I have three new published articles that will appear in The Educational Therapist journal and online with Evolved Education. Here they are for you to see: The first article Will Somebody Kill Me?, is about a case I couldn't help, and sometimes we can't. A family isn't ready for our help, or they simply need someone else's input. The second case, No, You Can't Make Me!, is a more successful one involving a boy who went on an extended homework strike. The third, There's Nothing Wrong with Me, is a completely successful case of helping a child overwhelmed by divorce and in a competitive school.
Will Somebody Kill Me?
This month, readers, I’m thinking about two or three cases in which middle school children were sent to me for educational therapy during the dissolution of their families. Yes, divorce--- but acrimonious, asset-driven, furious divorce by parents unable to shield their children from their fighting or their sense of betrayal by the spouse they used to love so well. Let none of us mistake this: children know and feel more than we may wish to admit. So meet the first child: Stella-Mare, Sea Star, a beautiful black child with embellished braids, who, at 7 is nearly five feet tall.
Stella’s mother is an entrepreneur married to a pediatrician . The police came to their home over a screaming fight that happened while the child was present. Stella goes to a prestigious private school with warm and concerned teachers, who insisted on a psychiatric evaluation for the child when she rammed a pencil into her thigh during math class. She remains under psychiatric care for therapy and medication, but her mother does not like the doctor, and feels she is not racially sensitive to the child’s needs even though Stella likes her.
Meanwhile, Stella just can’t do math. She has little of the number sense we expect from a second grade child. She can’t sequence the days of the week or the months of the year, and addition doesn’t make sense yet, though she has been tutored now for a year.
Her reading froze in first grade, when her world fell apart. She is anxious, and she knows that her functioning at school is not the same as that of her peers. Both home and school have stopped being places of comfort and she requires courage to face the demands of each day. Her parents may have thought they were helping her by not informing her that her father would be moving out of the house until the day before it happened.
I met with the mother first for an initial consultation, and she told me of her worries about Stella. I had read Stella’s evaluation, which indicated math and reading difficulty, and disorganization enough to qualify her for extended time on tests. This case would require close work between psychiatrist and educational therapist, and a great deal of communication with Stella’s parents and school. Her mother met with me twice and each time hugged me and told me she just knew that I could make Stella’s life better and that it was clear that I understood what to do to help everyone understand what was happening to her daughter.
The trouble was, I hadn’t yet met the child. My instinct for dissonance fired madly. If mother “loved” me now without proof that I could help, she might just as easily “hate” me in short order if I disappointed her. I felt I was being set up by her hopes, fears, and guilt. If Stella liked me and revealed herself to me, would her parents pull the plug on the remediation? It had happened before. Information about Stella’s self-injury did not come from her mother or father, but from the doctor and would therefore have to stay a private communication between the doctor and me. This often happens, that a school or a doctor is dying to share information that is confidential, and they should, but it places us in a delicate position of not revealing what we know and how we know it. I solve this by frankly admitting that information has been offered, and by whom. I want the parents to challenge me early on, and to earn their trust by how I handle confidences of theirs and how well I can normalize their fears for their child, and their narcissistic wounding that says, “My child is a disappointment to me. I must have been a bad parent.”
I didn’t know that from Stella’s parents, but Stella’s mom told me she had precipitated the break up of her marriage by having an affair. A lot of information to divulge on a first meeting. Who was the client? A little girl or a family? We educational therapists know that it is never the child alone who needs our guidance but that to be successful with a child we need to help the parents understand what the child’s learning issues are. During divorce, when sensitivities and fears for the child are heightened by guilt over the changes to come that will cause the child grief, we must be doubly sure to communicate evenly and without bias so that the parents too have a safe place to grieve and then to plan for their child’s needs.
Stella’s mother was a quick study: she developed an action plan after our meetings that was a model of good listening, quick perception, and selective candor about her child’s issues. Mercy, I reminded myself. Disclosing this would be difficult for anyone. Stella’s father is warm and sensitive, easily moved to tears, and both parents promised that they wanted only that Stella be helped to resume learning. They revealed that Stella wasn’t sleeping at night for fear that people might come to kill her. She was a child under siege.
“What,” said her parents, “should we do to comfort her? Can you take up the cause of a child of color?”
The list of things they could try to do differently was very long, but what I said was, “You can tell her that you will protect her. You can say that you will face the future together and that she won’t be alone. Say you will keep her as safe as you can from danger.”
I have become certain, with training, that my racism is no different from that of other well-meaning whites, except that I know I am subject to the expectation of privilege, to feel it cutting me off from people I want to know, and I work against it. I told Stella’s parents that I would give of my very best work, training, and compassion to teach Stella academic skills that would relieve her. They seemed satisfied.
My colleague, Jacqueline Newman, Esq., who is a divorce lawyer specializing in collaborate law would say that the parents needed to shield the child from their discord, to be there to parent her, to make sure that all their interactions around the divorce are private, and that when they are together, their demeanor must be cooperative so as to protect the child from heartbreak.
But that is very hard for many parents to do during a bitter divorce. For divorce, she says, is a return to very primal narcissism, and this inflicts the most lasting damage on children: the inability to put the child’s needs first; the inability to plan a future in which the family may change configuration, but will not break.
Many divorcing parents think they do that and try very hard, but it is also true that many inadvertently slip into making the child their ally. A woman or man who has devoted the bulk of their time to rearing the child has suddenly lost half an identity as caregiver. It is also quite possible that the “working” or “earning” parent has had little time to be in the home to spend time with the child day to day. Finally, it may be that the financial strain of divorce means that giving all the care that the child needs is financially impossible. Or the will to do it disappears, when the parent may need to believe that a child is fine and will snap out of it, rather than understand the role they have played in the child’s distress.
The day came to meet Stella. On this third visit, her mother sat close while Stella read to me, frowning. I would not ask Stella to read much, just a picture book that was rich in illustrations of a brown girl on an adventure, and I provided crayons and paper for Stella to draw her connections to the text afterward.
The decoding was labored but accurate, but then Stella told this story as she drew:
Once upon a time, there was a butterfly and a bird. Both were beautiful. There was a flower that cried because she loved them. She told the butterfly and the bird about it. Then the butterfly and flower fell in love. They only wanted to stay together. A girl came by and picked the flower. The butterfly died and flower was dead. The bird sank down.
Stella hugged me. Oh, the poor child, I thought. She thinks her love has caused her parents’ troubles. Who are her allies, I wondered, even as I made a commitment to become one. Whatever price concessions this family needed, I would offer. If I couldn’t connect with Stella in a wholesome therapeutic alliance, I’d help them find someone who could.
And so over the next few weeks, I received emails from the mother, detailing her understanding of what we would do in our first meeting with the school, in which the evaluating neuropsychologist and I would assist everyone in coming to grips with Stella’s needs and in agreeing to goals that we would help Stella meet.
But, no meeting happened. Repeated calls and emails asking to take up our work, offering to work at whatever fees the family in crisis would feel comfortable with came to nothing. The neuropsychologist who referred the case to me said that the family had dropped away without a word.
Sometimes, we can’t help even those whom we are best able to help. A family isn’t ready to hear what we have to say, and our ethical duty is to tell parents the truth of what learning issues, trauma, and anxiety can do to a child, as measured and hopeful as we may be. Sometimes, we have to trust that the family will find the right help when they are ready, even if they ignore our advice to work as a team with doctors, teachers, therapists, and family to improve the academic life of the child and the atmosphere in which they must contend.
I have to hope that Stella finds inner resilience that will help her survive and thrive after this terrible passage is complete. I know the school is sensitive to her needs, and that she is safe to remain there. I know that my work is good work, but that I am one of many, many good practitioners in New York, and it will have to be enough not to know the outcome of this case. I will always wonder about her, and be moved by her story, but I must trust that the right educational therapist will be found to help her.