This idea comes from Stephanie Winn, MFT trainee, Elementary School Counselor.
Stephanie received a $25 Gift certificate to www.childtherapytoys.com for her
Making a feelings chart in therapy can be a valuable therapeutic activity. I found that a
combination of National Geographic and Family Fun magazines supplied me well for this
project. I created the chart in the photo with a 10 years old, and sought her feedback as to what
various people looked like they were feeling. This was helpful as it provided a second opinion,
and specifically one from a child. It was with her help, for instance, that I decided to label the
man on the left as “determined” rather than “angry” – a valuable reassessment, and one that
perhaps better supports me in helping kids embrace healthy assertion. After assembling this
chart, I laminated it. Certainly, charts could also be sent home with the child.
This particular chart is hung in my office. I have found that this chart, with its diverse array of
genuine human expressions, really draws children in. The big words don’t scare kids off; rather,
kids become curious as to what some words mean, and that gives us a lot to work with. For
example, a six year old boy who has limited ability to verbalize feelings was drawn toward the
downcast boy labeled “forlorn”. With his keen interest in book knowledge, he wanted to know
what words meant and to show off his academic capabilities. I asked the boy what he thought
the “forlorn” boy might be feeling from his face, and he said sad. I responded that, yes, forlorn is
when you feel sad and lonely and like no one cares about you. He said, “That’s how I feel most
of the time.” This was a huge piece of information and an opportunity for our therapy.
I will also share a game that I spontaneously played with that boy. He found a bouncy ball
on the shelf and began playing with it alone. This is a client for whom my main clinical goals
include increasing his somatic and emotional self-awareness and capacity to regulate, as well
as emerging from his autistic reverie into the relational world. In light of these goals, I invited
him to play this ball game with me. Soon we began bouncing the ball back and forth. I had the
idea to name a feeling each time one of us bounced it to the other, but knowing that would be a
far leap for this client, I began with colors and asked us to take turns naming a color with each
bounce. The boy, in turn, wanted for the person who catches the ball to spell the color that the
other person had named, so we adopted that rule. That met his need to play on his own terms and
to shore up his sense of self with his knowledge. It also increased the mirroring element of the
game (I say “red” then he spells “red”), furthering the goals of therapy.
After a few minutes of colors, I transitioned into feelings. With this client I kept it at simply
naming feeling words, and let him continue the spelling practice, as it offered him a sense of
control and efficacy, though with another client or on a different day I would instead add the
component of sharing a time when you felt that feeling. He was quick to want to change the
subject back to something he was more knowledgeable of, animals, so after a few minutes we
switched to animals.
Another practice I built into the bouncy ball game was to try seeing if you can maintain eye
contact during certain parts of the game, e.g. while spelling the word. For this particular child
that was challenging, but in general as an idea it contributed to the therapeutic goals for a child of this disposition: increasing somatic awareness and interpersonal engagement. Adding
in eye contact as a challenge that is part of a game makes it more fun and gives it a degree
of temporariness, of arbitrariness, of falseness even, that makes it more safely distant for the
socially intimidated child, helping him develop self-efficacy and courage with which to bring to
future social interactions.
Note from Dr. Gary: We hope you have fun with these ideas. Thumballs are ideal for some of the activities discussed, and we also have a wide array of posters, including posters of real children and adolescents.