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.

EARLY MORNING GIRAFFES, AND A WELL-MEANING NEIGHBOR

I love taking walks, as I’ve mentioned before, and usually find some bit of magic in them. There was the time, as a dramatic example, a bald eagle swooped low over me on South Street—South Street!—as if to bring me the courage and invigorating sense of benediction I then needed.

The two small giraffes I saw ahead of me at 6AM today, on the steep grade I was climbing, were not magical, however, but merely a trick of light, perspective, and my eyes, still full of sleep. They were greyhounds, just nosing about, as I saw when I got closer. (They possessed their own mystique, of course.)

My thoughts were occupied by a well-meaning neighbor, who planted many of the shade trees on my street, and who cleared all our parking spaces with his snow-blower these last two colossal winters. I rarely see him, so when our paths crossed recently and he asked how I was doing, I mentioned I’d graduated. Graduated from what? “Social work, for counseling,” I said.

“So you wanna work with the crazies, huh? That’s burnout work right there.”

“Well,” I said, “it probably helps that I don’t see them that way.”*

I’m frankly baffled as to why / how such stigma continues to exist. I know this isn’t an original thought, nor even the first time I’ve made the comparison, but is it really that different from the old confusion of epilepsy with demonic possession?

There is no person of such sound physique or character that he wouldn’t be affected if dosed past his own personal threshold for drugs. There is no one who wouldn’t fall into a stupor; or panic; or see, hear, and feel things, based on whatever chemicals were circulating in her brain and blood.

Even when we are healthy, we feel good and clear and sane because our own personal pharmacies are generating the right balance of chemicals. For many people, that balance gets thrown.

Mental health, like all health, exists on a continuum, or something akin to one. If that scares people because it seems too fragile, I think it ought to give them hope for the good that can be done. I could write about this at length but will have to take a piecemeal approach, given the limits of time and my ability to organize my thoughts and research. My approach, in brief, is holistic.

One important point to make is this: genomes can be mapped, and consequently we’ll see more attempts at targeted medications; but what about epigenetics? A person whose liver has been compromised from birth by a toxic water supply, for example, will likely be more vulnerable to all sorts of things (and possibly less responsive to treatment) than those raised on clean spring water or reverse-osmosis carbon filtration. We’d all do well to a) value our health from the inside-out, and b) demonstrate humility and compassion. Mental health professionals included!

I was thinking of these things as three police vehicles passed me, turning into their parking lot up the way. It so happens that the neighbor in question is a retired police officer, and I’m sure he saw many things in his time on the force to darken his view of humanity. I myself feel pretty grim about it anytime I find myself near a television, which thankfully is fairly rare. The work of law enforcement is psychologically stressful and legitimately dangerous, however small the town, however easy the precinct, and I mention my neighbor’s profession not to incite antagonism against cops, but to encourage the use of mental health sensitivity training among all first responders, so that dignity can be preserved and lives can be saved.

As I write these last words, inside a small office next to a rest home, an old man with dementia is out making the rounds of the parking lot, checking all the license plates. I’m told this was once his job somewhere, and that he’s allowed to continue it here because it settles him. The people in charge even give him a fluorescent vest to wear. I have to smile as he limps along—he looks so purposeful. He’s doing his work.

* For the record, I have never personally worked with those known as the severely mentally ill; but my sense of the ethics of care holds for them as for the kids, inmates, and addicts with whom I’ve interacted.

WITH LIBERTY AND RESILIENCE FOR ALL

As a graduate student of social work, certain terms I’ve encountered in my studies have come to have a galvanizing meaning for me. One such term is “risks and resiliencies,” the balance of factors that undermine or support a person’s well-being. How does this term apply to the project at hand?

Many teachers know a great deal about their students’ lives in a general sense, and children who come to school in distress may relate the specific reasons to those who’ll listen. Still, in a classroom of, say, twenty-five kids, there are twenty-five complex and ever-evolving sets of life circumstances with the potential to impact learning—twenty-six, if you count the teacher’s.

One of my inspirations for this site was an article I read last year titled “Mindfulness in School Psychology: Applications for Intervention and Professional Practice” (see below for attribution), wherein the authors posit mindfulness as an intervention with three tiers of application: universal, targeted group, and intensive. This conceptualization is similar to the Response to Intervention (RTI) model that will be familiar to American educators and possibly others.

During my internship, I drew on mindfulness in my individual (i.e., Tier 3) counseling work with several young clients. Some of that I’ll likely describe on another occasion, as my memories of that work count among my happiest, but the main purpose of this site is to consider what can happen when mindfulness is made accessible to all—and to inspire readers who are new to it to try it.

Therapists of various stripes are in the privileged position of making active listening their work; but not even the most trusted listener can ever know all the risks and all the resiliencies in a child’s life. No one can ever tell the whole of a life, and especially not a child, who is so much in the midst of things.

What children can tell about themselves is powerful, however, and can make the crucial difference for them—if they have the chance to be heard. But guidance personnel in schools are even more outnumbered than teachers, and as my supervisor often lamented, there are too many kids not getting the time that they need.

This brings me to the beauty of the Tier 1 intervention, and the use of mindfulness in the general classroom setting. With the ability to strengthen executive function and reduce anxiety, among other beneficial effects—more on these in future posts—mindfulness can foster resilience in students and possibly “catch” those who need catching before their (often unknown) needs and troubles escalate.

Mindfulness activities are not a replacement for counseling when it’s needed, but the physiological effects on a child, I believe, can be similarly helpful and even profound.

 

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“Mindfulness in School Psychology: Applications for Intervention and Professional Practice,” by Joshua C. Felver, Erin Doerner, Jeremy Jones, Nicole C. Kaye, and Kenneth W. Merrell, in Psychology in the Schools, Vol. 50(6), 2013. doi: 10.1002/pits.21695