I recently presented in Ontario to a lovely audience of 100 colleagues at the Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy International Conference. I returned feeling very enriched with friendships, and pondering some of the realities of this work.
Using the mostly emotion-focused, relational model of DDP (Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy), I pass frequently between the outer and inner worlds. I can be having a frustrating day (here I am using middle class standards of frustration) such as when committee people don’t call back in a timely manner, the cell phone is ‘lost’ somewhere in the house, and I hear of a good friend’s early passing from an aneurysm.
But then I go into a session and I am under the surface, moving effortlessly through a family’s emotional life where we follow surface anger down, down to its roots in the ever-so-normal fear of another abandonment….or,
‘Talking for’ a clueless adopted child (i.e. no clue how to articulate his inner life)….talking for him to his rigid adoptive father. Then answering by ‘talking for’ the father until they both recognize their vulnerable selves down underneath the surface of resentment and indifference. Their sudden connection is tearful and at a deep enough level to finally count for them….or,
Consulting by phone or Skype with a distant therapist struggling to make sense of a number of surface behaviors – and we find a mother-lode when we consider each behavior to be a coded message underneath: ‘I’m afraid to get close, because I might get hurt again’ – ‘Should I abandon you before you abandon me?’ — ‘I care so much, and am so afraid what will happen if I show it’.
As Diana Fosha (author of The Transforming Power of Affect) brilliantly says of therapy work, “Affect is where the action is.”
Of course emotional safety is key for connecting with kids in the office. As Dan Hughes points out on occasion, nearly everything kids do is an attempt to seek safety.
For the counselor that means starting with Playfulness, Acceptance for all the child’s thoughts and feelings, Curiosity, and attention while requiring absolutely and positively nothing back from them. Safe. (They are used to professional adults expecting something back, something which that person ‘needs’ to hear.)
Key for adult caretakers in sessions also seems to be emotional safety. That means giving them the Empathy and appreciation they rarely hear for all their endless frustration and struggles.
I so wish I had learned to offer safety, back in undergraduate classes. Safety — emotional safety — first. But finding these lessons later, after almost accidentally hearing a DDP presentation at our state professional group’s 2001 annual meeting, is something for which I will always be grateful.