USE WORDS.

 

So I work with kids. I work with people who work with kids. In my free time, I read books about working with kids. I don’t, however, always drink the Kool-Aid. For example…

There are few phrases I find more inherently condescending than “Use your words.” This expression, all too common in English, is intended as a prompt to children to choose prosocial ways to communicate their wants and needs. At the best of times (which is by no means all the time) I think it’s meant to be empowering, a kind of “Go, you!” coaching. Even where the aim is worthy, though, the method makes me wince.

No caregiver enjoys tantrums. Kicking, flailing, screaming, wailing—that’s misery for all concerned, including children themselves. Just as newborns feel safer when swaddled, children are significantly happier when they’re regulated, i.e., in control of themselves.

In community mental health—where so many of the kiddos we see start their lives already burdened with trauma—tantrums can be even scarier, leading to assaults and destruction of property. One little boy I know, in the midst of a recent fit, climbed to the top of a fridge to grab the butcher knife kept there and threaten his family.

When children have facility with words, not only are they better able to make themselves understood by others, but they are also better equipped to make sense of events and form lasting memories. Thus the importance of reading to and with children, and talking over events both before they take place (in preparation) and after (to create narratives).

It has been demonstrated through studies that children from variously disadvantaged backgrounds typically hear far fewer words a day than their more secure counterparts—yet another way that inequality is perpetuated, making social strata more difficult for some to climb. Literacy programs seek to work against that pernicious trend.

“Use your words” is meant to work against the trend of tantrums, storms of tears, sullen silences. Does it? I haven’t seen the evidence. I know I have a contrary, independent streak and tend to want to kick over any traces that harness me to someone else’s direction or notion of labor; but from my perspective, the expression feels more like an impatient, insensitive dictum from on high than like a loving and truly attuned and listening encouragement.

Anything can be co-opted; but think of the ease with which grown people say “Use your words” to one another, with the explicit intent of being snide. If I were still a child, I wouldn’t have the words to say how I felt about hearing that from an adult, but I know it would make me feel as though the person speaking were asserting an unwelcome and invasive authority over me. How do you know what words are my words? What does it mean that you know, when I apparently don’t?

Another way to think about it is that in saying “Use your words,” the adult is often (and often unknowingly) simply outsourcing the hard work of relating, to the person least qualified to do it. “Use your words, as I wash my hands of this.” If words themselves are the point, why not just leave it at that? Would that not suffice as a reminder? “Use words” says much better, “Remember there’s a tool at your disposal.” Adding that possessive pronoun just raises questions about what the hell is meant, and who really owns what.

From a neuroscientific perspective, a child in a tantrum state or weeping fit needs first and foremost to calm down physiologically; the brain is not capable of cool reason and logic in a heated HPA cascade. And the way to calm a child is to love that child in ways the child can feel—to be patient; to touch if touch is welcome (or required for safety) and give near and supportive space if it is not; to offer sympathy for the strong emotions, via reflective statements. Not only does this demonstrate concern, but it models the exact behavior that’s desired: the positive use of words to communicate during a difficult time. When adults use their own words in prosocial ways, children are more likely to do the same.

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Two excellent resources on working effectively with children are The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, and How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King. I can’t recommend them enough!

Now: I’m deeply grateful for my readers, and in 2018, I’d love to reach more! If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it with anyone you feel might like it, too, by linking to it in whatever way works for you. I typically post once a month, so no barrage.

Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted, and details may be altered in fact while relevant in spirit. Text and image copyrights held by me. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. “The Numbers Game” (July 2017), now long delayed, will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Thank you wholeheartedly for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

FIGURINES & HIGH-FIVES

 

 

Ten-year-old Gertie was beside herself one afternoon early this summer, because her sister was joining us as her guest. The last time had been a year prior; Amanda, two years older, had held herself with impeccable posture and poise on that occasion, allowing an ironic smile to play about her lips as Gertie, exclaiming, attempted to include her sister in her favorite activities. By asking arch and pointed questions, Amanda called attention to the immature nature of Gertie’s play and undermined her confidence as host.

This summer, however, Amanda was generous with her younger sister. She treated her kindly and played by her rules. Gertie delighted in her directive role and soon had us closing our eyes while she buried objects in my sand box for us to find. Feeling around in the cool soft spill of near-white particles, we uncovered shells and gems and fake fossils, cars and keys, dice and a dog dish, various animals, and little painted baby figurines: crawling baby, sleeping baby, baby with a blanket. Then it was Amanda’s turn to hide objects for us; and to help Gertie manage her impatience, her inclination to peek, I suggested that we leave the room and skip up and down in the long hall until we were summoned. That, she seemed to love. Skipping became part of every spell of waiting, sometimes with me, sometimes with Amanda.

Later in the summer, Gertie and I were out for a walk around the grounds—if such a term can be applied to a vast sea of asphalt with a shoreline of rough grass and scrubby trees—when I learned that she had never played Follow the Leader. Therein was a golden opportunity to offer her a healthy, sanctioned chance to take charge, since her interactions at school tended toward bullying behavior. Abused and shamed as a younger child by those she used to live with, she was hungry for acceptance and had a history of forcing herself upon her peers, neither respecting boundaries nor taking no for an answer. Notably, when given the role of leader, she offered me turns unprompted—a sign to me that it was, perhaps, serving as a corrective experience.

Follow the Leader followed us indoors and took up where skipping had left off, as a way of extending play beyond my small square office and into the hall. We walked in slow motion, and backward, and bawk-bawking like chickens. Gradually, inexorably, this turned into running laps.

For an “office-based therapist”—my term of self-introduction when we interview candidates for open positions, of which there are perpetually many; more on that another day—I run an awful lot of laps. And I feel, in doing so, a vertiginous awareness of what it used to be like to weigh almost nothing, my childhood body so light that I could nearly fly. I feel this as kids fly along beside me, colts beside a mare. I give it my all and sometimes even beat them to the far door or, back, to the wall where we land, smack, our hands planting hard.

Starting out, I don’t think Gertie was running for the pure joy of running; she was running to win, and with perfect competitive instinct, she forced me out of my own path, such that I would have had to physically push her to clear my way and run at full speed. I wasn’t going to do that, of course; I just trailed her, back and forth, wall to door to wall. When she announced she needed a break for water, I validated her awareness of that need. We’d stop for water, then start again.

And then something interesting happened. She said, “Go,” but let me take off on my own. Confused, I stopped. She directed me to run without her. So I did, back and forth. She sent me out alone again. This time, however, when I reached the door and turned, she started out from the wall and ran toward me, such that our paths would be crossing halfway. Instinctively, I reached for a high-five.

That became our new game: running separately, as if in a relay, and high-fiving each other in passing. For fun, I introduced variations: two-handed, to the side, down-low. Our palms met perfectly each time, a satisfying clap such as I have rarely known. As we passed my open office door, she must have had her eyes on the clock, for she started curtailing her circuit. Again, I was at first confused—was this a move to gain some advantage?—but she explained, “It’s almost time to go, so I’m shortening it.” So we ran shorter and shorter laps, clapping hands with increasing frequency, until at last we were circling each other, in a kind of do-si-do.

Gertie had gone through a prolonged angry phase over the course of the year, in which she proclaimed to hate her life and the world around her, especially her caregivers. There were exceptions, of course; but literally for months, she looked like she wanted violent revenge for every one of the many wrongs done her. She wore that look even while playing Follow the Leader. When we walked out to the lobby on the first day we ran laps, to rejoin her grandmother, she was wreathed in smiles.

I, too, felt wreathed—as if laurels had been woven and set upon my hair. Because again she had transformed her play, from competition to cooperation. And because I’d seen her face flushed and lit with its former, glorious light.

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“The Numbers Game” (July 2017) will be continued in a future post, when I have more stamina for the topic. Out of respect for client privacy, names here are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, I hope you’ll consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading!

CLEAR-EYED AND COURAGEOUS

lost-and-found-bathing-suit-9

The end of any year, but especially this one, can feel elegiac to many. For me there is no better answer within reach, to the litany of sorrows I could name, than to offer tribute to those who’ve inspired me in the past twelve months—thankfully also a long list. Here are just two.

My first tribute is to a mother of my acquaintance. A little over a dozen years ago, she contrived an ingenious way to save some of her income from her abusive partner, so that she could escape to a women’s shelter with their infant daughter. In the process, she lost a best friend because the friend feared retaliation for any show of support to her. The experience of trauma persisted for a decade, as the man haunted her life, until at last he died of an overdose. Now, never having found time to care for herself, she makes the effort to support her daughter’s ongoing grief over losing her father, whom she had barely known, whose death meant something very different to her.

My second tribute is to a girl of my acquaintance. A daughter in a different family, she recognized her stepfather’s instability long before her mother did and looked up the signs and symptoms of abuse to educate her mother in what was happening to them. She persuaded her mother to divorce the man who would, before they left, harass and molest the girl whose clear vision saw the truth, whose courageous spirit spoke out to make change. This girl-becoming-a-woman now wants to study the brain, maybe work in child development or forensic psychology. She wants to understand things. She wants to make sense of the world.

Certainly there were dozens of men and boys this year who moved and delighted me (including one eight-year-old I know who stated recently that he is now “obsessed with Canada”; the liberal-minded among you can probably guess why). Then there are those (men, women, and algorithms) who miss the mortal glory that surrounds them, profoundly confused by marketed images: made up, airbrushed, photoshopped, contrived, assessed, judged, “had,” bought, and/or sold to the highest or nearest bidder. After the year the world has had, after the year my country has had, after the slurs we’ve all been suffered to hear uttered by persons of influence, I feel inclined to celebrate the real beauty of the women and girls whom I’m proud to have met: their strength and grace of character; their intelligence and the light they carry, kindling within every cell, every smile, every look of comprehension, every gesture of warm and real humanity.

To them and to you, Happy New Year.

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Out of respect for client privacy, names are always changed or omitted. Text and image copyrights held by me. If you enjoyed this piece, please consider sharing it. To subscribe and receive future posts, please look to the upper right on your computer screen, or scroll to the bottom of the page on your mobile device. Thank you for reading.

THE SMARTOVATOR

Fidget toys

 

“I’m making a machine,” Riley said, on our second visit. It was a sunny Tuesday noon hour, and his kindergarten teacher had presumably been glad enough to see him go, given his predilection for throwing furniture when distressed. His mom, fed up with what she perceived as the school’s maladroit interventions, was presumably equally glad to take him out of his classroom and bring him to me. Little did she know how inexpert I felt, with behaviors such as his.

So far I’d seen no physical outbursts from Riley—just an air of self-possession and a serious imagination, which he used to endow himself with every power convenient to his ends. Like his machine: my rectangular wooden fidget toy manipulated into a new configuration, which he pointed at me while declaring, from his mother’s lap, “I’m shrinking you!”

Instinctively, I drew my arms and legs tight to my chest, balancing back on my tailbone, and exclaimed in a pipsqueak voice, “Oh my goodness, what has happened to me? I’ve become so tiny that I’m almost disappearing! Whatever will I do?!

Seeming a little smug—not terribly surprised by his success—he rearranged the toy a second time. “I’ll make you bigger,” he promised slyly. “You’re a GIANT!” I flung my arms and legs out and sprawled all over my chair: “Oh no, this is even worse,” I boomed in my best basso profundo. I saw myself growing too big for the building, soon wearing the roof for a cap.

Growing even faster than me-as-giant was my sense of progress in our play; it, too, was exceeding reasonable bounds, although I didn’t know that at the time. I didn’t know that as weeks became months, my presence in the landscape of Riley’s world would require that I see and hear nothing of his actual life. It was like I was wearing a blindfold, and anytime I made as if to remove it, Riley’s hands would dart up to hold it in place and cover my ears as well. His imagination would come to seem to me as much defense as diversion. But defense against what?

One challenge in working with “conduct” kids is to maintain a therapeutic approach in the face of serious integration problems. How to help a kid fit into the systems around him? To function socially within the culture? I’m reminded of the Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” The word “socialization” sounds relatively benign, but that hammer tells some hard truths about how it can happen. And the philosophical questions and quandaries about who decides what counts as what—well, they appear endless.

Philosophy aside, though, teachers don’t care to be punched while doing their work, and who can blame them? Furthermore, other students have a right to safety in their school. A therapist can easily feel an urgent pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to help “fix” things ASAP, and a premature sense of success with a child can lead to frustration and impatience further on down the line. Frustration and impatience are common, of course, and can be admitted in the company of sympathetic colleagues. But they have no place in therapy itself.

Q: Instead of using an apparently strong start to measure disappointment thereafter, can I learn to see it as a source for replenishment? A font of inspiration? A reason for hope?

“You better fix her,” Riley’s mom told him, with unintentional irony, as my sprawling reached its awkward limits. “If only you had a normalizer,” I lamented. Riley paused. “I do have a normalizer,” he said, notably setting down the rectangular toy and reaching for the round one. He spun it in his hands and then released me: “Now you’re normal,” he said.

The inventions didn’t end there, though. As his mom tried to fill me in about how things were going with him at home, he interrupted with another incarnation for me: “I’m going to zap you with my smartovator,” he said. “I’ll make you smart like me. I’ll make you think about things like me.”

Briefly but powerfully, I was transported to a cold walk home, late one December night, and a rare conversation with someone important to me. There were years of painful events and much distance between us, but he seemed to evoke a solution: if I could only be him for even a moment, I’d understand things and forgive him. How fervently I wished for such enlightenment! Needless to say, it didn’t come, although the very suggestion at least made it seem possible. We were adults, and might have used words to approach it, given sufficient time and mutual will.

Pulling myself back to the bright space of day, the four white walls around me decorated with children’s art, I found myself unable to enact my new part, even in play. I didn’t know how Riley thought—would that I did. He seemed to sense my limitation almost as fast as I did, and his rescue was, I thought, sensitive. A jumble of colors again, as he swirled the fidget toy: “Now you’re smart like you again.”

That would have to suffice.

 

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.

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.