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Children and Families #1: The Mind of a Child


Marianne, a petite 4-year-old, came to see me after her mother had received a spate of notes home from her preschool teacher complaining about aggressive behavior. Since very few girls have problems with aggression, especially at this age, I was intrigued to see what sort of little terror would appear in my office. I was skeptical as well, since I had met her mother and father, and neither was remotely aggressive or intimidating.

After Marianne had been in my office for five minutes, my skepticism about her teacher's ``diagnosis'' was confirmed. This was not an aggressive child. To the contrary, my growing understanding of her was that she was actually quite sensitive, very concerned about how adults and other children related to her and quite prone to having her feelings hurt if she experienced anything that seemed like rejection.

I learned that some children in her preschool class occasionally made comments that she took as indicating that they disliked her. What looked like aggression was in truth the effort of a hurt 4-year-old to defend herself against a perceived affront. I phoned the teacher and shared my understanding of what was going on with Marianne, reassuring her that I was on the job and expected things to improve fairly soon.

I proceeded to engage Marianne and her parents in a discussion of what it felt like to be teased and what we might do about it. Marianne quickly confirmed my guess that she was not being aggressive for its own sake but was rather doing things that felt like self-defense in response to what she experienced as aggression directed toward her. The plan the four of us came up with was that Marianne would tell the teacher when she was feeling hurt by something another child had said and ask the teacher to help her determine if the hurt had been intentional.

So when Jake said something that made Marianne feel like crying, she could ask Mrs. Johnson to stand next to her while she asked Jake, ``Jake, that made me feel bad. Were you trying to make me feel bad?''

After a bit of practice in the office, and lots of support from Mom and Dad, Marianne put the new plan into action, and met with great success. In the two years since those six or eight meetings, things have been going just great for Marianne in school. Her parents think I'm a magician. Of course, I'm not. The only trick I did was to look beneath the appearance of aggression to see what was really there: a very sensitive little girl.

Much more recently, I saw another child who only needed a look beneath the surface to get back on track. Jonah was in his second month of kindergarten when he suddenly became very upset about going to school in the morning. There were several days when his parents were asked to pick him up because he was so upset and tearful.

Both parents and teachers were concerned that he had acutely developed ``panic disorder,'' ``school phobia'' or some other very medical-sounding disorder. I saw him with his parents for about 25 minutes one morning, and sent him off to school with a smile on his face.

There was no more magic to his ``treatment'' than there was to Marianne's. I just let my conversation with Jonah unfold naturally, as it would if he were five or ten years older. I assumed there was a reason for this change in Jonah's behavior; that his apparent fear and tearfulness were almost certainly signs that he had a genuine worry, one that deserved no less careful attention than it would if he were an adult. I assumed that if I listened carefully and asked the right questions, he would tell me, if he could, what he was upset about.

And he did just that. It turned out he was worried he might miss the dismissal announcement for children whose parents were picking them up, and his Mom or Dad would leave without him. The only thing he needed was to hear that they would definitely wait for him to walk into the elementary school lobby.

Much as I enjoyed meeting these two delightful children and their parents, I didn't want them to feel that they had to come to see me each time their children experienced something distressing, so I gave both sets of parents what I have come to call my ``how to be a child psychologist in one easy lesson'' talk. It goes something like this:

Young children's inner lives are just as complicated as those of adults. They experience the whole range of emotions from joy to despair, just as adults do. They are often a whole lot more willing to talk about these inner experiences than adults are.

If someone they can trust, ideally a parent, will take the time really to listen, and to listen without pre-formed ideas, they will often tell you what is bothering them -- and then you will know what to do about it.
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