Everyday Responses to Demanding Children

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?”

 

 

Overnight visits for a toddler? Try age four.

Q.  What is your recommendation on the best interests of children age two re overnight visitation.

 

A.  My answer comes from asking in turn: What makes overnight visitation high-risk for duress in the primary caretaker and for anxiety in children younger than four.  You may perceive the answer in the question, as young children are highly attuned to the emotional state and availability of their primary caretaker.  The following scenes are very difficult to prevent because of the developmental reality of young children’s continuing dependence for emotional security on the primary caretaker:

 

— the primary caretaker is naturally nowhere to be found in their ex-partner’s home, and will never be in close proximity to the child when she gets anxious.

 

— the primary caretaker is generally giving their child up under duress; their duress is sensed by the child.  I.e., this duress is counter to the child’s developmental need to reference her primary caretaker for help with big feelings.  This makes forced overnights developmentally premature until age four when the child has sufficient conceptual capacity to rationalize and externalize the reason for the overnight absence of her primary caretaker.

 

— the child will try to perform well for both parents (in the interests of increased parental approval and attention) so learns to white-knuckle through her anxious moments – until she gets home and can more safely let out all the feelings.  The primary caretaker is then in a perfect set-up: her motives are suspect, yet she is the only one who can report how the premature overnights are manifesting in the child.  Meanwhile the other parent can usually, mostly, honestly say they observed “nothing wrong.”

 

— the other parent often wants to tell the child things such as, “This is your second home,” or “You have two homes.”  Children under age four cannot conceptualize the meaning of this; i.e., they cannot yet hold onto the idea that rules, routines and sleep patterns can operate just differently (versus punitively or catastrophically).  Yet the hosting parent sees no reason to not repeatedly push for increased time in order to make their own wishes manifest.  I.e., the developmental needs of the child are less real and imperative than the adult’s personal dream of how things should be.

 

— the noncustodial parent will normally ask How can I be a parent if I don’t have access?  What should the standard be?

 

My answer is that the standard should be limited to day-time visits only, until age four.

 

Thank you for your good question.

 

“How Should I Handle this Paradox?”

Question from a colleague in upstate New York —

 

I encountered an odd dilemma.  I have a private practice in New York, and it is close enough that sometimes, not always, I bike to the office, instead of drive.
Last week I had a light morning schedule, just one family at 0930. It is a family with a history of shame and blame, based in their intergenerational transmission of many struggles and disappointments.  Now the father brings his young adult son, and things are going well.  They are on their way to new-found resolution and stability.

 

On that particular morning I arrived at 0900 (checked the time) and parked my bicycle in back of the office building.  The waiting room was already open for other offices, so I opened my office, turned on the lights, read my mail, penned some thoughts for today’s session and waited.

 

Unlike some, this family usually arrives a few minutes early, so at 0925 I stepped into the waiting room to greet them when they arrived. But for whatever reason, they no-showed, and at 0945 I closed up my office and headed off on the next part of my morning.  (When clients no-show, I usually wait a few hours to contact them without the pressure of immediacy.)

 

A half hour later I received an email from the father asking me to call the son about today. He wrote that they had arrived on time at 0930, and the son had gone in and reported back that the office was locked and dark.  If an email can have a tone of voice, this one would have been accusatory.

 

I called the son and he said that they had not seen my car so they assumed I had not arrived.  He added that his father had looked in and reported that the office was locked and dark.  (In the interests of time, I did not point out the discrepancy in their stories.)  I apologized for any confusion and rebooked for next time.

 

When do you recommend I confront these folks about their discrepant stories?  When should I try to get to the bottom of the truth?

 

Thoughts from Vermont —

 

Thanks for a good question – New Yorkers have a knack for them!

 

You could certainly take the inquisitive or direct confrontational route – many therapists would.  My suspicion is that focusing on their obvious discrepancy is premature. Here’s are a few possible reasons….
(Assuming that there were no simple explanations such as daylight saving time, or broken digital clocks.)

 

1
You report that “they are on their way to new-found resolution and stability.”  With many families with long traditions of conflict, starting to change things for the better will trigger unconscious pushback – the system is trying to maintain equilibrium, as they say.  Trying to make that the next focus of therapy may be premature to repairing the relationships and co-regulating whatever affect comes up about their memories.  THEN you might be in a position to discuss actual events without defenses, if it still seems relevant. Relationship connection first.

 

2
In families such as you describe – steeped in blame and shame — any crisis will require finger-pointing and assigning some failure and/or negative motives to others, if only to avoid being on the hot seat oneself. The goal of each member becomes, ‘it wasn’t MY fault’.  Suggesting that you are the one who must be lying or mistaken helps expose the family’s dilemma like an x-ray.  No need to waste this vulnerable moment trying to rush everyone into cognitive realities.  They are ripe for empathy for their fears of vulnerability to each other.  Spend your opportunity wisely.

 

3
Having made what sounds like lovely progress on the surface, you may be being tested before being allowed in to a deeper level of worries and fears of this family.  To pass this test, you must show them a different way to handle the shame/blame cycle – and you have to do it under the spotlight of a crisis.  ‘How can you maintain you were there when we say you weren’t?’  Can we get you to argue with us about our clumsy different stories? (As we do all the time…) 
Or will you continue to deliver empathy for our accusatory defenses, continue to value our stuckness as an honor to work with, and avoid our surface invitation to divert your care for us into a search for ‘the facts’?

 

My guess is that ‘the facts’ – or anything else — can be discussed after re-affirming your deep empathy for this family and their need for safety and co-regulation of their big feelings.
Here are the priorities in order: 1) a sense of safety for the family,  2) help regulating their traditional big feelings,  3) then, lastly, if you get there, reflecting with empathy on the cognitive meanings of this situation, after no one is any longer fearful (as you are not) of being in the crosshairs of family blame.  After all, sometimes all things are true at once.

 

All the best from Vermont —

“May I Get a Copy of the Refrigerator List?”

This request arrives by email after every presentation when I run out of handouts.  The most desired handout is the Refrigerator List.

It is called the Refrigerator List ever since some of the first foster parents to receive a copy — while attending my talk in Indiana — told me later they stuck it up on their frig for quick reference.  It helped them in the heat of the moment when they struggled to maintain understanding and empathy for newly arrived foster children.

The Refrigerator List suggests that acting out behaviors are a coded language — the best the child can do to communicate given the insecurity of their inner thoughts and feelings.  Sometimes the child is simply testing the waters — as children need to do to find out for themselves where the rule are.  But an emotionally struggling child is often saying as best they can, “This is what I was given, and this is the safest way I learned to ask for help — to just dump it on you and hope you can figure me out…..please?  PLEASE?!  Nobody has gotten it yet, and I’m going crazy trying to regulate my awful thoughts and feelings.  Here, have some….show me how to manage them!”

And next thing you know you are feeling frustrated, resentful, even furious and despairing.  But it didn’t come from you.  You weren’t feeling those feelings before.  They came from the child as a desperate gift to you, in hopes of getting help they have been asking for since their development was left behind.

And the catch is — their horrible paradox — they have to reject, refuse and hide from whatever direct help you offer, until you have been tested to the bone for about three months longer than you can possibly stand it.  Hang on to your sense of humor, your supports, and your capacity to consult for outside help!!

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The Refrigerator List

Suggestions for decoding behaviors — possible explanations

by Robert Spottswood, M.A., LCMHC      Norwich, Vermont

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Violence, picking fights
— (Chronic fear of being deserted.  Feeling abandoned usually triggers rage in humans and primates.)  The surest way to prevent desertion is to keep you mad and angry at me for fighting.
— Please stop me!  I’m begging to feel contained and safe!
— I need closeness but I do not deserve it; hitting is the safest way to be close, while disguising both my need and shame.
— My endless fear, sadness and loneliness only gets a moment of relief when I put it into other people and then laugh at them for feeling it for me.  That temporarily numbs my own anguish — when I can laugh at seeing others feel my pain for me, outside of me.

 

Bizarre goofiness, endless pestering, whining
— I have to be in your thoughts all the time or I’m afraid I’ll disappear!  (I feel empty inside; don’t yet know who I am.)  Are you thinking of me now?  How about now?  Now?  Still?  What about now?….
— I didn’t have much for role models, so I provoke other people to react so I can observe them and try to learn.
— I’m so under-socialized, this is the best I can do. I’m so used to being called ‘weird’ it feels normal.
— Closeness, intimacy — terrifies me.  This behavior keeps people annoyed and at a safe distance.  Not hard at all.

 

Hiding’ behaviors
(sneaking, tricking, lying, stealing, hoarding, cheating, shoplifting,……….all very annoying!)
— I know I’ll be kicked out of this home, so I have to practice hiding and sneaking for when I must survive on my own.
— I don’t deserve to have my needs met.  You don’t realize that yet, but I realize it.  Nobody will give me anything I need after they realize how bad I am.  Sneaking will be my only way to survive.
— Depending on adults is like volunteering for a concentration camp; not possible, not on radar, can’t happen ever again!
— Since I am a shameful being, but you think I’m good, I’ll try to preserve our doomed relationship as long as possible.  I will sneak around and lie to protect you from the horrible reality of who I am; because you are so nice.
— Lying is my way of trying to tell you about my past; it’s what I had to learn in order to get along in my old life.  Can you talk to me about that, or are you just too freaked out by lying to help me integrate my past nightmare life?

 

Oppositional defiance
— I need to feel safe by maintaining control.  So whenever you suggest something, I immediately say NO, to create some safe space to think it over.  Then maybe I can say Yes.  This is me coping.  And it starts over every time.  Sorry.  Help!
— Saying ‘I’m not coming!’ and then screaming ‘Don’t leave me!!’ recreates an early conflict drama, over and over.  I’m trying to work it out, and need help, but can’t accept help.  (If that doesn’t make sense, welcome to my world.)  All my shame about this I must project onto you: you’re wrong, you’re mean, you’re stupid; I have to make my failure be about you.  (It hurts too much that it’s really about me.)

 

Letting adults down, disappointing them
— Positive adults make no sense to me.  All I can do is humor them until I run away or fight again, and watch their fragile dreams for me crumble over and over.  Are they stupid?
— The horrors I lived through (including neglect) are not even in the middle class vocabulary of conceivable experiences, so what do I do with these nice people?  Let them think their big thoughts and make their big plans for me, until I have to act out my real shame, letting them down over and over.  Sorry, nice people.
— Get over your disappointment and stop caring about me.  I did.

 

Avoiding
— You’re moving too fast.  First I need emotional safety. Second I need you to co-regulate my huge emotions.  Lastly I might talk about all your great ideas….. But make me feel safe first.
— Getting involved with closeness or even with conversation means getting vulnerable.  Can’t happen ever again, thanks to my past.
— I never learned normal conversation, so I feel stupid when you talk to me.  Just leave me alone so I don’t feel stupid.

 

Blowing up when told No; zero frustration tolerance; big rages when limits are set
— I’m stuck back in the Toddler’s Dilemma, back when kids normally come to accept that grown-ups who love us can also say No, and may set limits.  I never was helped to resolve that back then, and I’m still trying to intimidate and terrify people into always saying Yes.  I need help learning this lesson late, sorry.  Please help.  (But remember that I have to reject your help.  Good luck, and don’t give up!)
— Too much choice, freedom, and independence!  And too soon!  I can’t handle it, but I can’t refuse it either – just like if you let me drive the car.  I’m stuck!  Please step up to the plate, take charge, and don’t let me intimidate you out of it, because I’m really stuck.  Did I mention that I’m stuck?  Need more Momma!  Need more Papa!
— Though I can’t ask for help, I need help – it is scary to be aging with only infant skills to handle frustration.  So please be confident, be in charge, figure me out, and set loving yet firm limits I can struggle against without being shamed; early and often until I am done with that struggle and can move on. I don’t need screen time, electronics, or stuff.  I need parents and I need them to be in charge.  I’m just a kid trying to figure out complicated stuff.  (This is so frustrating….)

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The Attachment System — thoughts over coffee

John Bowlby, “the father of attachment theory,” was a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who studied many British orphans after WWII.  He lost a great deal of face in his professional circles when he observed — counter to popular assumption — that “attachment” is not primarily about love.  He had to conclude that attachment was an infant survival mechanism.  The field has gradually come around to see what he meant.

Bowlby observed that most infants are born with an inherent set of skills — crying, waving, cooing, smiling, etc. — which are designed to attract and hold the attention of a caring adult.  The adult will hopefully organize both of them to provide the infant with nurture — the baby’s only hope of survival.

More recently Dan Hughes and Jon Baylin proposed that the infant’s attachment system actually triggers a complementary “caretaking system” in adults.  That is, when an infant cries, waves, coos and smiles, we adults are hardwired to respond — perhaps waving back while saying, “Hey cute baby!  Are you talking to ME?”  In this and many other ways a feedback loop is established which keeps infant and adult connected at an emotional level, long before babies understand language.

That caretaking system supports most adults to be ‘good enough’ parents to most children without having to think it through logically.  The hope for every child is that they experience enough safety and enough help with their overwhelming feelings that they gain trust and confidence in their adult caretaker — their ‘attachment figure’.  With such a “secure attachment” the child’s anxiety about survival is low.  They will rarely fear catastrophic abandonment, even in stressful situations.

When kids have a secure attachment, the cognitive-behavioral approaches to behavior and therapy tend to work more easily.  Phelan’s 1-2-3 Magic, for instance, can engage a child at the level of cognitive intellect, because that child is NOT distracted by and preoccupied with deep, unresolved anxiety about some unmet early need for connection to a safe caretaker.  Less secure children may try to force relationship reassurance first.  This is probably why the question of whether or not ‘the teacher likes me’ is a major variable in elementary school performance.

Seven illustrations at the following site attempt to show how early parenting can convey a sense of security and safety to an infant, using preverbal cues such as closeness, responsive facial and voice expressions, a kind and soothing tone, and eye contact.  I hope they are helpful.  (And I do intend to learn to ‘insert links’ before another decade passes.)

http://ddpnetwork.org/blog/parent-child-relationships/intersubjectivity-without-words-robert-spottswood/#jp-carousel-2484

 

“Murder-suicide” — but we usually know who did both

Current events:   A few days ago there was a murder near our town in Vermont, and yesterday the suspect was caught in Kansas — a thousand miles away — but only after he’d killed himself.
I mention this because it was (ho-hum) another one of those guys who kills the girl who just broke up with him — and I think men need to attend to this.

“Murder-suicide”.  In a patriarchy we know without asking which person did both.  And this is my answer to stopping one more generation of it.

Boys grow up wearing shirts that say “I don’t know karate, but I know crazy” and they think going crazy-violent is something we (males) practice for when we experience shame from feeling attacked or abandoned.  But men need to be giving boys daily feedback as they grow up — feedback when they do something pro-social (“You rock!”), or anti-social (“Bogus!”), or when they forget how to articulate their inner thoughts and feelings (“What’s going on inside?”).

Even if they reject it at first, I think it means the world to boys to hear guiding feedback from men who are safe, who pay attention, and who care enough to talk to them.

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Reflections on shame and rage in the office

I feel badly that I cannot ever publicly credit some of the more rageful children for showing us so painfully how shame works.  From their hard work we can see how past shame can explode into the present, greatly confusing everybody who expects to live happily ever after in real time.  For me it is like being handed an x-ray of how the child’s early experiences of neglect or abuse were stored as shame, back when they were very small and unable to integrate their nightmare experiences.

In the safety of the therapy session things usually begin calmly.  Hiding the shame works.

After a bit I may allude to the child’s history, at which point the shame begins to rise to the surface.  Early signs of dysregulation include avoiding, distracting, interrupting and changing the subject.

Finally, when I reflect on how hard this appears for her, the shame may sense that its cover is blown.  We may see a sudden switch from mild dysregulation to a rage by someone trying to be the worst person in the world — which is how shame feels.  Shame tells the child that the only hope for relief is to try to make people to whom she feels vulnerable — usually family members — feel the shame for her.  Swearing and spitting, hitting and hurting, she tries to give away some of the terror and disgust of her shame — tries to put it into others.  (Strangers and those farther away pose much less threat of seeing under her surface defense.)

Parents often say something like, “He just changes all of a sudden, like a switch turning on with no warning!”  (Similar to complaints from sweethearts of controlling adults.)

What helps in the heat of the moment?  Two observations have helped some caretakers.

1 — It’s not about you.  Shame rages are more like a time machine showing us a film about her past maltreatment from others; a film about surviving betrayal and ambush, despair and abandonment, but ‘surviving’ only physically — the child’s emotional despair required a huge IOU of shame be stored deep inside.

2 — She is stuck in a desperate paradox: she needs help with shame, AND shame cannot accept help.  (Wow!)

Those observations can help us adults mentally step out of the situation long enough to get our bearings enough to help.  We can put on our emotional oxygen mask and go back down to sit with her, trapped as she is in her septic tank of shame.  There we can share the survival supplies we brought — which are common relationship gifts.  They must be rejected at first, as the paradox cycles through, but that is okay because the power of relationship increases with its ashes.

What does that look like?

Beginning with acceptance, curiosity and empathy for where she is stuck, I try to model a counter-intuitive response for the parent to take home with them.  For instance if the child is name-calling, I might reflect based on knowing that name-calling, like most projecting, is rooted in her fears about herself.  “Somebody used to call you a ‘fucker’ — was it your first parent who called you names?  You seem afraid that you might be ‘stupid’, and that is always such a big worry!”

If that fails — because shame hates empathy — I may shift to singing.  Anything with a rhythm, because it is the rhythm which struggling children hear.  “When I, waza sailor, upon, the high seas, Singin’ Oh, row, blow the man down,….”

But if that makes it worse I may shift to reflecting on my experience of her and articulating our relationship in this moment.  “You’re doing your best to let me know how awful it feels inside.  Thank you for helping me understand how hard it was when you were so little!  You’re doing the best you can to help me be a better helper…such a big heart!….etc.”

And perhaps around again.

During a recent session the raging child (age six) told his adoptive father, “I’m going to run away from you!”  (Shame’s deepest desire.)  The father quickly responded with the hard steel of logical reality — “I won’t let you!”  But I jumped in with a story before father could continue down that emotional dead end.

“Oh my gosh, you would start walking all the way home [80 miles] and your dad would drive back and tell your mom, ‘I had to come home without Seymour because he decided to walk home.’  And your mom would SCREAM with panic and make your dad come back with her in the car to look for you!”

Using the rhythm of slow repetition, I would continue.  “First they thought they saw you…….but when they got close, it was just a baby deer.

“Then they thought they saw you…….but when they got close, it was just a mailbox on a post.

“Then they thought they saw you……and it was YOU!  And your mother started crying and crying, she was so glad to see her son, and so happy to find him when she thought he was lost, she just cried for joy!”

At that point the boy was quiet.  He could see that my eyes were welling up as I described his mother’s love for him.  (Of course I was imagining the scenario with my own children, so I could better tell the story.)

And when it was time to go, he wanted to stay.  We had connected through his shame-rage.

 

When Adults Appease Children to Keep the Peace

One common first-visit presentation in my office are caretakers complaining of out-of-control behavior by a child.  Usually the child has learned that the adult will ‘give-in’ if the child has a big enough rage, including the threat of violence.

The caretaker may be intimidated into giving in, or be desperate for their child to be “happy” (something perhaps the adult did not get to experience as a child), or maybe the adult cannot risk feeling ‘triggered’ by any amount of yelling due to their own past.  Sometimes the child is playing a split between parents – learning that one will say No, and the other will undermine by saying Yes – an adult relationship issue.

My first response is to give empathy to the exhausted caretaker.  Then I supply a brief map of why children may go out of control when adults fail to do two things:  show up emotionally for the child, and care enough to set limits.  Here is an example of my spiel:

“Kids are pattern-dependent organisms so they need to experience both attention and structure, or they go crazy trying to create patterns by themselves using their primitive little brain-stem-level defenses, designed for life-or-death survival responses.  That means that, like infants left alone, they have no way to regulate their own behavior or emotions – sadness becomes despair, fear becomes terror, anger becomes rage and happiness becomes euphoria.  Your best two ways to help them are to pay attention, by being present with acceptance, curiosity and empathy, and to be in charge, by caring enough to say No — something kids can’t say to themselves.”

Sometimes I quote a lovely, simple mantra by the successful Burch Ford, former Head of Miss Porters School in Connecticut: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was ‘No’.” Then we move the adult-child therapy forward in any of several directions, because most adults are now oriented to what children are needing from them – though the child may deny it as part of their opposition.

Relief soon follows.

Bedtime Success with an Oppositional Child

A parent used to try to help his child, age eight, understand and agree with the parent’s decisions.  This father had had a painful childhood himself, and he kindly did not wish the same for his son.  The boy would go along with decisions he liked, but learned to rage violently against the others until father gave in.  He typically refused to cooperate with bedtime.  He would say, “I don’t want to go to bed,” and then he would ignore or fight with father.

“So I used to think, ‘Oh, his body knows what it needs better than I do,’ and leave him alone.”

“But now when he gets oppositional and combative I move in closer and give empathy but also bring in limits, allow fewer choices and less freedom.”

   How’s that working?

“His rages are shorter and less frequent.”

I notice that formerly ‘fun’ father also seems calmer, less reactive, more confident, more serious, and makes fewer crisis calls between sessions.

   How’s that feel?

He looks at me seriously.  “It’s hard work.”

This father who previously worked hard to avoid his son’s frightened and frightening feelings, has stepped up to the plate, taken charge and given his son the parental attention, limits and guidance the child has been both demanding AND rejecting at the same time [classic example of children’s Ambivalent attachment style.]

It was as if by sharing so much inner confusion and chaos the son was saying, “I feel too much in charge of myself and need help.  But I also will reject help, so you should expect to feel as confused as I do.  Help me please!!”  Parents and caretakers must then rise above the child’s helpless logic, see the big picture, take over, and free them both from the old stuck pattern.

“Doorknob Therapy” and Idling Cars

This little thought struck me gently enough that I want to park it here on this blog.  It is not often we tie individual psychology to our need to save the earth.  Here is one example.

New counselors soon encounter a phenomenon which becomes familiar over the years.  A client will finish a decent therapy session, get ready to leave the room, put their hand on the doorknob and then say, “Oh, by the way….” and suddenly introduce some powerful new information which can change a lot of things.  But there is no time to process it — they are on their way out.

In the field this is commonly called “doorknob therapy”.  All the therapist can do is thank the client and make a note to reflect on this next visit.  It is too late for today.

I wondered why this happened until I watched the way car drivers will stop and talk to a friend through their rolled down car window – without turning off the car which may idle away, uselessly polluting for half an hour or more.

It struck me that these two behaviors share something in common: they provide safety to the speaker.

Why?  They surround the speaker with a context – the context of being about to escape.  When we are on the verge of leaving a situation, it feels safer to speak freely.  Think of that song about quitting a job, “Take This Job and Shove It, I Ain’t Workin’ Here No More.”  Pure freedom to finally say what the worker has wanted to say for a long time.  Because if I am leaving, you can’t do me any harm.

Not that my two examples are dangerous situations to begin with.  But unconsciously we do carry with us remnants of childhood when we were not certain what social situations were actually safe.  So at the moment of leaving a situation, all fear that the response by the other person might be unpleasant, unsatisfying, or simply unexpected, is lowered.  We can always say, “Well, I gotta’ be going now….”  Almost the definition of safety.

The doorknob in hand and the sound of the purring engine both tell us we can rush off at a moment’s notice, lowering our unconscious fear of being rejected, found unacceptable or threatened with abandonment.  We can speak with less inhibition and more courage.

Of course there is still just plain overconsuming pollution.  I am reminded of going to our town’s general store last summer.  Out front by the parking lot sits an old piano where anyone can stop and tickle the keys for awhile.  In front of the piano was parked a huge gas-guzzling SUV, idling away.  It had out-of-state plates, not uncommon in tourist-filled Vermont.  The ample-sized driver had one arm out the window and the other helping him inhale a mega-calorie Dove bar.

Being who I am, I went up and smilingly offered to play him a tune on the piano if he would turn off his engine (and stop polluting our town.)  He smiled back and laughed, snorting through his ice cream, “I don’t think so!”

Sigh.  At least he smiled.