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Letter from a Reader: “We have…a problem. I can see that it is our problem as a family, not only one of the individual. We, the two parents, do not manage to reach our 7 year old son, Trevor. Not only that we talk to ourselves, it is worse than that. I am not even sure I can put this into words. Our child seems to be in a total state of refusing to hear us, we are completelyout of voice, resources and patience.
For instance, on a daily basis: brush your teeth, he is stretching out on the floor, deaf, or he is asking someone should stay with him and brush his teeth or he starts brushing his teeth but he needs a half an hour for it. He does not want to dress by himself only with help or if we scream at him. I cannot describe how tired we all are starting in the morning with all these actions. We, from our side, are not willing to stay with him brush his teeth. But we also do not want to be late for school and work. If we bring him at school late, we are late too for work. What I find really aggravating besides being late is me screaming at him and he becoming close andgoing to school crying.
I feel he is unable to listen to us, he saysthat he only wants it his own way or he does not know why he is notlistening. It is a combination between not hearing us, not wanting to do some things – leaving the house in the morning and going to bed at night are the big issues here. It is painful, that our interactions transformed into being deaf and screaming. I do not know how to talk to him so that he listens. I do not know how to listen to him what he wants to tell me. I am overwhelmed with this situation and we are all sad about it!“.
Dave responds: You describe a very distressing and perplexing situation. Listening personally, I feel discouraged, impotent and sad for all involved. I am encouraged you view this as a problem for the whole family, but you limit your description to Trevor and you. I don’t know much about the family from your note.
Yours is the kind of family that comes to my office. I am a psychiatrist who works with families. I call myself a Metamorphologist because I am interested in activating change. So supposing you called me at the suggestion of your pediatrician. I would tell you to bring the whole family. It sounds like your family would be you your son and your husband. I didn’t hear about any other kids. I am aware of your sadness, but I am not neutralized by it.
Here’s what an initial session in my office might look like: You all arrive in my office. I see everyone together. I want the kid to hear everything. I begin with how can I help? You tell me about the trouble with and around your son. I don’t spend too much time on him because I want to pressure you to talk about the family. “What is the family like?” I ask. “How does the family work? When you aren’t worrying about Billy what do you worry about, what puts pressure on you?” I ask Billy what his family is like. I ask him how he worries about his mother, his father. I question the father first, then Trevor, then mother.
Parents are often hesitant to talk about their kid with him in the room. I push them to do it. It is very impolite but it helps. Kids hear everything anyway. They don’t understand words, but they understand or are affected by the family mood. So when they hear the family situation described in words to someone else, a new understanding may emerge.
I am always interested in the family stress network. How are the grandparents doing? You didn’t say anything in your note about the family situation, changes of any kind that may have occurred. What else is going on? Have you asked your mother for help? What does she suggest? What would your mother do if she was in your shoes?
I can’t tell when the problems started. When did you first think you had a problem?
I play around with the role structure of the family. As I hear about what is happening, I characterize the roles. He is trying to slow things down. Who is trying to speed things up? For example bossy kids start telling the parents what to do. I accuse them of being the mother’s mother. And if he is his mother’s mother he has a real problem. That would make him his own grandmother. So you can call him “granny” at home. Some kids like this, others become furious. But it is a play reality, it is simultaneously disturbing and fun. And it disrupts the pattern by which the family is trapped.
I ask about the families the parents grew up in, what were they like? How did you drive your mother crazy when you were her age? This gives clues to how the parents think about parenting. They may be neutralizing one another.
I ask the father how he decided to marry the mother. Why didn’t you go after her roommate? What was it about her that made you think she was the one?
So I am describing what I do as a therapeutic interviewer. It is not likely you can do something like this at home, but these thoughts may activate your imagination. What I am doing is attending to the whole family. That way of working gives freedom, energizes. After this initial interview a family might ask, “What should we do between now and the next interview?” I suggest: First, spend sometime thinking about what we talked about today. Next, between now and next time try doing something different, but do not tell anyone what you are doing. Talk about it when you come to the next session.
Families are often helped by a context expanding interview like this. It is likely I would see a family like this three or four times.
From the description of the situation it sounds like a pattern in the family behavior has emerged. Everyone is captured by the pattern. The parents have become more and more focused and purposeful in their effort to get him to cooperate. This means you are predictable and thus easier to neutralize. If you are locked into a role he will be locked into the counter-role. It is important to turn on a playful mindset. One important key is to stay creative. If you are too consistent, it is easier to set up a resistance. It is likely Trevor feels as cornered by the pattern as you are.
I am encouraging you to figure out ways to be unpredictable.
For example, a family with an impossibly hyperactive seven year old son was referred to me. Treatment with medication by another child psychiatrist did not work. I ushered them into my office and when I came in moments later he was pawing aggressively at my books, the father was attempting to restrain him, telling him to get his hands off my books. I walked over to him and said, “Are you Billy?” He nodded. “I heard you are really hyperactive. He stopped and looked at me. “You better keep going or your parents will look like liars.” He stopped, perplexed. “Go ahead, let’s see some of this high quality hyperactivity.” He was puzzled but started jumping up and down and shaking his arms and hands. “You forgot about my books. That’s more like it.” He stopped. “Don’t stop yet…”
There are other stories like this. If a kid starts yelling, I tell him to yell louder, I have heard two year olds do better than that. It is very perplexing to the child. They are being defiant, but then they are urged to be defiant and by being defiant they are being compliant.
It is easy for me to make this sound simple. I know it is not. But I hope some of what I said may activate your imagination.
This question was submitted to us by a therapist colleague:
“I need your advice. My son Liam is 6 years old and yesterday he came to me with a question regarding something he picked up in the school bus. The older kids were talking about the F-Word. He wanted to know what is that word? He asked me. Exactly me The background of our story is that we live in Australia, we talk Romanian at home. So we never say the F -Word. The maximum of swearing we use at home is maybe “what the hell” in Romanian. He is not watching much television, no media consuming. The bus children are between 6 and 14 years old. I don’t want to tell him what the F-word is. I don’t want him to use it and I don’t want him to know it. I know one day he will find it out but I don’t know if from me or from others?
My momentary options are to tell him that F-Word means Flower. They will laugh at him and he will lose trust in me. Or I can tell him I won’t tell. So then, others will tell him what it means. Or I can tell him what it means but then I need to forbid it too. So if I tell him I will be anxious he will use it, if I don’t he won’t tell me his secret dilemmas anymore. Help!”
Dave: You ask a good question. As with most questions about parenting we don’t have a simple answer. It is good he could ask his mother. There is so much going on in our kids’ worlds, so much they have to deal with that us parents don’t know anything about. It is important to maintain the relationship that makes conversation about new experiences possible. Keep in mind that what he learned about the F-word on the school bus came with an abundance of non-verbal communication, suggesting it represented a transgression, something naughty and deliciously provocative.
But you can be unsubtle and tell him what you think. It is a bad word. Others may use it, but I don’t want you to use it. I think people who use that word look stupid. They are trying to be big shots, but they look stupid.
Well what does it mean mom? I don’t want to tell you right now (By the way, the Japanese have a wonderful word, ‘mu’, which means “unask the question”. That’s such a great word. It isn’t appropriate here, but you might find it useful at the office, with your husband or your mother-in-law). Or, you can tell him what the F-word actually refers to. But think back to how you found out what the F-word means. Most of us get our early sex education on the play ground or on the school bus where parents aren’t around to translate or to shield. If we are lucky we have parents who can help us understand more fully.
What does the F-word actually mean? The etymological dictionary sounds slightly amused by the word ‘fuck’. The F-word and the C-word, both Standard English words, were excluded from dictionaries in the British Commonwealth from the 18th century until late 1961. Using the words is a low voltage act of defiance, a way to challenge or upset any scene. ‘Fuck’ comes from a word that means both “to strike” and “to copulate with”. Thus the F-word means aggressive copulation. Now it is used playfully among adults of both genders, but not at the faculty meeting, or other versions of polite company.
So you can tell him about love-making and sex. He may not believe you or he may become deaf. What is the right age for sex education? You can educate him any time you want to. He will understand what he can understand which is likely to be different from what you think you are telling him. What you tell him is not nearly as important as how you tell him, what kind of affect the parent adds to the information. Trouble begins in the telling if the parent is anxious, angry or sadistic.
The way you ask the question gives the feeling you have a thoughtful caring home that doesn’t breed defiance. It provides a safe space, shelter from the storm of chaos and crisis, the strange madness that is modern culture. It is good that he asks you, he lets you in on his world. Keep in mind parents are likely to see more of whatever makes them squirm. So figure out ways to stay amused. Being amused is better than squirming.
Maurice Sendak, the children’s book author and artist, “Where the Wild Things Are”, made a film I like “Tell Them Anything You Want”. The title conveys his idea, beginning with a news story that perplexed him as a boy. He discusses it thoughtfully and with subtlety. Of course he is an author not a child development specialist. But I share his view. I tend to trust stories more than behavioral science.