How Children Talk In Therapy
Updated: Dec 4, 2022
Stacy was a happy-go-lucky 5-year-old who never met a stranger. She could brighten up the office just by walking in and quickly stating, “I’m here! Did you miss me?”. She was coming to therapy because of multiple reports that she was having trouble in school and at extra-curricular activities. As her counselor it was hard for me to believe that such a sweet girl could be accused of talking back to her teacher and having issues with authority. But nonetheless, her family confirmed that Stacy would often get sent to the principal’s office or the safe seat in her classroom. She would also get demerits at dance and whoever was left to supervise her seemed to have trouble handling her larger-than-life personality. Not wanting to jump to any conclusions concerning her behavior, I introduced Stacy to the office and took our time together slowly, letting her play with toys and managing her own session within reasonable limits. She loved playing in the sand and with the dolls, and would pull out the tea set so we could sit down and have tea with “medicine sugar”. This of course is a very important ingredient in any tea party. All of this was fun, and I enjoyed our sessions together as she moved from toy to toy and topic to topic. She was definitely active for a girl her age, but I wasn’t seeing anything out of the ordinary. Especially anything that a trained educator wouldn’t be able to handle. Then, one day, Stacy changed the game up. As I sat quietly on the floor drinking my tea and listening to her play with some Legos, she looked at me and said, “Do you want to play school?”. “Of course!”, I said. She quickly put the toys away and turned around to give me instructions like a teacher. The instructions she gave were quick, somewhat jumbled, and left me a little bit confused as to what we were doing. I grasped that we were to be playing with balloons and blowing them up, but I didn’t get much beyond that. So I blew up my balloon and played along. Suddenly, Stacy paused, and gave me a scowl. I’d never seen such a mean look come out of such a sweet face. She walked over to me in a huff, “Did I not say you couldn’t do that?”. I responded quickly while making a frowny face, “Do what?”. “It doesn’t matter,” she said in an angry tone, “You should know better.” I was verbally disciplined and sent to go sit in a chair in the corner. As I sat Stacy began to ask me pointed questions about what I was thinking and telling me how I never listened to anything she said. Cute, fun-loving, and outgoing Stacy had flipped into a controlling and somewhat demeaning teacher in the blink of an eye. Things quickly escalated as I was not allowed to talk and if I answered questions directed at me, I was told, “It doesn’t matter, you should know better.” Before I knew it, I’d found my way from the safe-seat, to the principal’s office, and was now was sitting in front of the school counselor, who just happened to be sitting at my desk of all places. The counselor asked if I’d thought about what I’d done, and when I said I was confused she quipped, “I don’t have all day to sit here with you, there’s other students who need my help.” I put on my best kindergarten cry, and you could tell this confused her. She had a concerned look on her face and said, “No, you’re not sad. You’re angry.” I turned my frown into a scowl and gave my best angry face. Then, just as quickly as she’d transformed into the teacher, the principal, and the school counselor, Stacy returned (much to my joy) and quickly said, “Can I get a piece of candy before I go?” My journey into Stacy’s world was over, but it was an important journey that would help me to help her and her parents process what was going on. I came away with two very important aspects of Stacy’s world. One, she was often confused about what was being asked of her. I felt this myself when trying to understand “the teachers” jumbled directions. Two, she was crystal clear as to what authority figures thought about her and her behavior. For whatever reason, Stacy was mixed up on the front end as to the expectations being laid out by her teachers, principals, and dance instructors. But once a mistake was made, and an adult became frustrated, Stacy was very keen in her perceptions. They thought she should know better, even if she didn’t know quite what was going on. They thought she was being disrespectful and rude even if she wasn’t saying anything. And lastly, she felt she was someone they didn’t have time for or a care to bother with. All in all, this made Stacy very angry. She clearly didn’t understand why these people were treating her this way and her natural response was not sadness at the disapproval of others, but anger. This glimpse into Stacy’s world is your typical glance into the world of an ADHD kiddo who lacks the ability to focus on the front end, but always seems to be hurt or downtrodden by the effects of their behavior on the back-end of any given scenario. I relayed this to Stacy’s parents in the hopes they might help her manage her anger by understanding where it was originating. If Stacy could make the connection between her anger and her lack of focus, she might be able to direct the energy produced by her anger towards some behavior change. In short, she needed to become more focused in her interactions with other people, particularly adults. If and when she would be able to accomplish this, she would find that her life would go much smoother. After all, life is better when you’re not angry and confused all the time. Now, I don’t tell you this story to give you ADHD pointers. My hope is that we as parents recognize that none of these things were verbally expressed by Stacy. And if they had been you probably wouldn’t believe me, because no 5-year-old would communicate that way. But these things were expressed through playing out what Stacy had experienced. So, you may be thinking, “You want me to play with my kids?” Yes, I do. Not only will it build a bond between you and your child, it will also clue you in as to what is going on in their lives. Amazing things happen when you meet a child on their level and at least make an attempt to speak their language. I’m not asking you to give up your adult brain or quit being you. I’m asking you to play video games with your son. Shoot baskets when you get home at night after a long day at work. Go fishing or go on a walk. Take your daughter to her favorite restaurant. And yes, play with their toys in their room before they get to the age they don’t want you to even cross the threshold. Let them dream with you, and feed their imagination by playing along. They’re working things out that you and I couldn’t even imagine, and you want to be that safe place for them whenever you get the chance.