[Interview] Deborah M. Plummer

Deborah M. Plummer is the author of books that include: Helping Children to Improve their Communication Skills (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011); Helping Children to Cope with Change, Stress and Anxiety (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2010) and Anger Management Games for Children (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2008).

Formerly a clinical lead therapist working within the NHS, Deborah Plummer now lectures at De Montfort University, Leicester and runs workshops and short courses on the uses of imagery and issues of self-esteem.

In this interview, Deborah Plummer talks about her work:

What are the common causes of stress and anxiety in the children you work with?

For the last 15 years or so of my work within the NHS I specialised in working with adults and children who stammer. Although public awareness about the complex nature of communication difficulties is certainly improving, children who stammer still often experience a considerable amount of anxiety related to their speech, sometimes to the extent that communication becomes something to fear and avoid.

Many of the children I saw for therapy were also susceptible to other sources of stress. Teasing and bullying are perhaps the most publicised of the stresses faced by children with speech and language difficulties but there are other factors such as low self-esteem, coping with difficult family circumstances, coping with change, problems with friendships, hypersensitivity to exam stress, or a drive for perfection which can cause great frustration and anxiety.

Working with these children highlighted two important points for me - that stress is an inevitable part of every child's life, although the degree to which each child will experience stress will, of course, vary; and that children are remarkable in their capacity to adapt to stress and find their true potential if they are offered appropriate and timely support.

Can you describe one of the coping techniques featured in your new book?

The main emphasis in this and my other books is on fostering mindful interactions. We need to be very aware of the impact that our own ways of communicating can have on how a child views himself and on how he views the world.

So one technique is to help children to formulate their own solutions by pointing out the little successes, capitalising on their strengths, using solution-oriented language, praising appropriately and so on.

The other main orientation of my work is imagework.

What is imagework and how does it help with building self-esteem?

We tend to live our lives guided by the internal 'images' that we create about who we are and how the world works. The term 'imagework' was created by Dr Dina Glouberman, who leads imagework training courses internationally. It literally refers to 'working with images', although it is often image 'play' rather than 'work'! I think this concept of play is especially useful when we are helping children to utilise their imagination in a constructive way.

In relation to healthy self-esteem, let's say a child has a fear of 'being on show' and getting things wrong. If I asked this child to draw a picture that would show me what it's like to have such fears he might draw a time when he has experienced the fear or he might draw an animal or an object or just use colours to represent the fear. This is a fairly common strategy.

In imagework I would then help the child to explore the nature of the image in more depth. For example, I might encourage him to make up a story about the image and its 'opposite', and to explore how someone (or something) might move from one towards the other.

When a child comes up with an image that represents how he feels about a situation, he is tapping into something that goes way beyond logical thought processes. And when he realises that he can 'play' with these images and be creative in forming new images, then he can begin to take more control.

Imagework often triggers insights and shifts in perspective which may not come through logical thinking alone.

Children are naturally imaginative - it seems a waste not to use this capacity to support their emotional wellbeing.

What do you find most satisfying about the work you do?

I am currently devoting the majority of my time to lecturing and writing.

I am enjoying the opportunity of sharing concepts and strategies learned and developed over many years of working with adults and children in a therapeutic context.

I find it immensely satisfying to be able to engage students in exploring the psychological aspects of health and illness in a wider context (I teach students on health studies and public and community health degree courses as well as speech and language therapy students).

Frequent or prolonged periods of stress and anxiety can have far-reaching effects on physical health and emotional wellbeing. Practitioners working with children, young people and families therefore need to be skilled in assessing needs, addressing stresses and promoting resilience.

Occasionally I hear from social workers, teachers or parents who have used one of my books and they tell me about a breakthrough that they have had with a child - that is incredibly satisfying for me too - I love to hear how people are adapting the work for different needs and different settings.

You are currently working on a PhD proposal involving your titles what do you hope to find during your research?

The central theme of my books is that there is an identifiable set of criteria which will allow adults to maximise the potential for effectively supporting the emotional well-being of children. My thesis will be an exploration of these elements and will include an evaluation of how people are using the books in a variety of fields.

I am designing a questionnaire which will be available on my website. I am hoping that as many people as possible will take time to respond to this. Responses will be used to examine whether or not there is a specific or 'favoured' aspect of the approaches adopted in the books which practitioners find helpful, or if there is a certain combination of factors that appeals.

What are you currently reading in your spare time?

I am rediscovering books by James Hillman (e.g. Re-Visioning Psychology) - he has influenced my work for some time and I am thoroughly enjoying devoting time to re-reading some old favourites - his work with images and his love of language and metaphor are so incredible. I find new inspiration each time I read his work.

I am also reading Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin - an amazing book about the humanitarian vision of one man and his belief in the power of education to promote peace. Children are our hope for a more community-minded, peaceful future - we should be nurturing their imagination and emotional well-being in every way that we possibly can.

(c) Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2011

This article was first published in the Jessica Kingsley Publishers Social Work Newsletter in February 2010

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