Quick Tips for Therapists

How to help clients when they become overwhelmed with emotion in session

By Steven Stosny, PhD

This can easily happen near the end of a session, when there is little time to recover. If it occurs in therapy, it’s probably happening at other times, when there’s no trained therapist to help. The “rescue a desperate child” technique is a quick form of empowerment that trains overwhelmed clients to self-regulate.

I take a suffering client’s hands and ask them to imagine a frightened three-year-old child, cowering in the corner of the room. I say, “No one is here to help the child but you. Even though you are terribly upset right now, if you saw a desperate child, all alone and terrified, I know you would go to that child—crawl to her, if you had to—to help.”

This usually puts a floor under the anguish by breaking the self-obsession of intense distress, and opens a window for guided imagery. I say, “Close your eyes and feel yourself comforting this frightened child. You’re hugging her, rocking her, whispering to her, encouraging her. You’re trying so hard to comfort her that it takes a moment to realize how well it’s working. She’s calming down, holding tightly onto you, her head on your chest. You can smell her hair; you can feel her heart beating with your heart. She feels soothed, peaceful, and good, because of you, your caring, and your compassion.”

Although some clients resist at first, I’ve never had this technique fail. I urge clients to practice the exercise daily, until the transition from helpless victim to empowered protector becomes automatic.

Living and Loving after Betrayal cover imageSteven Stosny, PhD, is founder of CompassionPower, a successful anger-regulation program that he has directed for more than twenty years. In addition, he has treated more than six thousand people through his organization. He has appeared on many major media programs, including several appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show. He is author of Living and Loving after Betrayal, Love without Hurt and You Don’t Have to Take It Anymore, and coauthor of How to Improve Your Marriage without Talking about It. He has taught at the University of Maryland and at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, and he currently has a blog on www.psychologytoday.com.

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Quick Tips for Therapists