I usually desist parents from bringing their children into therapy unless it’s for clinical testing or intervention. I would rather have the parents present in their place and empower them with co-counseling skills. After all, what parents can achieve with their child, no one else can. But some weeks ago,I decided to take a few young kids into therapy. The reason was they were getting bullied and the parents were so paralysed with anger and pain that I had to take matters into my hands. I had to counsel the little ones on how to manage such challenges, stand up for themselves and stay safe when they are alone or when no one is looking. But this had to be done in a way that they neither carried the baggage of bitterness in the future nor do they subject others to what they went through.
I wondered how to make sense of such big ideas to the tiny puzzled faces on my screen. But then an idea took shape in my head and I said, “Who wants to be a Ninja?” The kids tentatively responded that they wanted to. I then explained that “Ninja” was a tool to help them cope with situations that life throws at them, what to do and what not to do. It could be anything—from a scuffle in the playground to parents correcting them in front of guests at the dinner table. They might have expected me to break into some martial art move to explain the concept further, but I preferred to do this differently. I quickly scribbled on a piece of paper and showed it on screen. It read as, “N for notice yourself, the situation and your surroundings; I: inhale and exhale twice, N: nod to accept your feelings, J: jam the brakes on negative words, A: ask for conversation.”
Every parent worries about their child being strong enough to stand up for themselves or if they will be able to handle stress effectively. Very often we start playing the warrior, thus making them dependent, vulnerable and confused when alone. Preparing them for independent processing, coping and resolving of situations leads to spurts of confidence.
I recommend the following explanation to be discussed and practiced with the kids. You could even pin up visual cues on a board to help them assimilate it further.
1) ‘N’ in NINJA stands for ‘notice, observe, and pay attention to’ yourself, your surroundings and situations. They must notice the challenges facing them and then process and plan the way ahead. When they observe where they are, and take in their surroundings, it becomes easier to comprehend the source of the problem, conflict or stress.
2) ‘I’ stands for ‘Inhale’. Breathing in and breathing out helps both the body and mind. It reduces the stressful response, the tightening of muscles, perceptions of threat and shortness of breath. It also provides the much needed pause to one’s flow of thoughts and reduces impulsive reactions.
3) The second ‘N’ means ‘to nod’ or to acknowledge and accept. After taking a deep breath, the child must acknowledge the difficulty he or she is facing. And also accept that what they are feeling is completely valid.
4) ‘J’ is for ‘jam the brakes’. It is most common for children to react impulsively and break into blows with each other or utter rude words. This only adds to their problems and the repercussions are not pleasant. To refrain from negative words, expressions and actions during a difficult experience is a valuable lesson in self-control. This brings the focus back to the issue at hand instead of projecting their energy onto mindless attack or defence.
5) ‘A’ stands for ‘ask’. We adults expect to be consulted when children face challenges. How and when should they do so is not spelt out. It is important for us to explain that asking for a conversation also shows strength. To find a way to deal with the stress through a discussion, and openly express themselves needs to be encouraged.
While my session with the children ended with some proficient displays of sword fighting, jumping up and down screaming, “go go go!”. There were some urgent requests for the ‘A’ in NINJA to stand for ‘arm-wrestle’ instead. But I know that they heard me out, and later made visual reminders to be pinned up in their rooms. The idea has already received some great feedback and I have converted it into a research project. Meanwhile, I hope that the little ones who started it all will some day understand what the phrase, “may the powers protect you”, truly means.
Shwetambara Sabharwal is a Mumbai based psychologist, psychotherapist and a mother of two.