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.
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.
No, You Can’ Make Me!
“It’s better this way!” Omar said of the brevity of his homework. He showed me his English homework, which he had reduced to a few sentences that scrawled across a page in phonetically spelled words. “What’s the point of going on and on?” He was a handsome 4th grade boy, 9 years old, blond, compact, muscular and kinetic. Owen was diagnosed with ADHD, dysgraphia—which meant both poor handwriting and spelling, but also poor placement of his letters in space, and his decoding was unsteady. Decoding means the mechanics of matching sounds to letters and reading words with understanding. Omar understood plenty, and more than he could say. His parents were divorcing in a process that was like death by pressing. One rock added at a time to the others atop each other until the people beneath were crushed. Omar had been told little, but he knew his world was unhinged, and that his parents hated each other.
A few weeks earlier, Omar’s mother arrived for the intake interview alone, then brought Omar along for a second meeting to see if he and I would connect around the goal of making school easier. His father came separately. Omar’s mother and father could not be in the same room together, not even to help Omar get the reading, writing, and organization help that he so desperately needed. His school, a rigorous boy’s independent school in Manhattan referred the case to me, but told me that I’d need to be extremely careful to make both parents feel heard.
Of course, I could do that, I thought. And I could. During a divorce, it is imperative to treat the parents equally and with the respect they deserve as parents of my student. They have to be given equal information and brought together by an educational therapist’s communication, for the good of the child. Omar’s parents were furious with each other, and though they still lived in the same house, they were negotiating a separation. I listened as his mother said that because of the high net worth of the family, the separation was taking place with both parents in the same townhouse. The father had moved downstairs. But the divorce negotiations were dragged on for several years and each parent had to keep an eye on negotiating position in the divorce proceedings, which could, if proceedings failed, result in a court battle over the division of assets. Each parent spoke to me separately of the new love in their lives, and their frustration that they could not take up their relationships publicly. I wondered how much Omar already felt and knew of his parents’ bitterness.
Omar was easily bored by homework, and he was angry. This was easier to deal with than disengagement and so I had great hope that he cared enough about school to let me help him reignite his desire to do well. But could he do well at his school that prided itself on how many years advanced they were beyond grade level curriculum in each grade. There were days when Omar arrived and a certain strain in his voice sounded like the anger and sadness I had heard from his estranged parents.
“Dad’s an a-hole,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Omar, I can’t have you use that language about your father here.” Omar shrugged.
“Whatever. I’m not doing any more homework, and you can’t make me,” he said, his voice unemotional.
“No, I can’t make you do anything you don’t want to do, Omar. Not in my power. Don’t you know that?” I said.
I brought out a balance wheel for him to stand on. A balance wheel is a nice round platform disc with a half a ball underneath it in the very center of the platform. It’s used in physical therapy and I had bought one after it helped me strengthen my balance in Pilates class. It’s a great tool for ADHD kids to use to find their breathing and their balance. Don’t breathe, fall off. That how it goes. “You’re a soccer player. How’d you like to try this ankle strengthener. Here, I’ll show you a move on it.” I stood in the center on one foot and glided around in a circle like a ballet dancer, using a simple shift in weight to make the wheel turn.
Omar got on. “Easy,” he said.
“I like easy, Omar. Don’t you?”
“Yeah!” he smiled. “But I’m on strike and you can’t make me do my homework.”
“Not, EV-ER,” he enunciated, glaring at me.
“Interesting,” I said, and meant it.
Now all educational therapists are under pressure to transform a kid’s ability to work for a school, and we feel pressure from our client family, from our own inner need to be useful, and from the love of the child before us. But I can never afford to believe that grades are so important that they have to drive my work with a client. So I bought into Omar’s strike.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m glad to know it. Now we can do things we want to do,” I said.
“Like what?” Omar looked suspicious.
“Like this! Catch!” and I threw him a squishy ball. I keep silly putty, nerf balls, cards and games, all manner of fun things in the office for my own amusement, but I’m not averse to sharing them with a kid in need.
“Here’s what you can’t do!” I chortled, “Recite the alphabet in order up on the wheel!” In fact, this was quite a difficult task for Omar at this point in the intersection of divorce and learning disabilities. But he did it pretty well.
“Ha,” he said.
“Ha, yourself. That was amazing,” I took up my role as cheerleader. “Bet you can spell some of these problem words you have a quiz on.”
“Boring.” He had me.
“OK,” how about this word!” and I picked words that he’d have to sound out in one of the syllable types he needed to know. I tried to match patterns with those on his test.
And little by little we made some progress on decoding that day, and on many other days, using games, word sorts, and anything that he’d agree to for 10 minutes of a session.
I tried to engage him in writing, which was difficult. It frustrated him like no other task. So, I took dictation, read to him, or handed him a very decodable book to read on the balance wheel. Sometimes I’d read to him after I’d hooked him up to Mindflex, a game in which you use your mind and a battery to lift a tiny nerf ball into the air and move it, while keeping the air stream under it moving with hand controls. ADHD kids seem born to do this. Me, not so much.
“Can you concentrate on remembering the story and keeping the ball in the air? I asked.
“No,” he said, but his recall was ok, considering that I’d get nowhere by presenting the story as a memory exercise and therefore, as work.
And so, the months of that year went by. One of my goals for this remediation was to be on Omar’s side when his moods were sour or defiant, when he was sure he was never going to come back, when he couldn’t work. And come back he did. It’s hard to remember that producing all the work a school wants is not always possible, and that my anxiety about Omar’s ability to do that work must also be Omar’s, at least down deep. So, I practiced ignoring the pressure just as Omar did, but I told the school and the parents what we were and weren’t able to do on a weekly basis.
Meanwhile, Omar let me know that he was in over his head emotionally. His anger and disengagement seemed productive, though. He was alive, not despondent, challenging the whole notion that school was important. And at a time like this, with the trauma of divorce looming, with the temptation to take sides ever present, he was right. He could show me what was wrong, and he’d let me teach him as much as he could absorb, as long as it didn’t seem like work. My conversations with his teachers and the head of learning services were frank. They were going to keep Omar; there was no question of having him leave school because of failing grades at a time like this. They understood, and though the teachers needed to make homework demands, the issue of what Omar owed were tabled. Gradually, Omar regained his interest in school, and we could work in better earnest on those skills that he was ashamed of: spelling and reading. I felt strongly that he would do well at school if they could wait a year more for him to heal so that we could see what being with his friends and in his familiar school setting did for and to him. But the risk was that we spent two years doing impossible curriculum and that we lose the chance to have Omar in a school that he could handle more easily. He remained far enough behind the class that his parents began shopping for an easier school for him.
And on our last session of the year, Omar brought me a gift. A small plastic toy soldier about two inches high, perpetually aiming his rifle at an enemy. I kept it on a shelf for years, where I could see it daily.