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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