SPELL IT GENTLY

There is no statute of limitations on valentines, as far as I’m concerned. This week, I received one from an unexpected source—a fellow yea high whose first “wiggle tooth” only recently fell out. He was afraid of the event, before it happened, but now that particular fear is gone, and the gap in his smile is closing. He seems to carry himself a little more as a man of the world, since the Tooth Fairy’s visit.

Christian is six years old. His mom brought him to counseling because she felt his periodic visits with his father were leaving him dysregulated—emotional and more inclined to disobey—for several days upon his return to her home and care. In the office, I see his strength of will but not much in the way of emotion. Even his fear of losing his tooth was expressed as a matter of fact. (When I asked what was scary about it, he said, “It’s my first one.”) He could play a cool hand of poker, I’m sure, if I brought a deck of cards to our sessions.

As an aside, I feel that much of the therapy depicted in popular culture is based, still, on a psychoanalytic model in which—to continue the poker metaphor—the house always wins. The power differential in that model, wherein transference is not merely assumed but deliberately encouraged, deterred me for some time from exploring the field of counseling as either client or clinician. The strengths-based, person-centered approach I’ve since learned, based on the work of Carl Rogers and many others, is much more to my liking.

There are elements of psychoanalysis that I find meaningful, however, and one is an awareness of childhood as the (conscious or unconscious) foundation of adult identity and functioning. In the simplest terms, I see my encounters with children, whether in an office or out in the world, as an opportunity to offer them an experience of complete attention and healthy regard. Creating and holding open a space for self-expression: for the youngest kids, I think, the very potential for therapeutic work—just having that space—can be meaningful.

I have a lot to learn about play therapy and working with what a veteran colleague at the mental health center calls “charming youngsters.” In my first internship, at the elementary school, I became aware of my need to develop patience for inscrutability. Not-knowing doesn’t come easily to me; I like to have at least a sense that something is happening—that some connection, however subterranean, has been or is being made.

In this second internship, parental impatience is my new challenge. Christian’s mom makes it abundantly clear, whenever they come in, that she wants him to Talk, and naturally I’m left to conclude that the onus is on me to make that happen. But I can’t make that happen; that’s not how therapy works. I feel that the sense of pressure is impeding our progress, as she delivers information to me not quite sotto voce, with commentary on how things in therapy are going: “I’m surprised X hasn’t come up.”

Utmost tact is required with parents, and a respectful attitude is important with all members of a system. On this occasion, I lacked the wherewithal to broach a conversation about process with Christian’s mom. Instead, about half an hour into our fifty minutes, I said to Christian, “Is this one of those weeks when you’d like to spend some time alone with me?” He said yes. We accompanied his mom to the waiting room, per department mandate that no visitors be left alone. On the way back, he started to skip, and I started to skip with him, provoking him to erupt in laughter. He’d pause and start skipping again; I’d pause and skip with him in sync.

When we got back to the office, he appropriated my black pen and a piece of paper. “I see you have my pen,” I said. “I’m making a card,” he said, “a valentine.” “Oh, right!” I said, “Valentine’s Day!” He told me about the cards he got at school, as he drew an ascending cluster of hearts. I made no assumptions about his intentions and only began to catch on when he commanded me to avert my gaze—an age-old “tell” as obvious as a tipped hand. He made the directive surprisingly fresh, however. “Don’t look,” he said, “And please spell your name gently.” I did.

 

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WHETHER YOUR SHOES ARE TIGHT OR LOOSE

For a little over a year, I’ve been aware of, and making use of, a mindfulness technique put forth by Dr. Nirbhay Singh and colleagues. It’s officially called the (unwieldy but descriptive) “Meditation on the Soles of the Feet” and was designed for use with a developmentally challenged, aggressive adult in a community living environment.

It’s a protocol well suited for such a client because the directions are quite simple, and the practice itself doesn’t require a lot of patience. For those same reasons, I think it appropriate for most everyone. I have personally employed it on occasion, shared it with inmates, and taught it to several kids, whose responses have been notable and encouraging. More about that in future.

The basic directions for this protocol can be found here. And, for purposes of illustration, below is a graduate student demonstration of the technique, in which Student A (“Sarah”) is meant to be eight years old, and Student B is meant to be her school counselor. There are several things I like about the video (the decor not being among them—please, someone, deal with the blinds!).

For one thing, it was extemporaneous. Without rehearsal, Student B had to adjust and respond to whatever Student A said, lending verisimilitude to the project. “Sarah” brought her own set of feelings, reasons, and metaphors to the situation; her counselor was more likely to succeed with her by incorporating them.

Something else I appreciate here is that, while clearly looking, and mostly sounding, like a young woman in her twenties, Student A struck upon something that many, many kids feel in situations that end up landing them in hot water: “I just wanted him/her/them to listen to me.” Often these are kids who aren’t feeling heard at home, for whatever reason. A sensitive counselor helps in large part by doing good listening, at least partly meeting that need.

A special note: in this video, the counselor suggests enlisting the classroom teacher to remind “Sarah” of the mindfulness skill she’s learning. This kind of collaboration can work beautifully or fail utterly, depending largely on the teacher’s approach. Expressed kindly and privately, a helpful reminder can serve its purpose—but children resent it, as do we grownups, when some bit of privileged information seems to be used against us, especially publicly. That being said…

* This demonstration is rather free-form and doesn’t follow the full protocol contained in the authors’ manual, which was unknown and hence unavailable to these students. It may still have some merit. Video used with permission.