Working with children as a counsellor is very challenging compared with counselling adults. When treating children and adolescents, I need to establish a good working relationship with many people including parents and teachers. In the United States, if abuse is suspected, social workers and government‘s Child Protective Services will also collaborate, sharing the goal of the child’s well-being. However, there can be differences in the approach.
During the counselling process, I often hear the words: “We did this for the child’s good”. This usually comes from the parents. The intention is worth encouraging since the kids are still young and may not know what is best for them. As adults, our responsibility is to teach the kids how to differentiate right from wrong as well as guide and help them to find the path that suits them. Very often, our intention is good. For example, we worry that the children may experience setbacks, so we will try our best to protect them. However, we also need to consider whether our method is really suitable.
Let Me Protect You
I have a case of a 14-year-old who is afraid to go out by herself. Wherever she goes, her mother needs to send her and pick her up. She has problems getting along with her peers at school. She was ostracised by her peers and is unable to cope with that. Yet, she blames her mother for not helping her all the time. Her mother has patiently helped her again and again. The mother is worried that the child is still so dependant and wonders why she is unable to deal with conflicts on her own. So the mother brought the child to see me.
In the process of our conversations, I gradually discovered that the daughter’s dependency is due to interactions with her mother. The main reason she dares not go out alone is the fear of being violated by a man. She is a coloured girl living in a poor neighbourhood. Since young, her mother has taught her that men are dangerous, that she must not be alone and she needs to be alert to her surrounding environment.
Although she would like to go out to play on her own, her mother’s warnings keep “following” her. As she grows older and her female features emerge, her fear increases. The fear has evolved into her not wanting or daring to go out alone. While interacting with her, I helped her understand her fears, ways she can protect herself and build confidence in her self-protection ability.
When the time was right, I invited her mother to attend the sessions and requested her mother to help her go out alone. Together we planned a route and agreed on its implementation in a month’s time. The agreed plan was for the daughter to take the school bus to go home by herself and her mother would wait for her at the bus stop and then walk her home. After doing this for a period, the daughter would then walk home from the bus stop on her own. Her mother would wait for her at home.
At the beginning, the mother actively took part in the planning and made a lot of suggestions. She told me that finally she would have her own time. The mother looked more relaxed and finally smiled. During the process, we continued to encourage the girl. Finally, she was willing to try and even showed some signs of looking forward to this adventure. But a week before the implementation, the mother started to get anxious that something might happen to her daughter and was afraid to let her daughter become self-reliant. She told me her not letting go is to protect her daughter for her good. So again, the daughter became anxious and did not know what she was supposed to do. I spent some time helping the mother clarify what she thought was for the daughter’s good and what was actually her own fear. During this process, both mother and daughter supported each other and helped each other to face the fear. The mother helped her daughter to go out independently and the daughter let her mother understand that she could protect herself.
Hope You Are Happy
I have a client who came to me because she was very anxious. She and her daughter were no longer talking to each other. Whenever she phoned, the daughter would not answer. She said she just worried about the daughter’s happiness and wondered what was wrong with that? Everything she did was for her daughter’s good.
She believed that a woman’s ultimate happiness was marriage and to have children. She told me that when her daughter was little, she liked keeping long hair, favoured pink colour and loved wearing skirts. Most importantly, she liked boys. Now, her daughter keeps her hair short, likes black colour and wears pants. The greatest worry is that now her daughter likes girls. She keeps asking: “What happened?”
After knowing that her daughter was gay, their relationship was full of conflicts. The mother worked hard to change her daughter, continually persuading her to like boys. Initially, the daughter made an effort to make her mother accept her but found that it was of no avail. So the daughter left home.
The mother told me that she was worried about losing her daughter so she convinced herself to accept the situation. But when she knew her daughter found a same-sex partner, she could not help but dissuade her daughter. This led to a breakdown in the mother-daughter relationship. The mother cried and told me: “I only want what is good for her. Why would this harm our relationship?”
I understand the mother’s emotions, hoping for her daughter to be happy. However, her definition of happiness is different from her daughter’s. In the process of interacting with them, I helped them pass hidden messages to each other. The mother wants her daughter to like boys because she wants her daughter to be happy. The daughter hopes that the mother would accept her being gay because she wanted her mother to witness the important moments in her life. Do they love each other? The answer I get is: “Yes!”
The sentence: “It’s for your own good,” is familiar to us. In many cases, the starting point is the good intention from the parents but they may subconsciously impose their own judgement onto their children because the parents feel their values are good and right.
If the child does not agree to such values, conflicts may arise. Often, the initial good intention of the parents get buried in the conflicts. For instance, in the case of that 14 -year-old girl mentioned earlier, her mother’s intention was to protect her; and in the latter case, the well-intentioned mother wants her daughter to be happy. Subsequently, however, everyone’s focus is on the conflicts and how to resolve these conflicts. The original good intentions behind the conflicts have been ignored.
Of course, there are also many cases in which parents may want their unattained dreams to be fulfilled by their children. Sometimes, we want the kids to pursue the parent’s own ambition. Is that really for their good? Or is it for our own good? To understand the child is already a challenge, let alone to understand ourselves?
When we want the kids to act out in accordance with our ideas, we may want to pause and think: “For whose good is this done? Is it to satisfy ourselves or for our own conveniences or does it really help the child?”
To Be Well-Behaved
I counselled a seven-year-old who experienced a series of family tragedies. Because of these events, he and his mother only have each other and the mother was also on the verge of mental breakdown. Many of the mother’s relatives and friends tried hard to help. People often praise the son’s maturity and advised him to be well-behaved, not only for his mother’s sake but also for his own good. Later, however, he started to have some deviations in behaviour and the school teacher suggested that he sees a psychologist.
He seemed to be considerate, for example, he once told me he was unable to attend the next session as there was something on and the adults were unable to send him. He then asked me whether I would be alright if he did not come. Initially, it did not seem to be a problem but such behaviour is beyond his age nor was it appropriate given our relationship. So, in the next session, I asked what he wanted to do and stressed that this time belonged to him and he could choose to do anything. His answer shocked me and made me feel sad.
“I want to play, I want to be a child.” He avoided my eyes but answered determinedly.
The adults wanted him to be obedient. Could it be that the adults have too many things to face and if he is well-behaved, they can be more relaxed and worry less? Over the following year, my role was to play with him, to let him be a kid. In this process, I help him to express his emotions, to find his own place and to grow at his own pace. This approach takes a longer time and is more difficult for the people around him as he no longer has the beyond-his-age understanding of others he had before. But this method really helped him.
“It’s for your own good” is easier said than done. To get the acceptance of both parties, it requires mutual understanding and continual communication.
The author is a psychologist and clients have approved the sharing of these stories. To protect their’ identity, some changes have been made to the identity and details of the stories.
The original Chinese article is published in the Feb 2014 issue of Lapis magazine and is accessible online at: http://www.lapislazuli.org/tw/index.php?p=20140204.html