A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THERAPY…

The prism suspended above my window had ceased spinning its rainbows already that day, the sun having moved on. I’d been doing some desk work, just an average morning, when one of the agency’s supervisors knocked and asked if I had a minute. She came in and perched on a chair, the way people do with news to deliver.

It seemed that a parent had called her to express concerns about me—which set my mind spinning; I’d not yet even met the family. The daughter had been seen for intake a month prior, and the case had since languished, awaiting assignment. Then I was assigned and promptly made an outreach call. The mother answered, and we agreed, with some back and forth, on a time to meet. So far, so normal. The call ended pleasantly, I thought. What in heaven’s name could have gone wrong?

This is where the story gets funny, at least in the telling. It seemed the mother was worried that I wasn’t a good match for her daughter—whose presenting concern was anxiety—because I’d sounded too calm on the phone! Too calm, as we booked an appointment!

She should have seen me then, because calm I was not. The supervisor kindly assured me that such things can happen, mostly when a kid or parent takes a liking to their intake worker and doesn’t want to be moved to someone else for therapy; a lot of personal information gets gathered during intake, too, which can foster a sense of investment. That much made sense to me. Of all the brushes there are to be tarred with, however, “too calm” seemed absurd, and I’d be damned if I was going to be feathered, too. The supervisor advised me that I might be hearing from the mom and, with further reassurances, left. A scant ten minutes later, the phone rang.

Ten minutes was enough of a heads-up, as it turned out, and I was grateful to have had it. As much as I value my education for helping me help others, it has a special sweetness when I feel it working on me. It would have been all too easy for me to decide she was a “helicopter parent,” to label and feel at odds with her—to let my pride dominate. I was new and wanted nothing but unmitigated success. But when, after I said hello, the mother launched into a five-minute stream of exposition—studded with phrases like, “I don’t want you to take this personally, but”—well, I listened. I really listened. When she was finished, I said something like this:

“First of all, I want you to know how much I respect your investment in your daughter’s emotional well-being; I wish the same could be said of all parents. As to my own personal style, I guess I would say that in my experience, the most important thing when working with kids is to accept them for who they are, and the rest tends to follow. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you and your daughter, and I think it’s well worth it to keep our appointment and just see what unfolds. I feel confident that we’ll find a way to connect. But please do, as we go along, share any further concerns with me.”

Validation soothes the savage breast, to adapt an oft-misquoted phrase to my own ends. In validating the mom’s concerns, I soothed myself. The mother seemed mollified in the moment, and we went on to have a wonderful first visit. Her anxious daughter was, in fact, a bit of a firecracker; but I can fizz sparks myself, upon occasion, so I wasn’t worried. I let the mother see a little bit of that energy from me, during our first hour. I went through my introductory sequence, then we played a card game of the daughter’s invention, the three of us sitting cross-legged on the floor. The girl, a young preteen, addressed me by name multiple times, which I took as a good sign. (Kids don’t always do that.) The day before our next appointment, the mom called again—this time, just to RSVP. She wanted me to know they would be there.

 

 

DOWN WITH TOUGH LOVE

The high windows were blank rectangles of daylight as the gym teacher handed down tough love. Nothing extraordinary had happened: A dimpled kindergartner had let his high spirits run free, during a non-running game. He then slipped on the smooth gym floor, fell, and banged his elbow, bringing said game to a halt—and him to tears.

He had broken a rule. No matter that he was in pain and possibly a kind of mild shock; rule-breaking was what counted to this teacher, who seemed to think the boy had gotten his just deserts. His words were chiseled like a commandment on a stone tablet. You know the small graves in cemeteries, the kind that tug at your heart? A stone tablet like that. “Stop crying,” he said. “I have no sympathy for you.” Mortal words, to my ears.

When I say the student might’ve been in shock, I mean the physical jarring when a body makes impact and the existential betrayal we feel when the world unexpectedly hurts us. For adults, the cause and effect might have been clear in this case, making the hurt smart less than it did for that boy; but children have less experience of physical laws and probabilities than do we adults. To run from sheer exuberance is to feel a great trust in life, if only in the moment; for many if not all of us, there is nothing reasonable about a fall.

I’m reminded of a scene in a drug treatment facility. It’s process group, a daily meeting that is minimally moderated by a counselor, and is a time and place for peers in the program to air their personal challenges, as well as any grievances with each other. One young man rubbed other group members the wrong way; he had a tendency to urge them to open up and share more of themselves. The week prior things had ignited when an older man forcefully asserted his right to process things in his own way, and essentially told the young man to “cut the therapy shit.” But it became clear—to me, at least—that he wasn’t really trying to play therapist, so much as trying to make the group feel safer to him. The more the other men shared, the more he could.

So, one week later: the young man was sitting in a different seat, and seemed to be buried deep within himself. He was set to graduate, which can be an anxious time. Was he ready for it—for life? The subject of childhood came up, raised by one of the women, and he told a story about a game he played with his mom when she was in the kitchen, wherein he’d mischievously steal scraps of food and she’d lovingly scold him not to eat before dinner. Then his stepfather came in and, oblivious to their play, laid down the law. The young man broke down in the telling, sobbing two decades’ worth. “He beat the fun out of me,” he said. “I don’t know how to feel joy.” Even while he was crying, his jaw was clenching, muscles working, trying to hold back the tears.

I’m not meaning to equate the first scenario with the second—a one-time incident of punitive dispassion with what would become ongoing abuse—but not because small moments don’t matter in big ways. Small moments matter enormously. They are cellular; they constitute us.

 

 

* I’ll try to address the subject of compassionate discipline in a future post. Among the good and relevant books there are to consult, I can recommend The Whole-Brain Child, by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and Playful Parenting, by Lawrence J. Cohen.

“WHY IS THAT A FEAT?”

Lucky Apple

I’ll say it again: I love the directness of children.

Sometimes it provides comic relief, as when, one September not too long ago, the school principal visited the kindergarten classroom where I used to volunteer, to greet the matriculating pupils. A little blond boy, who would become a favorite of mine, studied him quizzically—head cocked, hand on his chin—musing as if half to himself, “I wonder what happened to all of your hair…” The principal’s shiny pate flushed, and he seemed to choke on his words, but gamely he replied that he didn’t know, either.

Often a child’s candor is a refreshing change from the subterfuge of adults, with our emotional trench coats and back alleys, to say nothing of political doublespeak. Tikes playing with trains are the real conductors on the so-called Straight-Talk Express. (There are exceptions, of course, as I’ve acknowledged before.)

Last year I worked with a boy who’d been held back for issues that had been labeled “ADHD.” His family life was chaotic* from morning till night and undermined our therapeutic work during in-home visits in the same way, I’m guessing, that it limited his ability to do homework and engage in his own development. A meeting with faculty and staff at his locally notorious school demonstrated nothing so much as their lack of comprehension for his circumstances.

He and I had one precious office visit—our first visit, before transportation became a problem for his mom. I learned so much! We did one of my favorite focusing activities: I asked him to close his eyes while I struck my singing bowl, then raise his hand when he couldn’t hear its fading resonance anymore.** Then, I asked him to do the same thing, except this time when he could no longer hear the bell, he was to listen for anything else he could hear around him, and raise his hand when he was ready to report back.

I’m not taking authorial license to say that I’ve rarely seen such a look of concentration as on that boy’s face in the sanctuary of the office.

I was surprised and impressed to learn from him that there was more than one clock in the room; I had never noticed. (It wasn’t my space.) He was perfectly still and observant, without evincing the slightest self-consciousness. After, he spoke offhandedly of his excellent hearing. I exclaimed over his ability, in a different exercise, to shift his awareness from the top of his head to his right baby toe, such that both parts grew tingly in turn in response to being noticed; I called it a feat. After I’d defined the word for him, his response was, “Why?” What was so extraordinary? Graciously he seemed to give me the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a feat because it involves executive function. Because that’s an important way to use the brain. Because that’s the very area in which he was considered weak. Because, in fact, many of us barely notice our creaturely existence in this world, except in the most obvious ways. Because, because, because—so many possible answers. But really—why, indeed? It was a good question.

Speaking of feats, the apple pictured above was plucked from the orchard equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. And it was good—tannic and tart. A worthy reminder of many life lessons: a spindly trunk, and branches just laden with fruit.

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*This is a capsule version of his situation, written from my outsider’s perspective, and should—in fairness to his mom especially—be read and understood as such. No piece of writing, however careful, ever tells or ever can tell the full tale. Not that I was endeavoring to, clearly; but I’m conscious of taking a liberty when writing about anyone but myself, and it matters to me to note that, as a caveat.

**I can’t claim to have invented this awesome activity. I think it’s fairly common in the world of mindfulness, but I know that Susan Kaiser Greenland describes it nicely in her book, The Mindful Child.

UNRULY, STOIC, HEROIC

One of them wore a black biker jacket; another, a bitty brown mohawk. Several could not hold still if you paid them. They were third-grade rebels, and they sat in a circle, governed by a pink-and-yellow beach ball.

The rules were simple: Whoever held the ball could expect our collective attention as he shared a piece of news, and when he was done, he’d (lightly!) toss the ball to his chosen successor. Everyone would have a turn.

That simple ritual might be familiar to those in the school counseling world—and, for that matter, to teachers—but I was an intern, and justifiably impressed by my supervisor’s brilliance in coordinating it. Her energy normally ran as high as the boys’—she’d rather do calisthenics than sit at a desk—but she instinctively tempered herself to lead by example.

As with all positive interactions, this one worked on many levels, some subtler than others. For one thing, in a general classroom situation, attention tends to be divided six ways from Sunday, and it’s easy for kids to feel less included than they might wish to be—regardless of adult perceptions as to how much time and energy they’re getting. (If attention is like a beam of sunshine, kids are like mobile plants, jockeying for space, spreading their leaves, and reaching—in whatever way they know how—toward the light.) Clear turn-taking is more valuable than it might appear to you or me, especially with boys quickly learning from the world to play it cool, be disaffected.

So the beach ball gave the boys a chance to get what they privately, deeply needed, without having to fight for it. It also gave each boy brief control—over the ball, over what he offered up, and over whose turn would come next—and subconsciously encouraged the sharing of power. Additionally, as Lawrence J. Cohen discusses in Playful Parenting, “catch” is a way of bridging the distance between males in our culture—even, I think, when played out so briefly.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of this activity, as participant-observer, was that, before sharing, each boy was asked to instruct us as to how he would like his news received. Applause? Silence? “Freestyle”? Several chose the last option, of course, and everyone was duly silly, crawling like crocodiles or shimmying or jumping like participants in some goofy Olympics. But the majority of the boys—referred to the group for their disruptive behaviors—requested silence. Heroic little men-to-be, I think they wanted to be taken more seriously.