Addressing the Youth Mental Health Crisis Through “Present Processing”

Addressing the Youth Mental Health Crisis Through “Present Processing”

Present processing helps kids work with the emotions they’re feeling right now, creating strategies to use when they need them later.

A couple weeks ago I went a few minutes over with an adult client, pushing back the start of my next session. The following week, this second client showed up a couple minutes late and when she sat on the couch, it seemed she couldn’t get comfortable, fidgeting and harrumphing. Of course, the reason for her lateness and her discomfort was that she was mad at me. By delaying her session the previous week, I had made her feel devalued and disregarded and now she brought these feelings into the room.

It turned out to be an important session: Instead of working to remember back to situations in her past that created these challenging emotions so that we could reprocess them, here were these emotions in the flesh, in the room, in the moment. We were able to process her feelings of betrayal, of being undervalued, in the context of our therapist/client relationship.

This is present processing and in addition to using this technique in adult psychotherapy, we all have the opportunity to help young people present-process — especially as we address the youth mental health crisis arising from the pandemic and the many upheavals that seem to be increasingly common here in the 2020’s.

Present processing lets you move past hypothetical situations and emotions to work with real emotion in the room. For example, instead of studying and talking about world events, a teacher or parent might notice a child is dysregulated and use the child’s emotions as the starting point — exploring the child’s current state and perhaps connecting these raw emotions to events in the world around them.

The key is to encourage a child to actually feel a difficult emotion so that you can help the child transform it, contain it, or otherwise work with it in a safe environment. Of course, one way to unmask challenging emotions is to bring up a child’s major worry – to bring up the pandemic or climate or political and social unrest. But this head-on approach can be brutal and if a child isn’t ready, can be too much or can create the opposite of what we hope for, namely the shutdown of an unfeeling mask.

Instead, it can be useful to see and name and process smaller dysregulations – it can be useful for the child to become disorganized in the moment so that you can work together to reorganize. But when kids are one-on-one with an adult, kids tend to have fairly positive experiences. They may be regulated with you, but then when they leave, small challenges create problem behaviors – behaviors that we can’t “present process” because we don’t see them.

One strategy I use is to play challenging games: A frustrating puzzle, or a card/block tower that requires concentration but then tips over, or very simple toys that aren’t obviously entertaining, or a competitive game they could lose, or a game that requires deception. When these toys or games create anger, frustration, anxiety or more complex emotions like betrayal or mistrust, we have the opportunity to look into these emotions – we have the opportunity to process them in the present.  

Once a child feels emotion, your real work can begin. Now you can work with the child to find safe strategies to deal with this emotion, strategies the child can apply outside the context of your relationship the next time he or she finds this emotion bubbling up in the real world of their everyday lives.