April 7, 2009

Eight is Enough -- All the king's horses and all the king's men

What do you do when you can't fix what's broken? My patients--and my readers--know that I take a practical approach.

There wasn't any way for me to repair the relationship between his mother and father. Maybe it will work out someday, maybe not. I couldn't force his father to call or visit. Indeed, this is just the way Max saw the situation. His family was broken and couldn't be repaired; his father was gone forever. Nobody ever asked him what he thought about it. This is why when you're 8, what happens seems inevitable.

Max was depressed. He had a lot of the same symptoms of depression that adults get. He was sad, cried sometimes without provocation, had disturbed sleep and eating, lost interest in the things he used to enjoy, and was more distant with his friends. Even so, I was optimistic. He hadn't always been like this, it's just been the last few months. Technically speaking, this was a reactive depression, a problem adjusting to new circumstances. But I couldn't sit back and watch this child suffer while waiting for things to happen—like his father calling, or his parents getting back together. That's the perspective of an 8-year-old.

I could help this child by sharing with him some of my power as a grown up. I also respected him in a way he wasn't used to. Rather than telling him what to do, or talking to his mother with or without him in the room, I suggested some positive actions he could take. First, I gave him permission to call his father, and asked him if he'd be willing to call every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. He liked this idea and his mom said it was OK with her. I told his mom not to dial and not to remind him. This was completely Max's responsibility and he could do it alone. I made it clear that his dad might not pick up the phone or might be busy, but told him that he should leave a message every time he called. It gradually came to him that this might not bring his dad back. “What if he still doesn't call?” he asked. I told him that he could go shopping for postcards and that a couple of times a week, he would send his dad a postcard with a note on it, or a picture.

I had met his dad several times over the years, and knew this man loved his children. If getting a lonely message from your 8-year-old three times a week didn't melt his heart, I'm not sure I could come up with something better.

But here's the key step: moving the child from passive to active. This is a repeating pattern in my parenting advice. Taking a child, especially at this developmental age, and empowering them to take control of at least part of their lives, to give them tools that can leverage the influence they never knew they had. I knew that I didn't have the power to repair what was broken from the child's perspective—his family. But I did have the ability to fix his sense of helplessness, and push away the inevitability of the world.

I also had the ability to try and relieve the sense of sadness. We'll try a little medication, too.

Coming up: a series of posts on ADHD.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?