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Learning to Focus with Children

by Gloria Bruinix

The hard part of teaching Focusing to children is me! I've been told so many things

about what I should be, what ought to be, and what I have to be, that it gets in the way.

Someone saw me working with a little girl and said, "You helped Jackie to express herself." "No," I replied, "I got out of her way." She's expressing herself all the time, like we all are. I just got out of her way. The hard part of learning to Focus with children is listening to yourself.

I spent three months attending to how I couldn't listen to boys Focus because I was taught as a little girl that as soon as a man came near a feeling--slide off! Look after that man. Don 't let him feel bad. He needs all his energy to support the family. The men support us. So, I learned as a child that when my father' s eyes filled up, you do something for him to distract him. It really struck me how difficult it was for me as an adult to listen to boys when I began Focusing with them.

I spent three sessions with one boy who started oft, "This is boring!" How would you respond to that? You' re sitting there and you don't really know what you' re doing, and the kid goes, "This is boring!" How do I get beyond the outside word that's coming at me when what I've learned is that when a boy says, "It's boring," you find something else for him to do, like suggesting, "We can shoot baskets." But what is needed is to say: "Would you like to spend a moment with how 'boring' feels insider'

I remember how long I had to sit and just let him be with boring. What he did as an escape was to read and go through his baseball cards. 1bat was his process-skipping. But when he finally let himself feel boring inside, he got in touch with how angry he was at his older brother. He used boring as a way to survive. If he showed how mad he really was at his brother, that brother would beat him up. He used his acceptable "boredom survival technique'. to cape, but not grow.

Here is another learning that has helped me. I never tel1 children what they should do. I just tell them what this situation feels like inside me. When I say what it's like for me, then the child gets a chance to say his or her side. That’s the difference. That’s what I like about Focusing. 1 don't have to change anybody. It's so relaxing. There are many ways to really start listening. And that' s where people move from. They don't move from, "You should be." "You ought to be," or "You have to." They move from a sharing of. "This is me, right now."

As a child, what were some of the sentences that changed you, that influenced how you had to hide your real feelings? As children we were seldom or never asked how we really felt or what we wanted. If we were, it was always, "You want to do this, don't you?' One child reca1led that his father always said, "I don 't care what marks you get. I know you 'll get all A's." Focusing with children surfaces sentences that show. where they hide--and where we hid and maybe still hide!

Sometimes as a child I could feel this awful gap between how living in my family actually felt inside me and how they said they felt in the family. Have you seen comedians go up to the microphone and knock on it saying, "Is this thing on?" People in my family were so far away from themselves that as a child I felt I was going around knocking on each of them saying, "Is this thing on?"

For example, they would be saying, "We're not angry," because we weren't allowed to be angry. That wasn't one of our family feelings. But I could see they were terribly mad. One of my brothers actually sawed another brother's bike in half. "But he's not mad!” There was so much denial everywhere. After a while, I didn't trust myself. I thought, "Everybody else is going along just fine. Pay attention, Gloria. You must have missed something:' That's how I felt

In families there are often strong, mixed messages and as a child we pick them up. As

a three year old, we knew more than we do now. We were really smart Do you remember the line you had to cross to get the spanking? You knew where it was. You knew exactly what you were doing. And how did you know? In here, inside! Little kids are smart. As a child, my inside life was going on but nobody was asking me or saying anything about it Let me put in words how I think a three year old might plead for that inside world:

Please be gentle and caring with me. Rea1ize that I am learning about myself and the world around me. Teach me how to stay with my own inner reactions to this world so I can become one with them and not alienated from them and from myself. Help me to feel what "sharing" and "selfish" feel like inside me, and be caring about the choice I make to be either one, trusting that I wi1l eventually enjoy sharing if it is right for me.

Tell me what it feels 1ike to be you. Share your feelings and inner knowledge with me. Be straight with me. When you don't want me to do something, tell me, "I need you not to do that." Don't tell me it's for my good. Don't tell me, "You should do this." Just tell me, "I need you to sit there quietly while I get on with this job." "I need you not to talk about me when Mrs. White comes over because you say all the things I don 't want her to know." And I would like you to say to me sometimes, "Tell me when you can't stand it any more and have been as good as you can for as long as you can and can't do it any more." And then let me go and look after myself some other way. Know there' s a real limit to my being "good" your way because to me it is like you put a tombstone on me. You might as well bury me. To me, being good your way means, "Just sit there and be quiet." "Look nice." "Cross your legs." "Be a big girl!"

That last one was what I hated the most. I was two and a half feet tall and people kept telling me, "Be a big girl." My reaction, "Have you got a vision problem?" Of course when 1 said something like that, I always got in big trouble.

The last thing I briefly want to mention is an important point regarding children's behavior. There's a "Why?" to it. What I really want to leave you with is that there is a "Why?” to all behavior, including mine, yours, everyone's. And that's what the difference is with Focusing. It can get to the "Why?" of it. This is especially helpful if you realize that you may have a "Why?” inside you, as well as the one that's in the child. If things are going badly on one side and smoothly on the other, you can usually work it out But if things are going badly on both sides, you must get in touch with your piece of what' s going badly. Spend some time Focusing on what is yours in this situation. Let your own feelings and behavior have a chance to be “owned" and to tell their story. You invite children into Focusing by beginning with what it feels like inside you when they do what they' re doing around you. Then they have their time to share how it feels in them, followed by each of you taking time to hold those feelings in a caring way to see whether they are ready to tell something of their story.

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The following conversation with Gloria Bruinix and Fr. Edwin McMahon (co-director of the Institute for Bio-Spiritual Research) is reprinted from "How Adults Can listen to Children in a Focusing Way and Heal Themselves as Well," with permission from the Institute for Bio-Spiritual Research, Coulterville, CA, and Sheed and Ward, Kansas City.


How does being WITH the child feel inside you as an adult?

One of the questions I ask myself is: "Am I allowing that child to express him or herself, or am I standing in their way?” If I am in their way, I promise myself to sit with that later in a Focusing way. If I am allowing them to be with what is real in themselves, then my next question for me is: "How can I help them to feel it inside?” One of the hardest things for us adults is to see the child as they are. One of the most plaintive cries from my own inner child is: "Can't you see who I am?" Maybe even more important: "Can't you feel who I am?”

In school we are taught to "think." But if we were allowed to learn facts with our body involved, we wouldn't have to go solely into our heads. All my life I've wanted to learn crocheting, but each time I tried the instructions overwhelmed me--chain, double chain, slip. I was completely overwhelmed by the instructions. I tried so many times but gave up baffled. Then just a couple of weeks ago my daughter, Jennifer, was crocheting and I told her how much I always wanted that. She said: "Watch how my needle goes and tell me what you see:' I said: "You wrap, stick it through the hole, wrap it, take off 2 stitches, wrap it, 2 stitches--and then do it all again." I'm making my first ever afghan blanket and it feels so precious to me because I was heard at the level I needed to he heard at by my daughter. She gave me such a gift.

Somehow I feel I had to wait all my life for that and now I don 't feel so impatient with myself if I don 't catch on because I just haven't heard whatever it is at the level I need to hear it. Now I can spend the energy looking for my level rather than beating myself up for being stupid. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all children were taught at their level. How easy school would be for them.

Just the respect for a child’s unique level of body-learning-that in itself is a gift. If only more parents' could recognize this in their children, and in themselves! What have you learned about your own level of body-learning?

I am a pencil!!! This was a Focusing I did with myself. I didn't want to be a pencil. I wanted to be a computer that is complicated and can be rearranged and have magic inside that makes it hard for people to be with it. Or at least a quill pen with a wonderful feather. Something with class. A pencil is so ordinary. So mundane. So dull. Not a pencil! But the image would not go away no matter how much I wanted to change it. So, I stayed with “I am a pencil" for a while. There was a shift for me then and I saw a picture of a very young child using a pencil and a very old person using it and everyone all ages being able to use it. It was not like a computer where there was a certain level of intelligence required. It was not like having a quill pen where having ink available was necessary. Anyone could use it and if they made a mistake, they could erase it right away. I did not freeze up in the cold or melt in the sun. Too often we were asked as children to be radically different from who we really were. Our own uniqueness was taken from us and ignored. We were expected to conform but in a way that did not allow us to be who we really were. Focusing has made it possible for me to go back and listen to my pain and anger at being treated so badly. I can now rejoice in "being a pencil." What a difference Focusing is making in my life!

Could you say something, Gloria, about how you introduce children to Focusing in Jour play therapy sessions?

I usually start with a new child by telling them something about me. I do this because so often in my case the parent or teacher sent the child to me to be "fixed." They cannot handle the child's behavior, so they want me to change it. I tell children, "When I was a child I had lots of feelings but no one wanted to listen to them, particularly the ones where I was sad or mad. Sometimes I would behave in ways that got me in trouble. and I did not understand why I did it. Then I had a dream that when I grew up I would learn how to listen to children and help them understand why they do things. I would not be mad at them but I would listen. (One 8 year old boy said, 'I am part of your dream. ") I tell them I have found a special place inside me that helps me feel good about myself and it also gives me answers. I say I ask my body if it is OK to be with what I am feeling, and if the answer is “No" then I ask my body if it is OK to be with how it feels to say “No" I tell them I will always try to listen to them but if I don't, then they should tell me. Sometimes I don 't hear very well. (They often smile when I say that.) I tell them they can stop or start whenever they like. They are allowed to say "No" to me anytime they feel like it. I am just there to listen to them. From there, we talk together or draw or use clay. If I hear the “fire engine" when they are talking--something that feels like it needs to be sat with in a Focusing way--I ask them if they can be with that. If there is discomfort, I ask whether they need to put it far away from them for a while--imagining that they can set it off at a distance. If it feels light, I then ask if they can give it a wave or a hug. Afterward, I ask if they have any pictures or a memory that comes from what they feel. If they say, "No," I ask them to be with any feeling that comes when they say “No," or whatever else they may have said. Every suggestion I make is always prefaced with, “Is it OK to be with this?," as I think children have a tougher time saying "No" to adults and can easily push themselves to please me. If they want to, we go through it again but

usually there is just one thing at a time. I think they have not built up big enough sacks to have too many issues at once. What feels the most important is teaching children to be gentle with how they feel and helping them listen to what they want to verbalize next.

Focusing must provide you with a much wider range of options in the way you can be with children-even with yourself--as you help them to grow

The way I run the play groups is so different now. When a child doesn't want to go back to their regular school, I can sit with them around what it feels like to be at school. Perhaps they have issues with teachers or children at their school, or even on the school bus. Before, I thought I had to fix all the things in their lives, but now I can just spend time listening to them, letting them hear for themselves what it really feels like for them. I find this so satisfying! Such joy! Every time they share themselves with me it feels like a little miracle. I've always known I can't change their situations. But helping them to know how they really feel about these situations and how they feel about themselves when they connect up to that special place inside themselves is so special and worthwhile to me.

You know, there is such respect for the child in what you are doing, Gloria. You honor the child's inner life. That's so rare. It reminds me of a letter I just received from a woman who writes children's stories. Her name is Dorothy Haas and she has attended our Bio-Spirituality through Focusing workshop. Over the years we have wondered about teaching children to Focus. Let me share a paragraph from one of her recent letters.

She writes, "I’ve thought a lot about how we might best teach children to Focus. The first thought is always that it might be put into story form. But I honestly feel that's wrong. It's not respectful of children to lead them on to thinking they're being told a story for fun, only to have them find out that the whole point of the story was to teach them a lesson--how to say thank you, or how it's wrong to tell lies. Do you remember being disappointed that way? I do. So, I don't do that to children. But there's something more. If you weave fiction around fact, how is a child to separate one from the other? Fiction should be clearly treated as fiction, fact as fact. And that is what I consider respectful of young minds."

It's so wonderful to hear that and know there are people who know how to respect children.

Part of that respect seems to be honesty. Authentic communication. It's important for adults but doubly important when we're relating to children.

As a small child I can remember being open and wanting to share myself with other people, but sometimes they didn't want me. I could not see that their life was going in another direction and it didn't have anything to do with whether they did or did not love me. All I knew was I wanted to share myself with them and they said "No." Perhaps they were reading a book or just felt too tired, but adults rarely say where they are with children. They just say "No."

1 was reading a magazine where a young mother was reviewing children' s books and she wrote about a book that was a favorite of her daughters. To illustrate how often her daughter read this book, she told a story. Her daughter wanted her to read it to her one more time, but the mother confessed in the article that she had read it so many times she did not want to read it again. What brought tears to my eyes was what she said to her daughter. "Sit over there in the chair and read it like a big girl." What a confusing message to that little girl. Her mother could have just shared how she did not want to read that book today because she had read it so many times, but perhaps another day she would feel different. This leaves the little girl the choice of reading the book alone or negotiating with her mother around a book that her mother would like to read. Maybe it was just the sharing with her mother that the little girl wanted!

Tell me something about the kinds of things that go on inside you while you're with children in a Focusing way, particularly some of the frustrations you feel or difficulties you encounter.

I've done quite a lot of Focusing myself around the excitement that sometimes makes me lose the child's Focusing as well as around other issues that come up for me. One of the issues was around videotaping a little boy named Dana. I wanted to be sure I wasn't using him, but he is so giving with the film whenever I ask his permission to use it.

One area I find particularly troublesome involves my frustration at not getting my own responses right every time, or missing a very obvious opportunity when I can see it later on the tape. My body knows this Focusing so well that I expect my brain to catch on as well. I Focused with this and the image that came for me was playing tennis. When I learned to play tennis for the first time, I sprayed the ball all over the place. I didn't expect to know the shots perfect! y from the very first lesson. After that, I felt much more relaxed with missing some of my responses and more able to see what was happening with the children without my ”I should know" getting in the way.

Another lesson I've learned the hard way is how important it is that I listen to myself as well as to the child. I didn't do that last week when I took Christopher to his session. I have to carry the camera up three flights of stairs to the playroom, and some weeks I am just too tired. I had not recorded the previous week and felt too tired to record this week, but overruled my tiredness because I wanted to tape it. But, if I do not listen to myself, I cannot hear anyone else. This was why I was feeling so frustrated after the session with Chris. I was not with him because I was not with me.

Because of that experience with Christopher, he has really challenged you to do your own Focusing.

Yes. I felt frustration after that session with Christopher. I could feel how uncomfortable I was with what I was doing and how ineffective it was. Bill, my husband, asked me if I wanted to be with that in a Focusing way and I said, "Yes." I pictured Christopher sitting in a castle with glass walls. I could so plainly see what was happening with him, but I could not penetrate the walls. It was all there for me to see, but I couldn't get through!!

After sitting with that feeling for a while, I sensed a change. I would crash through the walls! I could then feel how weak I was. So, I picked up the front of a battering ram and asked 10 Vikings to help me smash through the glass door in the wall. They were very willing to help me out and we all ran at the door and smashed through. Victory! I had won! I looked for Christopher and was horrified to see he was no longer there. We scared him away. I felt total despondency. The object of the exercise was to be close to the child, but I frightened him so badly he had disappeared.

The Vikings and I shut the door and left. We were sitting outside the castle completely discouraged and I felt very, very stupid. Why didn't I know better? Why couldn't I see the damage I would be doing? How could I be so blind? I heard a noise and looked up. I could not believe my eyes. Christopher had opened the door himself. I felt so humbled. In all of my arrogance and sureness that I knew what was right. I had forgotten the most important element.

That is not my castle. Those are not my walls. That is not my right to break through the doors. If I teach the child the skills to open the door, the child will open it whenever it is right for him. He will take his own path and have his own war of being on that path. I just have to teach him about the special place inside that can tell him what he needs to know for himself. I can teach him to listen to that place that knows, and to give thanks to that special place inside that knows we are unique and wonderful.

What happens, Gloria, when a child is misbehaving and for the sake of order you have to intervene with some kind of discipline? How do you do that in a way that respects a child's feelings?

One of the sentences I Use when a child is misbehaving is, "I do not blame you for what you are doing, but I am confused about what you need. Can you ask that special place inside what it wants to say?" If it feels quite long for me to put the "I do not blame you" part first, I simply start with, "I am confused" or just say straight out, "What do you need?" The key to any change in destructive behavior is staying with what the child feels in his or her body. What do you need? When in conflict with a child, step back and ask them this question. They are fighting for something very important to them and so are you. Asking what do you need helps us to NEGOTIATE instead of command and confront Negotiating always takes in both people which is so different from one winning, one losing.

One lady I knew spent Focusing time with a boy and just by staying with what was in his body, he didn't destroy toys the way he usually did. Instead, he put one together. He'd always felt so frustrated before. But when he could be in touch with what really mattered to him and how it felt in his body, he didn't want to break anything.

Violence is a non-verbal way of expressing our outrage at what is happening to us. If we can allow our children to verbalize their outrage by helping them Focus on how their bodies carry such anger and frustration, they will not have to resort to violence toward themselves or others.

When you recall your own experience of misbehaving as a child, what learnings can you draw from this experience?

I know what made me misbehave as a child! I was not allowed to say "No," but I still had "No" inside me, so I had no choice but to find a devious route so that I could still say "No." We hear two year olds when they are going through the "terrible twos" saying "No" and are told by everyone we must not "let them get away with it." We are trained NOT to listen by not being listened to when we were two. This is where we start to lose ourselves. Our "No" is strong, but if we say it we will be in trouble. I did a Focusing and I could feel "empty" in my stomach. It was a huge ball. I was doing an inventory so asked it if it would be OK to put it aside for a moment. It started to shift but as soon as it moved I could hear this terrible scream coming from under it I quickly put it back but it was too late. I had heard the scream and the word I was screaming was "No."

How many times as a child had I wanted to tell people "No"? No, I didn't want to do it or go there, or behave in a certain way. It felt as if all the times I had wanted to say no were under this ball and it was now built up to a tremendous scream. I have a weight. problem and I know it is because I eat the wrong foods. But if l couldn't say “No" when I wanted to as a child, I can' t say “No" to myself as an adult. I either can or cannot say no. There is no way of saying "No" to myself unless I can say "No" to the people around me. If I bury the "No" I want to say to them, it is not available to me to say to myself, even if I need and want to say it to myself.

Instead of becoming upset the next time a child is misbehaving, think about what happened recently to him or her where s/he wanted to say "No" or where someone said "No" to the child. It may be something as simple as you saying "No" to a cookie or having to go to bed at. a certain time. I am not saying you should not say "No" to children but rather, recognize when they have a "No" inside them they are not saying and let them say it. Let them be with their "No" and help them to feel it inside. Ask them if it would be OK to be with the "No," or whatever sentence they have, in a caring way. Then ask them if it has something it wants to tell them. This is the "more" we all want to experience inside ourselves. We don 't want to be stuck in our behavior or just feel our feelings. We want to know the story of ourselves. The "more" of ourselves. Who are we? Why do we behave like that.? This is the important part of our lives and we can help children be there by listening differently to their behavior instead of just seeing what. they are doing and reacting to it. We can know they are trying to say "No" and help them find their own words. Their own story. This was what was missing in my life and this is what I wanted so desperately to have someone help me with. Children cannot be there on their own because at. two years old we train them not to be. All over the world there are children going "No," and no one even acknowledges the "No."

As adults we struggle so hard with issues of “'good" and "bad," "yes" and "no." Communicating this accurately has to be even more difficult for children.

Good and bad. Good is when a child is doing what. you want her or him to do. Bad is when they aren't doing what you want them to do. If my mother had been that clear with me as a child, I can imagine me saying to her after she told me that I was not doing what she wanted me to do: "I am having a rest from doing what you want right now." I think we both would have laughed and it would have been so different from the punishments I usually received for doing something "bad." What. a difference!





Anyone can do this and I ask all of you reading this to try. Even if it does not work the first time, please do not give up. Think about what you said and whether you were in the child's way. Focus with yourself about what happened. Time and time again I find that if I could not hear the child it was because I had not been heard as a child. Then, try again. The children need our help to find the "more" or special inside place of themselves and so long as we are gentle and kind, and truly "with" the child, we will not hurt them.


Never Focus with a child unless you are in a kind, gentle, caring space with the child. If you just had a conflict with a child and want to hear or change what happened, Focus first with yourself.


I always videotape with the child's permission, but a tape recorder would also let you hear what happened, and this can be helpful later in learning how better to respond to children.


I start off by really looking at a child to let me be aware of the person there. It is so easy to look at the uncombed hair or dirty face and be judgmental with children. Really looking at them allows me to be soft and treat them the way I wanted to be treated as a child. I didn't want to be lectured and told how I should be or how I should behave. I wanted someone to really see me--know me--care about me as I was, not how they wanted me to be so they could feel comfortable. It is not easy to look at children this way since we adults, as children, were rarely looked at by the adults in our lives in the caring way that sees beyond the outside person and just allows a child to be where and who they are.


I allow two and a half hours for each Focusing session, but acknowledge to myself with a grin that it could be over in two and a half minutes. I am following the child and if they are finished, I am finished.


By trial and error I found drawing to be the easiest way to lead into Focusing for both the child and myself. I ask them to be aware of their body and to draw a picture from that special place inside. If they don 't know what to draw, I tell them that's OK. They don't have to do anything. I tell them the nice thing about Focusing is you can 't do it wrong. Sometimes I ask them to place their hand on their body. I think the most important part is just telling the child that what they are doing is OK. They are special.


Focusing also works in general conversation. By listening to the energy, "the fire engine going by," we can allow children to listen to "more" of themselves. I tell the chi1dren to tell me if they do not want to be with me in this way. They are always in charge.


Do not ask them to draw a specific feeling, for example, anger or sadness. Their body wi11 know what to draw so that the child will be with what he or she needs to be with.

I ask: "Is it OK to be with your body?" so they can be a gentle presence when they are checking inside.


Listen, and when you hear a sentence with more energy, ask the child if they can feel

" " in their body. "Would it he 0K to put your hand on it and tell it you love it? Or, maybe it needs a hug or a pat or a wave," Then ask: "Does " “ want to tell you more?" This is the important part where we are helping them connect up with the special place inside that knows their own unique answers.

At the end of the session ask them if it is OK to say thank you to the special place inside that knows more. Sometimes I ask them if they can feel how it felt in their body when they started, and does it feel different now.


Sometimes I ask them to think of something or someone they care about or feel a good feeling inside when they think about that person or thing. I then ask if they can feel that way about what is inside right now that they are Focusing on.


Sometimes I ask them to look at their hands with their eyes open and then close their eyes and still "feel" their bands, I tell them this is called "awareness." Sometimes, if it feels right, I play a game where both of us take our "awareness" to different parts of our bodies. I don't usually go inside their body at this time in a Focusing way, as there may be feelings there that feel overwhelming.

Once upon a time there was a little girl who thought that everyone, including herself; was special, although the people around her didn't seem to think they were or that she was either, They called her big headed, a nuisance, dummy mouth, and teased her a lot They didn't let her be sad or angry. One of her teachers even called her backward and said she was lazy. But inside was a voice that knew exactly what this little girl wanted. She wanted to be listened to the way she really was. She wanted to be able to talk about her feelings and not pretend she was happy when she wasn’t She wanted to be real. But everyone around her wanted to pretend; and slowly, slowly, the little girl thought that the only way to be loved was to pretend too. And she really; really wanted to be loved. So, she learned to pretend like the other people and fit in really well. Inside, however, she made a promise to that little voice: One day I will listen to you the way you want to be listened to.

So, this little girl grew up and had a little boy and girl of her own. But she treated them the way she had been treated and this made her really sad. She knew it was wrong, so she set out to find out how to do it differently. She searched and she searched, and she learned and she learned, and then one day she found Focusing and the little voice inside said: 'This is how you listen to children. This is what you wanted all your life."

So she worked and listened and listened and worked, and now inside that little girl who wanted to be heard is how to listen to children the way she wanted to be listened to. Now she knows how she wants to spend the rest of her life--letting children find that special part of themselves again by just being heard as they are. The End.

Gloria Bruinix is a free lance Focusing Facilitator who uses Focusing in her work with children. She can be contacted at 180 Dufferin Avenue, Trenton, Ontario, Canada, K8V 5E6,' (613) 392-6047.