One of the ways that we can help children make choices is to let them take the lead in the working and the being with us. I was working with a younger girl once and she came from a very chaotic family. Periodically, she would be frightened by things that went on in her family. People would get drunk and yell at her. Her brother and she would fight, and he was bigger and stronger, so she always got the worst end of that deal. Mom would go off on her once in awhile or not come to pick her up at school or after counseling.
She’d have fights at school. So she would always talk to me about all these events, but she would never talk about her feelings. I would always ask, “What are the feelings that go with this event?” And she would always say, “I don’t want to talk about it.” (Now, what most people think they’re supposed to do is make them talk. I’ve had kids come from developmental psychologists and say, “He tried to make me talk about stuff.” And I would say, “Did you?” And they would always say, “No way!” So that doesn’t work. The old interrogate, judge, fix method of solving kids’ problems doesn’t really work in the long run.) So I would just say to her, “Well, good, you followed the rule. Don’t talk about anything unless you want to, because your feeling safe is more important to me than knowing the answers to all the questions. It’s your choice. We won’t talk about feelings.” But then I would say, “Some young people tell me the feelings are too overwhelming, or they might get upset all over again if they thought about them, or they think maybe it’s wrong to have the feelings that they have, or it doesn’t do any good to think about it, so why bother, or maybe they think I’m going to tell their parents.” I’m thinking of one specific instance, where this was occurring, and she said, “Oh, I know you won’t tell. It just feels too hard.” And I said, “Hard to talk about it or hard to live where you live?” She said, “Both.” And I said, “As far as it being hard to live at your house, if you ever feel like it’s too scary or too dangerous, you can always call me, and I’ll help you. And as far as talking about it, well, we’re not going to. I’ll just be here with you and feel with you how hard it is.” Then she said, “I just wish my mom would keep my brother from hitting me.” And I said, “It’s so unfair. And you just wish you had some peace and safety in your own home.” And, you know, from there the frustrations just poured out. The feelings came out. And it was her choice to do that. She knew that she had the lead. Of course, my kind of noodling it around and kind of keeping the ball in play helped her. But it was her choice. And once she felt safe, and supported and understood, then she had the courage she needed to put all of those really hard feelings into words. And that happened because she was in the lead. She got to make the choice. That’s what gave her the courage to talk about it, I think.
So the principle there is that, when children have the lead and can choose their own pace, their courage to do hard things and go forward goes up – it increases. It’s amazing how many times kids will, right in the last two or three minutes of the session, bring up the hard thing – you know, so they can beat a hasty retreat. Then they don’t have to talk about it anymore if they don’t want to.
Another example would be self-motivation. I, one time, had a boy who was getting F’s. He was cutting class. He was in a running battle over his grades with his mother. Sometimes very ugly words were passed between them. They brought him in and wanted me to help them figure out what to do. He was very outspoken about how hard his mother was on him and how angry she made him. So I just told him he could go out in the waiting room and relax and everything was going to be okay. He didn’t believe me, but I did try to encourage him. Then I said to the parents, “What does he want?” They said, “He wants a cell phone really bad.” And I said, “Oh, well, why don’t you have him research all of that stuff….” “Oh, he’s already done that. He knows the phone. He knows the company. He knows the package. He knows everything.” “Well, how much would it cost?” “Well, if we buy the service, it’s going to cost, maybe, a hundred dollars for the phone.” And I said, “Well, why don’t you go buy that phone and put it up on the refrigerator with a big bow on it and a post-it note or something with his name on it, but leave it unopened. Leave it sealed. And tell him that he can have that phone anytime he brings in a two-week grade report that is, in any way, higher than the one before.” His father said, “But what if he doesn’t ever get the phone and we’re paying this service and it’s never used?” I said, “What do you think the monthlies on that would be on your family plan?” He said, “Oh, probably twenty-five bucks.” So I said, “A hundred dollars for the phone and twenty-five bucks a month for the rest of the year. Let’s see, there’s three months left. That’s a hundred and seventy-five dollars. Isn’t that a pretty small amount of money when you think about what he could accomplish if this works?” Okay, so they did that. It took him a month to get two grade reports in a row – right? – two weeks apart. He had to get one – that was the baseline – and then he had to bring home another one that was better.
So he got the phone, set a world record for talking and texting for two weeks, and lost his phone again, because he wasn’t doing any homework. His mother is complaining to me that this is extrinsic motivation. You know, it’s not really the kind of motivation you want. I said, “It might be extrinsic motivation. That’s true. But you just watch what happens. Besides that, I’ve got a truck sitting out here. I really like it. It’s really nice. But if I don’t make the payments, they’re going to come and take it away.” I said, “So this is a real-life situation. That’s an extrinsic motivation for me. You have them, too.” So she kind of calmed down a little bit. But I don’t think she was really quite convinced. But he got the phone back after he lost it once, and then he never lost it again for the rest of the year. It was really interesting how his grades only went up – the cumulative – only went up a tenth of a point at first. And then a few more on the second time. But after awhile, they just improved dramatically – all of a sudden.
Once the power struggle with his mother was out of the way, he found out that he could do that work much more easily than he thought. It just wasn’t that big a deal. And he felt so pleased and so relieved that he was able to do like the other kids in his class, and he was really proud of his solid B average. He quit cutting school so much. I never did hear exactly what his final grade report was for the end of the year because they didn’t need my help any longer. But he had become his own shining knight in armor and had successfully killed the dragon all by himself.
So, the principle there is that, when we leave choices up to children, they begin to focus on how they feel and tend to become self-motivated instead of feeling coerced. What choices did he have? Well, the choice was whether to work or not. And he resolved that issue for himself. See, mom no longer had to browbeat him. She still did, because she couldn’t not, and that was her issue that she needed to work on. But she did not have to say a word to him. The phone would do all the work. I don’t know if she ever went to get any help to figure out why she couldn’t stop browbeating her kid when he didn’t need it at all, but…kind of an aside.
Another way to think about choice is in the area of rewards. Sometimes it helps to reward children to get them to do what we want. You know, I have “Grandma’s rule” at my place – first work and then play. So all the little boys that don’t like to talk about their feelings know that they will get to use my computer for a little while and play some games or look on You Tube or something, but they have to talk first. Right? So, those rewards are sometimes motivational – like the cell phone or a piece of gum everytime a kid draws a picture or something like that.
But there’s another way to do that that is even more effective. One of my little girls, one time, asked me if I would come to her birthday party. So you can just imagine what that’s going to be like. “Who’s this guy?” And so it’s going to be embarrassing. She’s not thinking about that. She’s just knows that she likes me and she wants me to come to her birthday party. So I was all properly pleased that she would ask me, and I told her that she was such a sweetie for thinking of me, but I was working that afternoon and I couldn’t come, and maybe I could come to one of her track meets or something sometime when I’m not working. That was actually a much better thought, once she thought about it, than going to the birthday party. So the next week – which was the week before her birthday – I gave her a birthday card and a piece of candy that somebody had given me. She was really happy about that. It was more than just a card and candy. We were friends.
So rewarding out of friendship is probably what I’m trying to talk about. And it doesn’t always have to be a thing. There’s a scene in the movie, Jerry McGuire, where the child actor, Jonathan Lipnicki, and Tom Cruise are trading verbal gifts. They’re both putting out trivia facts. Jerry is a sports agent and Ray – the little guy – is a five-year-old. Jerry says, “Hey Ray, did you know that Troy Aikman went first in the draft – ten million for three years?” And Ray looks up at Jerry, and he said, “Jerry, did you know that the human head weigths eight pounths?” And they were just swapping these things back and forth. Finally, Jerry looks over at Ray’s mother and says, “I can’t compete with that.” Very cute scene. So, they were giving each other things and having a good time with it. And that’s the kind of thing that really creates a good relationship and helps kids be positive and confident.
The one little guy that I saw, who would bring his laptop – a little computer guy…. And we’d show each other cool stuff that we’d found on You Tube after we’d followed “Grandma’s rule.” Right? I remember one of the things I showed him was a gattling potato gun that somebody had built. And his response was to show me how to make a smoke bomb.
One of my clients and his father go shooting their guns together sometimes. That’s what they like to do. He always tells me about it. That’s a really good thing, because when we started, he wasn’t seeing enough of his dad. So his father has wisely found some things they both like to do and that’s building a bond between the two of them. He’s giving his son things and his son is giving him things. But it’s time and attention. While that was going on, I could see weekly gains in his attitude. And I would call the school and talk to the counselor, who would report that almost magically his performance in school was ratcheting up week by week. He was beginning to do his work and things like that.
So giving things from friendship, or commonality with children, helps them feel secure and cared for, and enhances their sense of self. And it also enhances the relationship.
This is probably the most direct one and that is involvement in choices. It’s been proven that everyone feels a little bit better – not just children, but everyone – if they have even a choice – a single choice – between two things. When you say to your kid, “Do you want to go to bed now or in ten minutes?” We always know the answer to that, but somehow it feels a little better if you get to choose. Do you want to brush your teeth now or after you put on your pajamas? It’s a no-brainer – the choice that is going to be made – but it’s still a choice. And it doesn’t matter to us, so it doesn’t hurt to do that at all. It doesn’t hinder anything.
When I do treatment plans or interview kids – I don’t mean a treatment plan – but when I interview children to assess what’s going on, I tell them what’s going to happen, and then I offer them choices.
I saw a boy sometime ago and I said, “Okay, here’s what’s going to happen. Your parents are worried about you and I’m going to ask you some questions to find out why, and then I’m going to try to understand your situation. And then when I understand it, then I’m going to tell you what I learned. And I’m going to make some suggestions about how I think you can get more of what you want out of your life, and also take care of the things that are keeping you from getting them – that are getting in the way. And then you and I can make up a plan together to take care of those things and move forward. But you get to choose what we’re going to work on first and how all that is going to go.” So that kind of tells him that he has the last word.
I remember in one case I told this boy that I thought he was depressed. I said, “There are several things that you can do. We can work on strategies to help you think differently about things, but that is still going to be harder than it needs to be, because I think you’re still depressed – or still would be. And that always comes from being overwhelmed by losses. Feelings just pile up after awhile and it’s like trying to swim with a fifty-pound weight plate on your back. It doesn’t work very well.” And I said, “There are two ways that I know of to get rid of those feelings. One is talking about them, which boys your age don’t like to do.” He laughed. And I said, “Or we can do some EMDR, which takes a lot less time and it involves a lot less talking.” Of course, he opted for that choice. But it was his choice. He came in that day and he was quite nervous and quite apprehensive about being there, and didn’t act like he really felt like he belonged there at all, but when he left, he was on board. And it was his choice. He decided to be on board.
So there’s the obvious principle that everybody talks about. Any involvement in making choices is better than no choices or less choices. So the more choices we can give people…. That’s not just true of children. It’s true of employees. It’s true of mates. It’s true of students – everybody.
Another one is mutuality and trusting. We’re always trying to help the child to trust us in therapy. And as parents, we want our kids to trust us, but it’s also good that the trust goes the other way.
Years ago – when I worked at public school – a child was referred by a teacher because she was withdrawn. So I went down to her room and introduced myself and brought her back to my office. She told me that her dad got drunk a lot and her parents would fight. I said, “Is there ever any hitting or anything?” And she said, “No.” “He’s never hit you?” “No.” So there’s no marks on her, which is what the child protective services would…. They want to know if somebody has seen something before you can act. They’d want to come out and do an evaluation. So I said, “When your parents fight, what do you do?” She said, “Well, I get my little brother and go in my room, and we put pillows over our head, and we cry.” So, if you were listening to that, how would that make you feel? It made me feel pretty helpless. Right? “Has he ever hit your mom?” “No.” “Ever thrown anything, or pushed her, or hit her or anything?” “No, nothing like that.” So, even though this child has not been abused, she’s witnessing something that is psychologically abusive. So I said, “Let’s think about the fights that they have. Do you ever wonder if they’ll get a divorce?” “Yeah.” “And then, who’s going to take care of you if that happens?” So there’s a major concern there about her own future. “Do you ever wonder if it’s your fault?” “Sometimes they fight after I’ve been bratty,” she said. “Okay. Well, when adults fight, it doesn’t always mean they’re going to get a divorce. Sometimes fighting is just how they solve their problems. And it’s never the kids’ fault. Okay? Never your fault. So what else could you do about it when they fight?” “Well, I could take my brother and go to the neighbors.” “Do you have a good neighbor that would take care of you while they are fighting?” “Yes.” “Okay, that would be a good thing to do. What else could you do?” “Well, we could go outside – out in the backyard.” “Okay. Not listening is a really good thing for you to do, because there isn’t anything you can do about it. And it probably isn’t serious. It doesn’t sound to me like it is that serious. But here’s something that I want you to remember. When there is alcohol, it doesn’t do any good to talk to them and you are safe as long as there is no pushing, hitting or throwing things going on. It might not sound good, but you’re not going to get hurt. But when those things start to happen, you can bet that something bad may happen next, because somebody is getting out of control. And you have the right to be safe. So when that happens, I want you to go next door and call 911. They’ll ask you some questions, the police will come, and they will make sure that you and your brother are safe.” She said, “Okay.” “So if anything like that happens, I want you to tell me.” She said, “I will.”
So I saw her a few more times. Everything seemed to be pretty safe. That was the end of the year in third grade. I didn’t really have anything much to do with her all through fourth grade. But at the beginning of fifth grade, she asked to come see me, and she came in and told me that she had called 911 the night before. She repeated back to me – almost verbatim – everything I told her to look for. And she said, “It worked just like you said.”
A week later, her father – who had just gotten out of jail – came to talk to me. And he thanked me for teaching his daughter how to be safe. He repented, and said that he felt stupid and terrible, and was making plans to join a twelve-step program.
So I didn’t have a choice – in that case – about what to do, but to the little girl, I think, it felt like I was trusting her and believing that she could take care of herself. And the byproduct of that was that she was able to have the courage to do that. She knew that, by calling 911, the police would come. I didn’t try to varnish anything. I just told her how it was going to be. I trusted her that she could do the right thing. Now true, I didn’t have any other options at that point, but she certainly proved trustworthy, didn’t she? She took care of herself and her brother.
It’s so sad, in our society, that kids have to take care of themselves. They act more mature than their parents sometimes. But the principle there is that when trust goes both ways, confidence rises.
This, actually, is the last one. And I just called it having fun liking each other. What does this have to do with choice? Well, we’ll think about it.
I went on a long backpacking trip once with some people I knew – some adults and some teens. We were doing a section of the John Muir Trail. It was called The Golden Staircase. It’s a trail that is blasted up the face of a granite cliff. It’s very steep – a lot of switchbacks. It faces west. So, if you’re there in the afternoon, it’s really hot. And there’s no shade, because you’re on a rock face. It’s 11,000 feet of elevation, I think – maybe more at the top. Somehow I managed to make it to the top first. You cross a little creek and then you go to the lake that the creek comes out of – just a short climb. When I got there, I found a big rock that went down into the water. And it was covered with sand in the water. It was probably about calf-deep about twenty feet out and then it just dropped off into this bottomless, deep blue, icy water. The sand was really warm, because it was shallow and the sun was shining on it – so it was quite unlike most of the water you run into up at high altitude, which is usually snow water. So it was really nice to lie down in the sandy, soft bottom and…I think I had my head on a rock, and I was just laying there. I’d pumped some water and drank it – rehydrated and waited.
After awhile, Amy showed up. She was sixteen, I think, then – a pretty reserved, pretty straight-laced kind of girl. She drank some of my water. She’d run out. She noticed the sandy shelf. She said, “I’ll jump in if you will.” So, okay, we waded out to the edge of the shelf, and she said, “Are you really going to jump?” I said, “Of course!” She said, “You’re not chicken?” I said, “No, I’ll jump if you jump.” “Okay, let’s do it at the same time. I’m afraid you won’t jump.” I said, “What?” She said, “I’ll count. On three. Ready? One, two…no wait! How about I count backwards – three, two, one?” “Okay, count backwards.” “Three, two…no wait! I mean, jump when I say, ‘Jump!’ – not one. Okay?” “Okay. Like three, two, one, jump. I got it. Let’s do that.” She said, “Okay. Three, two…wait! I think the one with one, two, three is better.” So, I’m a little slow on the uptake, but it was obvious, after awhile, that she was messing with my head. So I threw her in and then jumped in on top of her. When she came up and got her breath…. Of course, it was icy cold, right? We were both red like lobsters. She came up and she was laughing. And after that, we felt a lot more at ease around each other. She learned that I was willing to be teased by her and that I liked her to tease me. That made us closer and more trustful.
That was a long time ago and we’re still friends on Facebook after all these years.
So, I’ve also noticed that, when I talk to school counselors about some of my clients occasionally, they tell me that the child has said that they really like to come see me, and that I am “cool.” And that usually results in more referrals, because all the counselors know that, with kids, they have to like the counselor or it doesn’t work. And parents need to be liked, as well. Even though you have to hold the boundaries and all that stuff, you need to find a way for your kid to like you. So we need to be friendly to our kids.
I put this under choices because it provides an alternative in the way we respond to each other. It’s an additional choice that is made there.
One time I worked with a little girl who spent a lot of time in sadness and tears in my office. It got quite heavy sometimes. One day I had allergies and asked her to pass me the Kleenex – the tissue box. So she reached it out. And as I reached for it, she pulled it back a couple inches. So I pulled my hand back. She stuck it out. I reached for it. She pulled it back again. Realizing she was teasing me, I grabbed her and put her in a mock restraint hold. And she just squealed with delight. When the tension got to be too much, she now had one more option that she could use to break the mood.
So the principle there is that mutual liking builds a sense of self and confidence to go forward.
So there are a few principles about letting kids have choices. And you’ll notice that we haven’t quoted a single scripture today. Are we offended? Or can we see that every one of these points is a kingdom skill that we can use to help heal brokenhearted people when we are more fully with God in His Kingdom – that God would treat people this same way and that each one of these points is about sensitivity and the expression of Godly love.
So, instead of me quoting a scriptures, why don’t those of us who demand scripture sit down and create a list of scriptures that support what we’ve discussed. I’m sure that will be much more meaningful.