A letter a day helps kids find their way

SHONA Innes remembers the excitement of checking the mailbox on her birthday as a little girl.

“Kids like mail, you don’t get much regular mail and I remember getting $5 from my great grandmother for my birthday every year and deciding whether I was going to save up for a record, or spend it on something – that was the most exciting part about having a birthday,’’ she recalls.

“Getting mail makes kids feel important, so they rush out and check the mail box.’’

Little did that excited child know the impact waiting by the mailbox would have on her life going forward – nor the impact it would have on the lives of so many other little people.

But as Shona waited for the mail recently, with the same excitement as that little girl some birthdays ago, the realisation was there.

Arriving by post were the first two releases of her new series of Big Hug books published by Five Mile Press – Life is like the wind and Friendship is like a seesaw.

The books grew out of letters sent to children and their families following sessions with Shona – a clinical and forensic psychologist who works with people of all ages, but has a reputation for helping young people deal with difficult issues with easy concepts.

And most of those young people are familiar with her letters.

“The thinking behind that is about a principle we call generalisation,’’ she says.

"Children find it harder to generalise something they learn in one situation to another situation, adults have got more brain so they've got more capacity to bring a problem to you, have a chat about it, get some ideas and maybe take those solutions home and maybe give them a go.

"Where children will go ‘oh I do fun things with Shona and I’m not sad when I'm with Shona’, but unless I give them some links to where they need to use it, and also a way that mums and dads can also talk to the child about it …. so if mum and dad have got that knowledge in their head when they know how to handle a meltdown … when it's coming in the supermarket they can use whatever word we've come up with they can go let's not get chook brain here.

“What does Shona say, what's happening with your breathing?

"The idea is to scaffold the child again so that they have more chance they're going to use the things – there’s no point them having a good time here with Shona, because it's lovely, but it's not where their problems are.

“Their problems aren’t here – their problems are at school or at home or wherever.’’

Shona uses a team approach to working with children and will often send letters to a child’s school or teacher, to ensure they understand the language being used.

She also believes that doing so helps educate others and may assist them with their own toolboxes with working with children.

But when Shona’s office started receiving phone calls from grandparents asking how they could help their children and grandchildren, she started writing a series of letters for nanas, which could be posted out when needed.

But a colleague read the letters and told Shona they were too good to leave in a file and post out on occasion.

The letters were sent off to Five Mile Press, and it didn’t take long for someone to see their potential. Within a week, Shona was sitting in an office surrounded by piles of books submitted by others wanting to have their children’s books published.

“I felt like I had cheated and come in through the back door instead of going into the pile,’’ she says.

The publisher asked Shona if she had any more letters, and of course the answer was that she had hundreds – having written as many as five a day for most of her career.

Most were specifically targeted to the person they were written for, but Shona found some generic letters that soon became beautifully illustrated books.

Life is like the wind focuses on death, loss and grief. Based on a series of letters written for a child who wanted to know about his grandmother, but knew it was difficult for his mum to talk about, the book acknowledges the range of feelings associated with losing a loved one, whether human or non-human.

“Life is like the wind is very much about exploring all the different people’s reactions to grief and what they think happens to a soul or the life after it leaves the body,’’ Shona says.

“Kids and people with disabilities don’t have all the baggage and they just need a way of scaffolding all the feelings and also understanding that everyone else who might be upset will be feeling and thinking about it differently and that's all ok.’’

Friendship is like a seesaw talks about the ups and downs of friendship – something Shona has written about countless times in her letters to young people.

“Sometimes you just have to hop off that seesaw and go and play somewhere else, or stop and have a look and what you're doing as well that may not be helping,’’ she says.

The next books in the series will be the The internet is like a puddle, because “there can be some nasty creatures lurking at the bottom’’ and another focusing on different “tribes” at school.

Shona loves the books because she knows they work for “someone little’’.

"These are ideas that come from kids who have a need for this kind of information,’’ she says.

“There is evidence-base in there, it's not just what Shona thinks is a nice idea – there’s a lot of hidden theory and research in there.

“You can talk about the feelings but then there are times when you really need to do a bit more than just talk about the feeling - there are some things you need to do.’’

Life is like the wind and Friendship is like a seesaw retail for $14.95 and can be purchased at Bendigo Psychology in Hargreaves Street, at any good book store or online at the five mile press website www.fivemile.com.au 

Shona will host a workshop on Helping the Anxious Child at Bendigo Psychology on May 3, and Teenage Girls – Things you should totally know, on a date to be confirmed.

Sometimes you just have to hop off that seesaw and go and play somewhere else

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