Skills for BIG Feelings: An Interview with Casey O’Brien Martin

As you all know, I’m constantly looking for new resources for my therapy practice, especially resources that I can share with other therapists. About two weeks ago, I found a fantastic workbook that can be used with kids individually or in a group setting. Skills for BIG Feelings author Casey O’Brien Martin is not only an author and therapist, but she runs a website with resources for kids and the people who help them.

Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I found out that Casey and I are in a common Facebook group, so I had the opportunity to chat with her about her book and her career.

Can you tell us a bit about your professional background?

I’m a registered expressive arts therapist, which is really my passion.  After I obtained my Master’s degree and became a licensed mental health counselor, I went back to school and became a registered nurse. I am really interested in mind-body medicine and a life-long learner! I have experience working in all kinds of settings including emergency rooms, inpatient psychiatric facilities, group homes, outpatient, community settings, schools etc. 

My current work is as a full time School Adjustment Counselor in an urban school district and teaching part time at Lesley University in the Expressive Therapies division in the Graduate School of Arts and Social Sciences.  I really love the combination of teaching graduate students and also doing direct work with children in the school systems. I feel blessed because I really love my job and feel so passionate about this work.

What was your inspiration behind Skills for BIG Feelings?

I started creating this program for the kids I was working with. This is the program I wish someone had taught me when I was a child! 

The program was derived from a need to shift my approach from a crisis-oriented, responsive school counselor style to a more preventative tier-one approach to mental wellness in schools.  One of the shifts in my thinking happened when I received a call and learned about the trauma a student at my school was experiencing, and it was shocking as this student was never referred to me or identified as needing mental health support. It was at that point that I realized I needed to shift my focus to teaching ALL children these vital life skills – and not just focus all of my energy on the small percentage of kids who were misbehaving by acting out and externalizing their behavior.

When I first created Skills for Big Feelings, I didn’t have any thoughts of publishing it.  I decided to publish it once I started collecting data and seeing feedback from not only the children I was working with, but also from their families.  They were sharing how impactful the program was and it was then that I decided I should publish this so I could reach more children and help them learn these coping skills and relaxation tools.

There are a lot of group manuals out there for kids, but I think yours is the first I’ve seen that uses a coloring book to teach the skills. What made you decide to incorporate art into your group?

There is a reason why there is a whole market of adult coloring books for stress relief!  As a Registered Expressive Arts Therapist, I’ve studied the research on the benefits of various forms of art making, including coloring.  Coloring has been shown to help reduce anxiety, increase perseverance, and elicit feelings of relaxation.  I also think by coloring the skills, and making them their own, the children are also better able to internalize them and later recall and use the skills. The kids also just LOVE coloring the skills and having their own special workbook to take home. The coloring workbook also acts as a transitional object once the sessions are over, not to mention the fact that it is a concrete book of coping tools the students can keep and later refer back to.

What’s the main message you want practitioners using Skills for BIG Feelings to take away?

First, you always have to start with relationships. I built a wonderful, helpful program that has shown to be very successful with many children, but the work needs to be grounded in a positive presence and a healing relationship to be most impactful. The research shows us that one positive relationship with an adult is all a child needs to build resiliency.

The second message I hope clinicians and educators take away from the book is the concept that Dr. Greene of Lives in the Balance writes about which is “kids do well if they can.”  A lot of kids are just lacking the social-emotional skills they need to succeed and many kids need direct instruction on these lagging skills. They need to be taught coping and emotional regulation skills. My hope is that practitioners come away feeling empowered because they will have many coping tools and strategies that they can easily teach to children in a fun, engaging, and developmentally appropriate way.

What’s the number one message you want kids participating in a Skills for BIG Feelings group to take away?

I want the kids participating in Skills for Big Feelings to walk away knowing that that all feelings are okay, and I want them to leave feeling empowered because they’ll have a variety of tools to help them cope with their big feelings. 

What projects are you considering in the future?

At the moment I am working on a lot of companion resources related to Skills for Big Feelings to help educators and mental health professionals expand upon and extend the concepts and learning. I’m also working on some craft projects that go along with the skills.  I also have another book started which is about using expressive arts therapy interventions in a school-based setting.

Published by Dr Marschall

Dr. Amy Marschall received her Psy.D. from the University of Hartford in September 2015. She completed her internship at the National Psychology Training Consortium with specializations in assessment and rural mental health. Currently, she specializes in trauma-informed and neurodiversity-affirming care, and she is certified in telemental health. Dr. Marschall runs a private practice, RMH Therapy, where she provides individual and family therapy as well as psychological assessments across the lifespan. Dr. Amy Marschall is an author and professional speaker.

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