Monday, February 16, 2009


Wilma and Thelma are in a conflict of some kind. As far as Wilma can see, Thelma's behaviour/fears/views are completely irrational. In fact, as far as anyone except Thelma can see, Thelma's response is irrational. As in, the moon is made of blue cheese or the earth is flat. But Thelma is not to be reasoned with about the make-up of the moon.

What is the right response to what I suppose could be called a phobia?


Does the phobia have any impact on anyone other than Thelma? Is the phobia relatively benign? For instance, someone living in North America with a phobia of kangaroos isn’t going to be negatively impacted by that phobia very easily. Zoo trips might need creative planning. Some nature programs will be avoided. But such a phobia will be primarily irrelevant – a personality quirk that can be worked on if Thelma ever decides to do so.

Of course, if the phobia negatively impacts Thelma and those around her on a regular basis, it’s a different story. Moon made of blue cheese? No big deal. Water will melt all people like the wicked witch in the Wizard of Oz? Massive problems.

I’ll assume the phobia is the latter variety – one that causes constant and severe problems for Thelma, her family, and her friends. The right response to such a phobia? Patience, I’m thinking, and a willingness to creatively confront the phobia. It seems likely to me that there will be a balancing act between creating safety for Thelma and creating opportunities for her to revise her ideas.

Another very obvious and very important piece to pay attention to is Thelma’s view of the world. There is a good chance that there is some small nugget of truth in her phobia. Maybe she’s terrified of ants because once she stood on an anthill without realizing it and suddenly discovered the little critters climbing all over her legs and into her pants. This isn’t irrational. Maybe the scene from the Wizard of Oz, with the melting witch, reminded her of the shock and fear she felt when splashed in the face at the local swimming pool. This isn’t irrational.

Whatever the phobia, whatever the story, there is real fear there, and she needs to be able to safely address and dismantle that fear. I definitely don’t think that has to mean deep, probing questions about the nature of her fear. (In fact, I think too much conversation can sometimes reinforce the bigness and badness of the phobia – which is absolutely not helpful.) I do think it is crucial to cultivate a real awareness about what, precisely, the fear is rooted in. The idea that Thelma is irrational to be afraid sets the rest of us up to dismiss her real fear – I think that’s a mistake. Dismissing the fear entirely leads us away from the careful exploration that can get us to the root of the problem. If water in the sink is okay, but water coming out of the faucet is terrifying, start there. Play with water in the sink. Notice when and where the fear isn’t an issue, and build on those experiences. Create opportunities for success.

As always, optimism, playful exploration, and remaining present in the moment are your best tools. And as always, I hope something here helps!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mean Boy

I have a nephew who is 6 years old, a year older than my daughter. He is my brother's son, who I get on well with as I do his wife. We do a lot of things together with the kids but lately his behaviour is beginning to get me down that much that I would rather not do things with them. This would be a shame because I really enjoy the company of my sister in law as we have a laugh and enjoy doing similar things. She does the same job as I do only in a primary school, we are both TA's (teaching assistants) so know all about positive praise and so on but my nephews does not respond to this and answers back all the time to anyone. His behaviour is horrendous, he is sly to my daughter and other kids, pinching and poking, telling tales, says nasty horrible things to her like he hates her and me if we ask him to stop. He is also physically violent kicking and punching at anyone who crosses his path. When his mum confronts him he tells her to shut up and hits out at her too. I just can't believe he is so horrible he is not like a little boy but like a brooding argumentative teenager. I have spoken to my SIL about him but she just laughs it off and say's that he is a good boy really, when clearly he is not. When he hurts or upsets other children she makes him apologise but what's the point when he doesn't mean it. What else can I do other than avoid them?


I have to admit, right up front, that I feel so sad for this little boy. He is “horrendous,” and “sly,” he “says nasty horrible things,” he is “not like a little boy but like a brooding argumentative teenager.”

And he’s six years old.

Is it good that he’s treating people like this? Of course not. It’s awful. For all of the people he’s hurting, which, please remember, includes himself.

It can be a very tricky thing, I think, figuring out how to create healthy relationships with other people’s children. There is so much implicit and explicit ownership of children. Parents feel judged by other parents for how their products are turning out. Parents feel protective of their babies. Adults try to force their agendas on their children, through fear of punishment or fear of withholding of affection. If you’re willing to step outside of the established protocol, sometimes it just gets messier. I’ve found that the one thing no sane parent ever objects to is having other people truly appreciate their children. If you can find a way to approach this boy, and the dynamic that is currently in play, with a genuine interest in befriending the boy instead of vilifying him, then, I think, there is hope.

So… Why does he pinch and poke? What are the tales he tells? What happens when people view him not as a horrible boy but as a frustrated or sad or lonely boy, a boy having a hard moment? And, maybe more important, what does he enjoy? When does he laugh? What would be fun for him?

I guarantee you, it is not fun for him to spend time with people who monopolize his mother and don’t like him. It doesn’t feel good to hurt other people, though it does sometimes feel better to get negative attention than to be ignored. It’s also important to remember that you are responsible for protecting your child. Maybe adult conversation needs to be put entirely on hold while you help the kids find their way. What happens if you’re there, shielding your child, and reacting to a seemingly violent attack with a laugh and a mock karate chop? What happens if you start listing all of the things you hate – certain foods, nasty drivers, stepping in mud puddles – instead of lecturing about how hurtful the word “hate” can be? What happens if you listen carefully to the tales he tells, and really truly try to hear his problems, his concerns, his unhappiness? In other words, what happens if you approach him with light-heartedness, interest, and maybe even love instead of with fear and contempt?

As for his mother, I would be interested in finding out what happens if you simply tell her “please, don’t force him to apologize on our account. He’s clearly having a hard time, let’s solve the underlying problems.” Forced apologies are like putting band-aids on tumors – they disguise the problem, but they don’t solve anything. In fact, by disguising the real problem they enable it to fester and grow, unchecked. To the mother’s claims that her son is a good boy, one response is “of course he is, but this situation isn’t working for us. What can we do to help him feel safe and comfortable? What can we do to keep my daughter safe and comfortable?” This is a complicated situation, with many different relationship dynamics clashing hard. If you want to make positive changes, you have to take responsibility for acknowledging and addressing the problems.

It seems to me that you’ve got several choices here. Figure out how to engage with the boy in a positive and meaningful way – try to see his side of the situation – and continue to build on your relationship. Or distance from the family altogether. Or arrange adult meetings so that you can continue your friendships with the adults without subjecting your child to abuse and their child to a clearly painful situation.

I hope something here helps.