By Christine LaCerva
In my last post, I introduced you to Josh, a ten-year-old patient in my multi-family group, and shared some moments from our first session, with his mom. Here’s a scene from a session with the whole group.
Elena, Josh’s mom, was very agitated, and was the first to speak: “I can’t stand it another minute — it’s him or me,” she said. “I can’t bear him. He’s so difficult. He won’t listen to anything. I just wanted to kill him last week. We bought him a neurofeedback machine to help him focus and he got frustrated and broke the damn thing. I screamed at him for hours on end. I just can’t do this anymore. I need a different life — one without Josh.”
Other parents sympathized. “Oh, I know how you feel — I feel that way sometimes. It’s so frustrating. Don’t feel bad about it.”
Elena began to cry. “You don’t understand. I’m serious.”
We’ve had many conversations in the group about the difficulties of raising a child with special needs. The mothers often bear the brunt of this, and the children often know the way their parents feel. These are some of our most painful conversations. I listened carefully.
Elena sobbed, “I just can’t be his mother anymore. I just can’t.”
Nathan, a 10-year-old, said, “Remember when Denise [one of the mothers] came in and said she was sending Ryan to boarding school because she couldn’t stand him anymore? And, Wendy, you ran out of the room because you got scared that your mom would get rid of you because you’re so impossible. Do you remember?”
“I need to leave the room now,” Wendy said. “I can’t take this.”
I said to Wendy, “I think you can handle it. I want you to stay.” She began to tremble, but stayed in her seat.
I realized it was the moment to completely reorganize the activity — the performance — the group was doing. It was time to create something new together that had a shot at having an impact on the pain — perhaps even reorganizing it all together. It was play time.
I chose an upbeat performance for myself, and faced Josh. I asked him to stand up, and he did. “Okay,” I told the group. I said, “Josh is up for adoption.”
The group members looked around, not sure what was happening. I smiled and said, “Nathan, stand up with him. Wendy, Mark, Jeanine, you, too.” They all stood. “The kids need new mothers,” I said. “Who wants to adopt them?”
Elena stopped crying, and looked at me quizzically. “What are you doing?” she asked.
“The kids need new moms,” I repeated. “Their moms are sick of them, and they’re sick of their moms. Every mom in the room gets to adopt a different child tonight. And if you’re a kid, you can adopt a new mom!” At that, the kids started giggling and walking around, looking to see who they wanted to adopt.
Elena chose Wendy, saying, “I always wanted a girl.” Wendy, who had never been able to stay in the room before when there was an intense conversation about mothers being at the end of their rope with their kids, stopped crying and smiled. Josh picked Tina as his new mom. Other pairs of children and adults formed.
“All right, everyone,” I announced. Tonight, we are going to do some new family performances with your newly adopted moms and children. You have five minutes to put a performance together.”
Josh asked, “What is this called?”
I hadn’t thought of that. I said, “It’s called a ‘New Family Play’! I think the group needs to do a new play and break out of the painful ways of being a child and a parent.”
“Okay,” Josh said, “This is a riot.”
I thanked him, and then he joined Tina. Five minutes passed as the children and moms planned their “New Family Play.”
When time was up, the group gathered to watch the performances, and I gave them some performance direction. “Your job is to support the family play,” I said, “to support the actors performing — with no distractions! Be with them quietly and give them a lot of attention. They need your attention. They need your support.”
Josh volunteered to go first, and sat in the therapist’s chair. With a big smile, he said, “The title of our play is ‘Me and My New Mom Tina.’”
Tina walked onstage, and said, “Josh! I’m so glad you’re home from school. What are you doing?”
Tina said, “I’m really glad you’re having fun. Really glad.”
“Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to be with lots of other people?” Josh asked. “It’s exhausting. Sometimes I just need a break. Or I freak out.”
Tina offered Josh a (pretend) snack. Josh said, “Thanks for the tasty snack, Mom!”
“Josh, have you done your homework?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “I mean — I will when I’m finished here.”
Tina sat down next to him. “Umm… Josh? You know, this always goes badly. Maybe we could make it go better.”
“We can’t,” Josh said. “We really can’t. It’s just really hard to have to focus and use all your energy after hours of having to sit and ‘pay attention’ and BEHAVE YOURSELF. When I get home I just need to zone out. You have no idea how hard it is.”
Tina sat thoughtfully. “You’re right, Josh,” she said. “I really don’t.”
Josh looked at her. He said, “Okay, I’ll do some homework. Later!” Josh turned to the audience, and said, “THE END.” He and Tina took a bow.
As the group applauded, I looked around the room. Everyone was smiling, delighted with this performance and those that followed. I found it so interesting to see the “new” mothers with their “adopted” children — to see the different kinds of responses they could have in what are normally scripted, predictable — and utterly frustrating — situations. Playing together allowed the children to give expression to what their struggles are; what it’s like to be them, day after day.
I would like to hear from you. What you are thinking about this honest conversation between adults and children?