Tuesday, August 11, 2015

In Preparation for the School Year or How to Avoid Homework-Induced Apoplectic Fits

As the summer comes to a close emotions are generated in special intensity. Children experience a formidable mixture of excitement, apprehension, and dread as the beginning of the school year draws near. A similarly potent mixture of relief and some regret is building in the hearts of parents as the knowledge that soon the days will be theirs again competes with “I can’t believe that little Sophie is going in to 5th grade!”

In my years of working with children throughout the pages of the calendar I have noticed an interesting phenomenon. Psychopathology is often school specific. This is sad to me and it suggests that schools need to pay attention to what might be making kids crazy, or worse, what might be causing them so much pain. But that is a conversation for another time and place.

The matter at hand is what can kids and parents do now, a few days before school, to prevent the development of that pathology.

A great man, Rabbi Noach Orlowek, suggests that we prepare in advance for the crisis so then when the crisis happens we will be able to respond calmly and not be totally reactive. 

Photo Credit: Johansena16
Let’s take a page out of the book of firefighters. If you have ever been in a fire station when the alarm goes off you may have noticed that the firefighters don’t run around flapping their arms like a bunch of prepubescent girls screeching, “Fire!! Fire!!”. They calmly and quickly get their boots and pants on, grab their coats and helmets and get on the truck ready to do their jobs. This calm and proactive reaction to the alarm is the result of many hours of training and study so that when the emergency occurs they know exactly what to do and they don't panic.

It is therefore my personal and professional recommendation that parents and caregivers find a moment before school starts to initiate this type of conversation. Take your kid out for some ice cream and start like this, “Johnny, do you remember that when you get assigned homework you often have an apoplectic fit that usually ends up in one of my ornamental unicorns getting broken?”

Johnny nods with his mouth full of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream.

“Do you enjoy apoplectic fits?”

Johnny predictably shakes his head.

“When you’re done with your ice cream can we talk about ways you might avoid apoplectic fits and I can keep my unicorn collection intact? I’m happy to help support you but you know I can’t do it on my own because I only have apoplectic fits when my lacrosse team loses. You can only help yourself and I can support you.”

Johnny nods his head again.

A meaningful conversation ensues where you both discuss ways that Johnny might be able to proactively address his issues with homework and ways that he can effectively implement these changes in his life.
If you or someone you know would like support in this area please don’t hesitate to contact me.
arihoffmanlpc@gmail.com or 303-803-4832

My Children Are Perfect Because I am a Psychotherapist

My children are perfect because I'm a psychotherapist.

Of course.

You didn’t know? 

All therapists have perfect children because we are perfect parents.

Photo Credit Dan Dilworth
My father is a therapist and I and my brothers were perfect children (I hope no one who knows my family is reading this)

I have a bridge in New York I think you should buy.

I often wonder if the parents of the kids I work with are curious about my children. Do you think my children are perfect? Do you think my children never talk back or misbehave? How about this dastardly thought…do you think there are never times that I’d like to drop my kids at the firehouse?

If you were, in fact, wondering. My children are not perfect.They often talk back and misbehave, and there have definitely been times I’ve thought about the firehouse (I would give them a ride though. I wouldn’t make them walk there, that’s just mean.).

At the initial psychotherapy session I assure the parents of kids I am working with that I am not winning any parenting awards. I also often commiserate with them and tell them my kid did the very same thing they are expressing their concerns to me about.

I heard a great line many years ago that, when repeated to parents, never fails to garner knowing head nods. “There are two different types of parents, those who beat their children and those who don’t. But we all think about it.” 

It occurred to me one day that in spite of the fact that I am not winning any parenting awards I am doing a great job connecting with the kids that I’m working with. Then the next thought that occurred to me was, “I find it so enjoyable to connect professionally with children who are not my own, why do I have to work so hard to connect to my children? I don’t want to be that therapist who does great with everyone else’s kids but can’t deal with his own. But that’s what it feels like sometimes.”

I also sometimes feel guilty in session when I am playing or talking with a child or teenager and her father or mother is in the room and I accomplish more in a 45 minute conversation than his parents have accomplished in the last year with regard to establishing rapport and getting the secrets out. I wonder what I would feel like if I was that father. Would I be so sad that my child decided to let everything out in front of a stranger who says he can be trusted but he wouldn’t tell me half of that stuff? I think I would be sad, I might even cry.

And then I go home and my 10 year old seems to not really want to talk and when she does I find myself zoning out.
Oh my gosh! I didn’t want to be that dad! The dad who does not make himself fully present and mindful for every word his children say!

I’m working on an idea that I would like to share with you, my dear reader.

I think that when children open up and tell their secrets it is less about the child and more about the listener. When I sit down with a young person I make eye contact, I show her that I genuinely care, and I also convey the message that she can say anything she wants to and I will not judge her. “It might be too tough for your parents, teachers, and friends to handle, but not me, I got it.”
I can handle it because she’s not my kid. I care about her as I do all of my clients but she does not represent the future of my hopes and dreams and so I am able to open up more and be less critical of what she says. 

When my daughter complains I think to myself, “why is she always focusing so much on the negative? Why can’t she focus on the positive? I need to teach her to focus more on the positive.” And then I open my big mouth and start responding whether or not she is done with her sentence. When a 10 year old client starts complaining I lean forward and use non-verbal cues to indicate that not only am I listening but I’m understanding and empathizing with him. I am making him feel like he is the only person in the world and the last thing I want is to change him. I also don’t interrupt him. These are the ingredients that compel anyone, child or adult, to open up and confide. 

“Hooray! Someone is just listening to me, not trying to change me and not judging me! It’s awesome!”

A great Rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach, when he was alive, would often use the formula of “I bless you and me” implying that he wanted or needed the blessing as much as the benedictees he was speaking to. I will take the liberty of doing the same thing here.

I bless you and me that we should be able to really open our hearts and minds and listen to our children. There are times when parents must direct their children, that is a big and important part of our job as parents. And then there are times when we must pull back a bit and listen with mindful attentiveness and convey to our children the message, “I love you just for who you are, I want to hear from you, I recognize that you are a supremely beautiful being and I don’t want to change your essence at all.” And through that open and empathic listening our children should understand that their parents care more deeply for them than any therapist ever could even though the therapist is sometimes helpful and even necessary.

When a child is opening her heart to me in front of her mother I could feel guilty but that would be completely missing the point. This moment represents an opportunity. In about 45 minutes this experience will be over and this family will go back to their home, work, school, life. I may or may not see them in a week or two. While the child may remember the nice feeling of being able to open up to me it is only half of my job. The other and even more challenging half is to slowly remove myself and replace me with mom or dad or whomever loves this child. The opportunity is that I can move from being the primary recipient of the open heart to being a conduit that guides the beautiful soul material from the child to the parent because in the end I don't heal or fix anyone, my job is to facilitate healing that can be self promoting and self perpetuating.

If you or anyone you know could benefit from further exploration please contact me at arihoffmanlpc@gmail.com or 303-803-4832.