I think my son was four when he decided he had to be right about everything. Four is generally the time when kids find their inner sassy. (Some kids get there earlier; some kids are born full of sass.) Anyway, he was around four and suddenly he was always right and I was always wrong. He’d make wrong statements full of confidence.
“Mommy,” he’d say. “Birds can’t fly in the rain.”
“Sure they can, sweetie,” I’d answer, thinking I was still talking to my reasonable 3-year old. “Remember yesterday when we were outside in the drizzle and we saw that cardinal flying?”
“No, they can’t. Because the raindrops hit their wings and they crash.”
“But don’t you remember? We saw the cardinal. Let’s look it up in your bird book.”
“Nope,” he’d say, casually swinging on the arm of the couch. “I don’t need to look it up because I already looked it up” (said the kid who couldn’t even read yet) “and the book says they can’t.”
I’d catch myself in these arguments several times a day. Peanut butter isn’t made of peanuts. Target sells zoo animals. Daddy has the day off tomorrow. New York is the capital of Cuba.
I don’t know why it drove me so crazy but man, it drove me crazy.
“Cheerios are made of green cheese,” he’d announce, calmly eating a bowl for breakfast. “Cats are humans in disguise. You were born during dinosaur days. I can fly on Thursdays.”
Ok, I’m exaggerating and also I don’t remember what we were arguing about, which is my point actually, because the arguments — or at least winning them — didn’t matter.
It took me awhile to figure that out. For a long time I’d try to be reasonable and then I’d try to prove my point and then I’d get louder and soon we’d be glaring at each other, our day ruined and tear-stained all because for some reason I really needed my 4-year old to acknowledge that I do SO know how to bake cake and the ingredients do NOT include ground up birthday candles.
Four year olds are practicing being in charge and they are practicing their command of their growing vocabularies. In The First Five Years of Life, Gesell writes about a 4-year old who asserts that a nursing lamb is getting gasoline from his mother. Writes Gesell:
In a vague yet concrete way he knew that gasoline is a source of energy. Gasoline makes things, including lambs, go. Four has powers of generalization and of abstraction which he exercises … frequently and deliberately. … [However] we underestimate the vastness of his terra incognita. An intelligent 4-year old, while building a playhouse, was heard to say, “Houses do not have tails.” This lucid judgment was the sober product of an inquiring mind. Four has a busy rather than a profound mind. His thinking is consecutive and combinative rather than synthetic.
In other words, four knows what he knows and does not know what he does not know. Four is figuring things out and to figure things out we have to get things wrong.
When I argued with my son I was upending his process and really for no good reason. I mean, he’s seventeen now and he knows what cheerios are made of and that birds can fly when it’s raining. I can’t remember his specific wrong assertions because he quit asserting them. It all turned out eventually but I thought it was my job to teach him things even when he wasn’t interested in my teaching.
Fortunately when my daughter hit four I understood that it was better for all of us to just roll with it. I could respond to her statement, “The sky is purple” by saying, “Oh, is it?” or even “Tell me more” without even blinking.
I know, I know, it sneaks up on you. At one point your child is looking to you for Answers to All Things and next he’s basically saying that you know nothing. It happens at four and it happens at ten and it happens in the teens and I hear tell that adult children are awfully prone to correcting their parents particularly when it comes to new technology or the proper use of slang.
Here’s my takeaway in all of this:
- All behavior serves a purpose and often that purpose is developmental. Kids are supposed to get stuff wrong on their way to getting things right. If it isn’t a safety issue, see if you can comfortably let it go and trust them to figure it out. So what if they think the sky is purple. Who really cares, right?
- Sometimes what looks like misbehavior is really just behavior. A 4-year old clinging to a ridiculous belief isn’t actually being sassy as much as looking like sassy. Their initial assertion isn’t the problem, it’s the arguing that happens if we correct them. So again, maybe we can agree to disagree and skip the arguing.
As I say — often — parenting is not for sissies. Remember whether it’s your 4-year old or 14-year old who is driving you crazy, you can come to the Thursday night group Parenting Challenging Children for support, insight and ideas. Enrollment is ongoing.
Usually I let my kid-clients decide whether or not they want their parents to come into their play therapy sessions with them. (Some situations require parents be an active participant but most don’t.) The littlest children always want a parent to sit in the room, which is absolutely fine. The kids and I play together and the parents watch or read a book or play on their smart phones.
I know that sometimes parents are sitting there watching us have a tea party or race cars or build with blocks and thinking, “I drove all this way for this? Took time out of the day, got the other kids childcare, took time off of work, took my kid out of school for this?” Because play therapy looks an awful lot like playing.
I try to head this off by explaining how play therapy works at the intake session but it doesn’t always sink in. And then we’re all in the office together and their child is playing and I’m watching (because I don’t play unless I get invited to play — my job is facilitation and observation) and … well, I’m not surprised when the question comes up, “What exactly are you doing anyway? And how is it helping?”
What I tell parents is that talk therapy is facilitated exploration through discussion and play therapy is facilitated exploration through play. Play is how kids communicate.
What makes the play therapy space special are the same things that make the talk therapy space special:
- Unconditional positive regard (I accept you, I appreciate you, I see the good in you no matter what you do or say);
- Safety (with rare exception what you share is private and stays in that room);
- Concentrated focus (I am paying sharp attention to what you do/say and trying to both understand you better and help you understand yourself better);
- A commitment to helping you move forward (I am actively looking for ways to help you grow through your experience);
- A particular kind of loaded environment (comfy chairs, quiet, tissues at the ready and specific toys that encourage sharing).
Unlike most adults and bigger kids who can learn through give and take discussion, young children lack the insight and the vocabulary that allows them to discuss their experiences and feelings. Through play they are able to share what is causing them concern and work through it.
Many of the children who come see me play the same game over and over, trying to make sense of something so they can move forward. Just as talking something out can help, playing something out can help, too.
A common example is a child who heads straight to doctor’s kit every session because she’s working out her feelings about her last well-child visit. Having an understanding witness who gives voice (through her unbiased observation) to the story helps the child take control of her narrative.
This was something one of my professors used to say when we were talking about the limits of theory, “The map is not the territory.”
One day he took it a step further. He held up a map of the United States that he carries around in his dayplanner, a map that shows the state boundaries. Then he held up one that showed the United States divided by time zones.
His point was that the map can only describe part of what is true about the territory and different maps can say different things. But they are not true in the same way that the territory itself is True.
This is important to remember when we’re wondering why in the heck this person in our life is not doing what they’re supposed to do. It is particularly important when we’re looking at a child and trying to understand why they’re not fitting into a particular slot or why they’re not responding to a particular parenting theory. And it is also particularly important when we are feeling angry with ourselves for not being as “normal” as we expect ourselves to be and as some self-help books promise us we can be if we just get it together.
Listen, maps and books are very helpful and I am pro things that help. Getting educated about our child’s development or our own development can go a long, long way to assisting us in making good, realistic, appropriate choices but still — the map is not the territory and the books don’t describe our lives or our children’s lives.
You — every bit of you, all of your experiences — are too complex and wonderful to be fully described by anyone’s two-dimensional map. Use those maps to get insight into the parts that need insight but remember to pull back and view the whole landscape when it comes to understanding.
Group supervision is similar to group critiques in a creative writing class. You present your case and then people chime in to try to help you with it. Sometimes you need help with practical matters — like what to do ethically or what clinic protocol demands — but usually the cases you bring to supervision are the ones that have you banging your head against the wall.
Case presentation looks something like this:
My client is this age and ethnicity. My client came to counseling because of this reason. Here is what is most important for you to know. (That might include her diagnosis if she has one; her background and history; her progress so far.) This is how often I’ve seen her.
And then the big question:
Here is how I am stuck.
The point of group supervision is not to throw a bunch of theories at the presenting clinician or for participants to show off with how much more they know. The point of group supervision — and individual supervision — is a lot like the point of counseling; it’s to help the clinician to find the answers in her own experience. Sure, we share things we know with each other — research we’ve read or similar cases we have experienced — but only if doing so will illuminate the presented case for the presenting clinician. Very often we spend a lot of time asking questions not only to clarify the case for ourselves but in the hope that giving us the answers will clarify the case for the presenter.
In graduate school we used a Gestalt technique where someone would listen to the case presentation and write down aspects that seemed particularly relevent. If we were to do it for say, Harriet the Spy after her notebook was stolen and her parents take her to the psychiatrist* then the list might include: Notebook, parents, Ole Golly, spying, isolation and friendship. Then each person would pretend to be something on that list and speak as that thing out loud. I know it sounds silly (and it can feel silly doing it) but it can also lend unexpected insight.
The person playing the notebook might say, “I am Harriet’s notebook. I hold all of her secrets and keep them safe for her. I let her examine things from all sides and speak without reservation. I am a reflection of her innermost thoughts. I let her take those thoughts out and give them room to breathe. I help her open up space in her busy mind.”
It’s all open to interpretation, of course, and the person pretending to be an aspect of the case could certainly be wrong but that doesn’t matter. The exercise is meant to give the clinician a different perspective.
Perhaps the therapist listens to the person playing the notebook and she starts to think, “Without her notebook Harriet must feel so cramped and trapped. Perhaps she feels like she can’t think without it.” And it might change the course of their treatment in some small way that lets the clinician get unstuck.
While I don’t like role plays where you play the client and I play the clinician or vice versa, I did like this technique. It was often so jarring (“You be the client’s entrenched views about her mother’s religion; you be the client’s nightly vodka tonic; you be her beloved poodle; you be the man she met on the internet) that even when it wasn’t my case I was sure to learn something new to bring to my clients the next morning.
* If I remember correctly, Harriet’s therapist gives her a notebook and she spends the whole session scribbling in the corner, frantic to write because her parents have taken her others away. When she goes out to the waiting room clutching the notebook her parents remove it from her possession and she doesn’t see the therapist again. Do I have that right? Probably her dad calls the therapist a fink. There’s a lot of finking in that book.
I’ve created a category to share little bits of lovely internet flotsam and jetsam as I find it and I decided to call it Therapeutic Moments because I think it’s a good reminder that most healing doesn’t happen in the counseling office. I think of counseling as kind of priming the therapeutic pump knowing that it’s what my clients do after they leave me that really makes change.
Therapy is generally only one hour a week (if that), which leaves 167 other hours where things are bound to happen.
When my clients call me to make an appointment, they’ve already begun the work of healing because they are stating their wish that things were different and their intent to make change. By the time we’re sitting across from each other there is already some momentum and hopefully our time together will give them strength when inertia sets in and their good intentions start to falter.
It happens. Change is hard.
But if we succeed in pushing forward together they will be able to take that forward motion out into their lives. The insight they gain in session will color those everyday events and often give them added depth and meaning.
Of course you don’t need therapy to have everyday epiphanies but I think when we’re primed to find inspiration we’re more likely to find it and counseling can fuel inspiration for positive change.
So I made the category Therapeutic Moments as tribute to the times in our lives when we see the light in otherwise ordinary days.