The Cambridgeshire therapist using super powers to help young minds
Ollie and his Super Powers is taking a different approach to helping children deal with mental health difficulties.
Starting two years ago with a book – Ollie and his Super Powers – therapist Alison Knowles has created a rapidly expanding enterprise within child therapy that is being adopted by police and even caught the interest of the NSPCC.
Alison, who lives in Cambridgeshire, became a cognitive therapist four years ago and initially dealt with adult clients, but soon realised her affinity with children.
“Kids would come in and say I’m naughty or I’m angry, and that was their identity,” Alison said. “I would sit them down and explain that we have all of these emotions and they’re kind of like a team, and one day an emotion will speak up loud and say I want to be captain of the team today, like ‘angry’. We can pull that emotion out and talk about it. As soon as we’re talking not about the child but about their emotions they open up. It’s fantastic to watch, but parents need to learn too.”
Multiple Cambridgeshire schools have already adopted the lessons in Ollie and his Super Powers, and parents are learning it too.
The Ollie process makes super powers out of emotions, making emotions more relatable for kids. As Alison says, ‘empathy’ is a word that kids can spell, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they understand it. Making emotions superpowers gives kids something they can relate to and control.
“A teenager I was working with who was really poorly had become very depressed and no one could lift her out. I can just revert back through the ages so I am a kid, and it was with her that we first played around with the idea of emotions, bringing them out and asking them what was wrong and it really made a massive difference to her. It kicked off from there.
“I thought, all we’ve got to do is change the language. Kids are smart enough – it’s us not using the right language that’s the problem.
“At the moment, the government is throwing money at therapy and they’re recruiting more mental health staff, but the waiting lists are still long. The therapy that they offer works really well for some but not for everybody, and we’re still fighting the fire rather than trying to get ahead and put blocks in to stop children needing therapy in the first place.
“You’re always going to need therapy for the big stuff – psychosis, eating disorders, but an awful lot of what’s clogging up the system is children’s anxieties: self-worth, self-esteem, and that can be dealt with before it becomes a problem.
“I truly believe we can get rid of an awful lot of these waiting lists if we can get to people sooner, before there’s even a problem.”
By coaching parents and the teachers to learn the ‘language’ of Ollie, Alison says issues can be caught before they develop and the benefits will be felt further up the chain.
“Children wouldn’t need to be removed from classrooms for being disruptive and parents wouldn’t be looking for therapists to deal with them because they can’t handle their behaviour – just with a little bit of coaching,” she said. “We do mentoring for parents and teachers and that gives an insight into how to use the Ollie language and how to talk to the superpowers, or emotions, so we’re not teaching them to be therapists but we give them really simplistic tips so that they can work with the children through most of their issues.”
She added: “The police love the concept because they’re in the same boat. They’re big boys in uniforms but they have scared kids they’ve got to deal with, so how do they do that? And the Ollie concept really works for them.
“The best email I got was from a seven-year-old and she said we haven’t got a naughty step any more, we use super powers at home, which is fantastic. But the best bit was she said ‘Even Daddy has found his happy super power’. That’s what we want – family engagement. Then people won’t need us therapists.”