electronic/cyber media. Two further manuscripts are currently being edited and are all about families experiencing family breakdown and different types of family structures.
© Image of Shona at her backyard chicken coup, courtesy of Shona Innes
I’m thrilled to hear that you are writing more titles in this outstanding series! What do you most enjoy doing when you are not working?
I love silly time with my family, going to the gym, running, growing veggies and flowers, my backyard chickens, learning to use my new camera, listening to my favorite music, baking cakes and biscuits, board games, jigsaws, a quiet cup of green tea with my husband, beach holidays, catching up with good friends and chasing sunshine. (…. my husband said I should add “worrying about work” and my youngest child said I should add “randomly breaking into song”).
Shona, I think our readers would get a kick out of hearing you break out into song – even if you can’t really hold a tune so well. Thank you so much for sharing the side of psychology we lay people are unfamiliar with. What you do is so important, and I am in awe of your dedication and work. What would we do without people such as you taking on such daunting work? It’s obvious that being a psychologist takes special strength, wisdom and compassion – and you possess all three of these. I hope to be among the first to read your new titles when they are published.
Readers, I can’t stress enough how incredibly wonderful Shona’s Big Hugs titles are for young readers. Buy them for the special child in your life. Also be sure to explore more Barron’s Educational titles; their books are really what make kids smart!
Read Shona’s blog here.