Sometimes it helps to practice therapeutic responses day to day. I.e., therapy does not have to be confined to office sessions. I have been recalling the following interaction, and thought others might benefit from reading about it.
Some time ago we lived for a few years in Canada, a lovely country back then where most of the population lives near the southern border with the U.S. (Now an ugly country even under Trudeau, tearing up its soil muskeg and its aboriginal treaties to produce trainloads and pipelines full of tar sands Bakkun crude — the worst of the fossil fuels — further damaging a climate already on life support.)
One of our neighbor boys, about age seven back then, was the youngest of three siblings. While usually fun and within normal limits, he could sometimes be unusually ‘demanding’ — in need of attention. One day he snuck up on me while I was mowing with our electric lawn mower. Jabbing me in the sides from behind, he seemed intent on experiencing my reactive startle.
“Ow! Don’t do that,” I said with minimal eye contact. (Eye contact can be very rewarding to misbehavior.)
— “Did I scare you!?” he demanded, moving closer to watch my face. But he had not acknowledged my directive. No biscuit.
“Don’t do that!” I repeated with no pleasure in voice or face. I call this non-juicy limit-setting. I recommend it for serious teaching around serious disrespect. Simultaneously I give zero response to the offender’s agenda. He had a turn steering the bus and he blew it.
— “But did I scare you!?” This ‘broken record’ technique of repeating a demand was invented by kids, because it works. Except with me.
I called up my sharp-voiced inner alpha dog. Alpha dogging has a limited place breaking up disrespectful agendas. It uses a short ‘broken record’ with just a little shame, served with a no-fun facial expression. (And keep this very short.)
“Don’t do that. Do you understand?!”
— “Yes.” His tone submissive, we were done.
Time to change the subject. “Did you guys have lunch yet?” And so we moved on. Lesson delivered, learned, and behavior stopped.
Well, almost stopped. A few months later I was working in my garden when he appeared with a plucked flower. He grinned to himself and tried to tickle my face with it, forcing adult attention.
“Hold on, Pardner. You need to ask before you touch other people’s faces.”
— “Can I touch your face with this flower?”
“No, but thanks for asking.”
Whereupon he tried to do it anyway, eager for any attention from a safe adult. Probably having a bad day with his older sibs.
I could have gone back to alpha dog again but his behavior was not dangerous, as when I was power mowing. So I did a field impression of Empathic Therapist. (Convincing because it is real.)
Big voice, moving closer with eye contact: “Wow, you didn’t listen to me! That is so helpful, because it tells us that somebody didn’t listen to you when you wanted them to stop! We’ve got to figure out who!! Who didn’t listen to you?!!”
With unexpected vulnerability he answered sadly, “My brother.” “And my mom.” “And sometimes my dad…”
Maybe that was accurate, maybe exaggerated, maybe imagined (probably not). What mattered was that he was finally focusing inside and sharing his inner life (thoughts and feelings) at that moment. So I responded with acceptance and empathy, allowing us to feel like friends instead of opponents.
Me: “I’m sorry. Not feeling listened to can be really hard.”
(Not a good time for defensive put-downs such as, “How do you YOU like it, huh?! Now you know how it feels, right?!!!”)
After a pause, he chatted about something else, and we had our usual good visit.
Recommendation: practice looking under the surface so that when kids do annoying things we are ready to focus on inner thoughts and feelings. I.e. “What’s going on inside?”