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.