Q: This has been a tough year for my young clients. How do I help them stay centered and connected to therapy, even as most of what they do—and we do—is now online?
A: When I first started doing teletherapy during the COVID-19 pandemic, I worried my young clients would find our virtual interactions awkward, but that was a reflection of my discomfort, not theirs. Having spent a good deal of their life online, they were relaxed during video sessions and delighted to share their safe place, usually their bedroom, with me. They’d point to pictures on the wall or put meaningful objects in front of the webcam for me to see, as if this show-and-tell were the most natural thing in the world. Sharing their space in this way sparked a kind of implicit trust almost immediately.
With Amy, a senior in high school, whose prom had been canceled at the start of the pandemic, I laughed as she grabbed a stuffed animal from her bed and said how Pooh Bear was now more important to her than ever. Her humor was infectious, a sweet release in an anxious time. Our young clients can teach us a lot about adapting and connecting online, but they still need our real-life wisdom about connecting with their core inner selves, especially as they face life’s challenges, whether they unfold virtually or in person.
Even before COVID-19 and the increase in teletherapy, I considered my young clients’ “digital self” to be a vital, active, and important part of who they are, and I explored it as such in sessions. Therapists need to welcome that part of them, allowing them to feel comfortable sharing online experiences that test boundaries and identities in all sorts of developmentally understandable ways. That’s why I’m always curious about what platforms they use, how they present themselves there, whom they interact with and in what way, the quality of those connections, and their relationship with their devices.
For years, I’ve been specializing in how to help young people find a healthy balance between digital and nondigital life, but the pandemic flipped that on its head. I now find myself encouraging an imbalance tilted toward social media use. In addition to spending time with family, it’s crucial that our young clients stay as connected as they can with their peers. After all, a young person’s exploration of autonomy is how they grow—and learning to listen to a wise inner self is an important part of this process as they make choices about how to connect with others and what to share about themselves.
Being still, knowing their own voice, being comfortable with it—these are usually foreign concepts to our young, cyberspaced-out clients. So it’s important to give them a clue, a glimpse into a part of them that invites more exploration. Whether I’m meeting with my young clients online or in person, I find I can do this in a way that feels authentic to them when I introduce the term inner selfie.
Selfies have become the universal digital mirror, and who hasn’t taken one? They’re fun; they tell stories about us. What’s an inner selfie? It’s simply a way of talking about our internal sense of self, our inner strength and wisdom, the healthy ego that we rely on when our deficits, insecurities, anxieties, and self-destructiveness get in our way. It’s also a part of our young clients that’s sometimes unfamiliar and unexplored, and definitely in the process of developing.
Of course, there are many approaches to identify and develop positive resource states. This is one that can help young clients down-regulate, inhabit their body in healthy ways, and self-reflect. My hope is that it’s a place they’ll want to return to again and again, like returning to a spring of fresh water. And the beautiful part is that rather than wise guidance coming from me as an adult and a therapist, it comes from within them.
Introducing the Inner Selfie
Start by teaching your young clients the relaxation response. You may have a way that works well for you. I teach a version of what I learned years ago when training at the Mind–Body Institute of the Harvard Medical School: “On your in-breath, fill your stomach up slowly like a balloon, mentally counting 5 . . . 4 . . . deflate slowly on your out-breath, mentally counting 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . . Bring your thoughts back to the counting when they drift off—and they will.”
Work with them on this, even for as little as five minutes. Check in on their experience. How it is for them being in their body? What does it feel like? What sensations and images are they having? For many, this isn’t a familiar place! I tell my clients how, when we’re anxious or occupied, we’re usually using shallow breath through the chest. So their brain is now absorbing a healthier dose of oxygen as their body and mind slow down with abdominal breathing. I reiterate the importance of the mind taking a break along with the body, and normalize any sense of dizziness as good oxygen to the brain.
Discuss positive resources you’ve observed in your client. Give examples, whether they exhibit themselves online or in person. In my client Amy’s case, I can point to the great advice she offers her friends. This is a wonderful part of her inner core, an essential part of who she is: wise, caring, generous, empathetic. I want her to be able to tap into that resource when she needs it for herself, and build it up.
Introduce short trances—what I call trancettes—into sessions. These give clients the experience of being totally unplugged, in a down-regulated place, and provide an early induction that allows for listening and observing healthier ego states.
When we moved from in-person to video sessions, Amy still liked to start by talking and updating for a bit, then doing a trancette that focused on a goal and a strength. I’d guide her with something like, “As you feel different parts of your body begin to relax, you might consider how you can choose to ignore certain things. . . . You can tune out unwanted sounds and thoughts, just like putting your phone on airplane mode . . . drifting off . . . keeping all your apps and contacts, but giving it a break . . . just as you did that day at the beach when you and your girlfriends had a contest to see how long it would be before someone checked their phone . . . and how you want to sleep to feel rested and alert and focused.” Afterward, she’d be calmer, more present and reflective for the rest of the session. The inner selfie would be stirring.
Do you always have to be relaxed to access your inner selfie? Fortunately, the answer is no. You can show your young clients how to take a pause, to opt for that “left-hand turn.” Yes, it can be as easy as reminding them that taking a breath or two is the bridge between the mind and the body, as the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has often pointed out. Invite clients to ask themselves in this pause, “What would the stronger, more confident part of me say or do?”
Encourage listening to that part until they can “hear” it (this might require a few more slow and easy breaths). Have this part convince the other parts to take their inner selfie’s advice, or at least to temper a behavior they may normally jump into impulsively and later regret. You’ll be teaching your young clients how to improve self-regulation and sharpen an observer self, rather than seeking immediate feedback online from wherever or whomever they can get it.
An Instant-Access Support System
As an additional step, I recommend having young clients create an instant-access video that reflects the part of them—the inner selfie—that can encourage them when there’s self-doubt or they need a boost to remind them of their strengths. Many of us record homework assignments and meditations on our young clients’ smartphones already. But it’s a good bet that watching themselves will be much more appealing to them than listening to trancettes made by me.
You can start by discussing what they might be struggling with and then invite them to record a video to remind themselves of the ego strengths that can trump shakier, insecure, or self-destructive aspects of them. Once they hit record, ask them to remember what they’ll tell themselves when, for example, a part of them that’s feeling insecure has surfaced in an intense way. You can rehearse this with them before recording.
You’re the coach, so guide them along as they’re recording and remind them of those stronger internal parts they’ve been working on. These videos are short, only about a minute or so. You can look at them together, and redo them if they think it necessary.
Since Amy uses her laptop for teletherapy, she was able to film herself on her smartphone during the session. To guide her, I asked, “When you’re feeling a bit insecure or anxious about your social life, what can you tell yourself?” She recorded herself answering this way: “I’ll tell myself that I’m proud of my inner strength to keep from getting involved in dramas I don’t want to be part of. I’ll tell myself that people like me, especially my smile and friendliness, and that I’ve always had good friends.” Her beautiful smile beamed back at her on the video. Bingo! She now had access to her resource states of courage and warmth anytime, anywhere.
After recording, I generally ask clients to go into their body for a few minutes and get in touch with how supporting inner strengths feels. This anchors an internal awareness of inner strengths that will fire up when they watch the video at other times, especially when difficult feelings arise.
Always follow up and encourage the use of the inner selfie in future sessions. Make new ones in the course of your treatment. The evolving inner selfie is a good image for them as they grow and change.
Digital Zen Approach
Another technique I teach my young clients that allows them to access their inner selfie is to create a calming practice they can use before and after being on social media. This is easy and quick, and it can help build immunity to the excessive cortisol and dopamine that’s released each time they go online. It can be useful even for us adult therapists, who may be finding ourselves in a heightened state of anxiety these days and using social media more to connect.
Step One. Before you go online, breathe in and out two or three times.
Step Two. Check how you feel and give it a name. Amy identifies feeling anxious before she goes online to check if the summer advancement program at her college has been canceled. Giving it a name, like “Anxious Amy,” helps externalize the state of anxiety, reducing the flood of her physiological response and welcoming the observer self, or inner selfie.
Step Three. Before you post anything, ask yourself, “What’s the purpose of this post? Is it helpful, kind, true, necessary? What might the impact be?”
Step Four. Stay in the moment and post positive! This relieves tension and lifts the spirit of both the sender and the receiver. One easy rule of thumb is to say nothing until you can post a supportive comment. Amy waited for a while before commenting on a negative blast about potential college life from a new friend on the student platform. With posting positive in mind, she responded by acknowledging this person’s experience and suggesting a resource link she’d found helpful.
Step Five. Get offline on a regular basis and breathe in and out two or three easy times. Move around a little.
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Given the dramatic changes in their lives caused by the pandemic, it’s more important than ever for our young clients to learn to stay in the present—even as they continue to plan and dream for the future in full color. In this time, I’ve found their incredible creativity, resilience, and adaptability to be remarkable. I’ve watched their digital skills jump to new heights, their appreciation for authentic relationships deepen, their inner resources develop.
What’s gotten these young people through this year of uncertainty and delayed or canceled rites of passage? Their inner selfie, of course! What’s going to lead them forward? Their inner selfie! In the years to come, their experience of life in the days of COVID-19 will shape them in profound ways. Theirs will be a generation of strength and gifts to offer the world.
Tobi Goldfus, LCSW, LCSW-C, BCD, is a therapist, author, and speaker. Her current book is From Real Life to Cyberspace (and Back Again): Helping Our Young Clients Develop a Strong Inner Selfie. She focuses on predicating factors that make young people on social media and gaming sites more vulnerable to negative experiences and open to those that build strong social networks.
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