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!!

=================================================================

The Refrigerator List

Suggestions for decoding behaviors — possible explanations

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

====================================================

 

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….)

===========================================================

 

Question: Why do child survivors want to watch horror films?

At the end of 2014 a pediatrician emailed an interesting question — Why do some child survivors like to watch scary films?

On Tue, Dec 30, 2014 at 9:44 AM, Dr. Mike wrote:

Dear Robert,

I would appreciate your brief insights on why it is that many kids who have experienced adverse events like to watch horror movies? I am trying to wrap my mind around this.

Thanks,
Mike

Hi Mike,

Great question. I have wondered the same thing, even about adults. Here are some thoughts:

It appears to me that horror movies consistently try to create a feeling of total abandonment – the more isolated and hopeless and painful and unfair, the better the horror movie, it seems.

If so, that would allow the trauma survivor of any age to:

— experience relative relief: ‘I had it bad, but not nearly so bad as that guy has it.
Whew!!’

— pretend that suffering is, well…..pretend. ‘It’s just a movie. It’s just acting. It’s not real!!’

— temporarily identify with the overwhelmingly destructive force (validates any remaining Stockholm syndrome).

— view others going through overwhelming pain, despair and abandonment, and laugh with anxious relief while they can briefly view those feelings from outside, in someone else. (Peter Fonagy articulates this dynamic in a U.K. lecture where he explains the psychology of attachment failure. He illustrates the lecture with the case of an adult client who had been convicted of a cruel murder.)

Other thoughts?

Thanks for a really good question!

Robert

Norwich, Vermont

WHEN MEETING THE SCHOOL BULLY….

A 12 y.o. adoptee was brought in for bully behavior at school and at home.  He was intimidating his new parents and classmates, and was recently charged with bringing a weapon to school — a sharpened stick which he could both use to threaten and technically argue that ‘it isn’t a weapon’.  He loved to debate like a lawyer with anyone who would listen – but his strategy was to never give up because his goal was to always win.

The school psychologist had tried a shaming tough-guy approach.  He called the boy “a creep!”  This attempt to isolate by shame was gasoline on the flames of the child’s negative internal working model.  (Since I’m so bad that even the helpers reject me, I’ll go for the gold – ‘success’ is now to be the worst kid ever.)

Because of a long early history of abject maltreatment, he had learned to recreate the “bad kid” response in the eyes of caretakers and other adults in charge.  Using kids’ normal, unsound logic – which never gives up a point because they are really craving our attention and closeness – he would engage adults in endless arguments where he would always ‘prove’ the adult to be wrong, unfair, hypocritical, or otherwise unfit.

I think this re-creation in others of the intense feelings of rejection and inadequacy from his own early years displayed the bully’s signature brilliance of forcing others to feel his unresolved feelings for him.

When we were introduced, this boy saw me as simply the latest challenge for his undefeated debating skills.  He looked me grimly in the eye.

“So.  Do you believe in Creationism?”

Five possible responses were immediately on my plate.  But he would have been familiar with only four of them.

A. “Uh…well, I….uh….haven’t really studied it…”

B. “What — now you want to argue religion?! What next!!”

C. “I’m asking the questions here, Buster!”

D. “Yes.” [or “No.”]

My fifth option was to go relational.  I could reflect with complete acceptance, AND include my feelings of being at risk of losing a potential friend – a place he had been so many times:

E.  [with feeling] “Wow, you want to know my personal beliefs! (Acceptance)  Now I’m afraid of giving the wrong answer, because then you might not like me; I like you a lot, but I’m afraid you won’t like ME if I don’t answer right……What am I going to do?! [etc.]”

This was empathic mirroring of the child’s own unspoken fears from similar situations in the past.  As we talked, I repeated this in various combinations and permutations, until to argue with me was to reject his own long-sought yearning to be accepted.

As Dan Hughes once pointed out with a smile, “It’s hard for any of us to reject for very long being totally accepted for who we are in this moment.”

Lawyer: “I don’t understand kids!”

A very good lawyer, who was a kind, single parent of two young children, once shared his anxiety that, “I don’t understand kids — I don’t know what they need.  I’m afraid I’ll make a mistake.”

Thoughtful, gentle……and serious.
I offered the following short version of children, recalled here as best I can:

Barring very unusual situations — like at the extreme ends of the relational spectrum — what most kids need, bottom line, are two things from at least one safe adult (preferably a caretaker, but not necessarily):

1) pay attention 

(“She thinks about me.”  “She remembers me.”  “She asks about me.”  “She keeps me in her thoughts!”)

2) care enough to be in charge 

(“She has boundaries she won’t let me cross.”  “She sets limits for me.”  “She corrects me.”  “She has rules I am expected to follow!”)

If the adult is safe and reasonably consistent, the affected child will likely be okay –- able to learn appropriate dependence as they grow.  (I.e., they feel safely contained by and connected to a safe, caring adult.)

Later, as adults themselves, they can transform that safe childhood experience of appropriate, vertical dependence on caretakers -– think caterpillar metamorphosis -– into a safe, mutual, horizontal, adult interdependence with a partner.

I.e., achieving dependence as a dependent child supports appropriate interdependence as an independent adult.  Conversely, it can be hard to manage adult interdependence if we failed to experience safe dependence in childhood.

Sexual boundaries make sense in this context.  Whereas the childhood dependent relationship with an adult makes overt sexual relations developmentally premature for the child and pathologically exploitative for the adult, the later, interdependent relationships of adults can accommodate overt and mutually enthusiastic sexual relations.

Sometimes adults show up for counseling with their own early, unresolved issues getting in the way of parenting the way they would like.  We may end up working with the parent or caretaker to resolve this, and it can take time.  It may require an extended, boundaried counseling relationship with a safe therapist who can stay empathic to the testing and stumbles which were never allowed or possible during childhood.

Because children slowly but progressively develop their independence and identities as people, infants will need more physical care, while older children will need more social and emotional care and attention to their increasingly complex inner thoughts, feelings and concerns. 

Finally, as adolescents, they re-introduce us adults to the exciting-frustrating integration of living in the home while working on peer and other outside relationships.  (Who am I really?  How do I fit in?  How do I get physically close outside my family in ways that feel safe and good?)

Sorry, is that more than you asked? I asked.

“Wow, no, that’s really helpful!” said the lawyer.  “Thanks!”

Welcome.

Answers to Parents’ Questions — part II

3. “What about setting limits and boundaries?”

Limits and boundaries mixed with sincere appreciation of the young person’s inner life (their thoughts and feelings) is something which young folks desperately need from adults.  Their early childhood experience of rules, boundaries and limits from adults who cared about them (and for them) is their best chance to internalize a sense of safety and security later in life. Rules mean structure, and structure is a form of attention.  (This is why children usually enjoy school.) Teens, of course, need to push, challenge, and test the rules all over again.  They can evade and avoid rules and even brag about it, but what counts ten years later is that adults never changed the rules or limits under pressure or threat.  “You returned an hour late.  I am not happy.  I expect better from you.  And the rule stays the same.”  Done.  Don’t apologize, and don’t explain twice. (Saying it twice is lecturing.)

Put another way, kids who grow up learning that ‘rules don’t apply to me’ stumble into adulthood without key skills in self-control and self-discipline.  They usually work out their impulses and emotional needs against police, mental health agencies, and other systems of authority for floundering adults.

4. “What are appropriate expectations?”

Appropriate expectations increase with age, and are best set slightly higher than a young person’s emotional age inside.  (A growth challenge.)  Does that make sense?

High-functioning child?

Try increasing choice, freedom and options. When they test and take advantage, you can apologize for moving too fast, and dial things back a notch. An adult’s job is to help young people grow at a pace appropriate to their emotional stage. And to do it without shaming.

Struggling young person?

Is the teen still denying, projecting, and hiding, as if much younger? Dial down the choices, freedom, and independence because they are crying for more structure, limits, and eyes-on supervision until they can catch up emotionally. And do this without shaming. Finally, the same young person may swing from one extreme to the other and back in a matter of days. Be prepared.

5. “What about suspending judgment?”

Openly judging actions, choices and events is important in a democratic society.  However, judging people is best done discretely because people need one anothers support and encouragement to stay connected in community and to grow through struggles.

Put another way, when I am struggling and making quite a mess of it (“It’s all your fault!!”) what is most helpful is to continue to see a better image of me in your eyes as you continue to relate to me and share your observations.  A judgment from you, on the other hand, can nail my sense of myself to my worst and hardest moments.

Answers to High School Parents’ Questions

1. “What Does It Mean to Listen?”

Parents who listen are paying attention to both the words and the feelings, because a parent’s role is  a) to keep their young person in their thoughts (I love to learn about you and your life; I can’t learn enough), and b) to care enough to respond at any given moment with a brief mix of support and limit-setting.  Parents then keep paying attention so they can respond in a timely way when the limits are tested.  If this sounds hard, it is probably because we did not have it modeled enough when we were young people.

Tip: “It’s my job to keep you safe,” (i.e. like the dog) is less helpful than talking relationally.  “I want so much to feel close to you.”  Of course, you may expect snarly in return.  But speaking relationally out loud is what counts.

Bigger tip: Reassuring (“It will be okay,”) is less helpful than giving Empathy (“That sounds hard; I’m sorry it’s hard,”) and Curiosity (“How did you find out?  Huh.  What did you do then?”).

Young people who listen are highly sensitive to three things: a) the word “but”, b) feeling judged, and c) lectures.

a) Try “and” instead of “but”.  In most cases it works.

b) Judging others can sneak up on us, as in “constructive criticism”, arguing about who is right, and compliments!  Compliments are judgments with a positive coating. Try starting compliments by asking, “May I give you a compliment?”  It feels very respectful to be asked before being judged, either positively or negatively.

c) At about word three of a lecture, young people stop listening.  We all do.

2. “What is respect?”

Respect is an attitude which reflects our perception of worthiness.  To respect a person reflects my own respect for myself.  If my history gave me enough positive images of myself as I was seen in the eyes of others (especially adult role models), I will have internalized a sense of self-respect; and I can give respect to others with little difficulty.

If I show a lack of respect (i.e., disrespectful behavior) that is often my hidden request for help.  I may also have a rule that I don’t deserve any help, so while asking indirectly for help I will also reject attempts to help me.  Welcome to my confusion.  Please find a way to help.  Your motives are good.

(Next blog:  “What about setting limits and boundaries?” and “What are appropriate expectations?”)

“HOW LONG WILL THERAPY TAKE?”

Occasionally someone will call to ask how long emotion-focused therapy for their child would take if they were to come in.  I find two variables affect this.

One variable is the severity of the child’s current and previous dysregulation.  I.e., what is the width and depth of disruption so far?

The other variable is the capacity of the adult attachment figures to apply therapeutic parenting at home between sessions.  I.e., can they manage to shift to counter-intuitive responses when provoked?  Can they shift to time-ins instead of time-outs?  Shift to empathy versus reassurance?  Can they privilege preverbal and relational messages over cognitive logic?  (One adoptive father declared, “It’s like thinking backwards – and then it works!”)

Not every parent is ready to do this immediately. RS Toronto best

Let me illustrate with two examples – one a typically short case, and one lengthy.

Typically short case:

A child adopted from overseas was doing fine in his new home until parents decided to adopt a second child.  He then regressed to his old orphanage behaviors.  Parents called for help.

Parents were first seen without the child, to help them focus on his underlying fear (fear of abandonment, fear of being exchanged or replaced, fear of not being good enough, etc.)  Then they practiced how to respond to the child with P.A.C.E. instead of reassurance.  I.e., “You will be alright” does not reduce anxiety, but  Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity and Empathy do.  (But postpone playfulness if a child is upset.  They hear it as sarcasm.)

Then they brought the child in for family sessions.  Because he was nervous – (thinking Now I’m in for it!) – we let him just sit between parents on the couch and listen like a very young child is allowed to do.  He could soak up the safe atmosphere of feeling wanted, surrounded, contained, and clearly in our thoughts as we talked kindly (with PACE) about him, his struggles, and the fears driving his acting out.  The adult talk finally met and matched the needs of his inner thoughts and feelings!  He felt secure and accepted again, and we were done in four sessions, plus parenting homework.

Typically longer case:

An adopted child with a history of severe maltreatment in Maine was brought into therapy by his new parents in Vermont.  He was picking fights and seeking conflict with everyone.  The adoptive parents were raised harshly themselves and continued to take everything personally.  They were easily hooked into big surface conflicts about behavior.

I spent much time shoring up these parents, helping them to depersonalize things they had long ago learned to personalize.  “His behavior is not about you.  It’s a message about his inner life – his thoughts, feelings from the past….but you must feel so frustrated, having to work so hard!”

Two years later the child is stable in school (schools are structured to meet children’s needs), but only a bit more secure at home.  Parents feel a little less rejected, but still have ambivalence about their decision to adopt.

When therapists go prematurely cognitive – and how to return to emotional connection

In my consultations to emotion-focused therapists, some common requests for help suggest areas in which many good counselors may struggle.  A very normal pitfall is moving away from affect (how feelings are expressed) and prematurely into cognition (thoughts and ideas) before emotional safety is established.  This is an easy slide because most outside conversations are cognitive: “How about those Red Sox last night – lost (or won) another one!”  Clients may expect, and sometimes hope, that our focus will remain there.  So easy for everyone to avoid big or complicated feelings.

When speaking to groups of therapists about this, I sometimes challenge them with the RS Toronto gesturesfollowing list of blunt client statements which have been a source of struggle for consultees over the years.  I ask the audience to try answering each of these statements without explaining, reassuring or arguing, and instead answer the question beneath the question, using empathy and acceptance.

“Am I the problem in this divorce?”  [If I take the blame for everything, will it shortcut all this pain?]

(Counter-intuitive sample response: “How simple it would be to finally just have a yes/no answer for the complexity of a painful divorce!  It must be so tempting to just take all the responsibility in hopes of putting an end to this slow process, which heals at about the speed of a dormant, wintering garden.  Thank you for helping me understand how intolerably long and painful it feels.”)

“Are all your clients as difficult as I am?”  [Am I going to drive you away?]

(Counter-intuitive sample:  “Sounds like you’re scared that you will burn me out and then have to start over with someone else.  It makes me wonder whether you have been judged harshly in the past and you remember feeling rejected and blamed.”)

“You’re not very good at your job.”  [I expect you to reject me, as other people have, so I will reject you first to get it over with, because waiting to be rejected is a living nightmare.]

(“I’m sorry it feels like things are changing too slowly. Thanks for helping me understand how disappointing it can feel, and I would love the chance to do better at helping you.”)

“Hey, you didn’t answer my question!”  [If I can’t fill the session hour with questions you have to answer, how will I be safe?]

(“It would feel so much easier and more familiar to have this be a question and answer process.  Sometimes I wish we could do that too.”)

“I’m not talking to you. I have nothing to say.”  [My life has too many risks already.]

(“That’s okay.  You don’t have to talk or do anything else that feels risky right now.  Thanks for letting me know.  It is an honor just getting to meet you.”)

“Do you see my friend Rhonda?  She says she’s your client too.”  [I worry that I’m the only person who seeks professional help.  It would reassure me to chat about someone we know in common.]

(“Everybody may feel a little lonely going for counseling.  I wish I could help that easily.  Talking in sessions has to be a little different than on the outside, and I apologize that it’s not as simple.”)