More and more, I’m realizing that the essence of the work I do is creating an inviting space between people to be vulnerable and explore their inner worlds and those of other people with compassionate curiosity. I do this in my individual work and in my family work. I think this co-created space is the fertile ground in which psychological growth occurs. Here’s an example of how a young boy, his mother, and I created this space together. When done well, this strategy invites amazing insights from children that you would never see coming otherwise.
A mother and her pre-teen son are in my office. She is trying to discuss something that her son should find interesting too, but he slouches in the chair, is facing away from her, and snaps at her when he doesn't understand her questions and prompts. She shares that he's been like this for the past week with her and she is becoming very hurt and frustrated by it. I also note that he never acts this way when the boy and I are meeting with just his dad so I wonder what's going on.
After some thought, the boy explains, “I don’t act irritable with dad because he would just yell at me and he doesn’t care. Not that he doesn’t care in general, but he doesn’t care about my feelings or what I’m going through. You care. You’re always asking me about what’s going on and how I’m feeling. But, I don’t want to just tell you. I sorta just want to give you hints and then I want you to ask me more about it.”
Then, I ask the boy, "But, then, why are you so irritable with your mom when she's trying to ask and listen?" He doesn't have an answer.
Given what I know about the son and his deep sense of shame and fear of being in trouble, I conjecture aloud something like, “I think that what happens is that as you open up to your mother, you start feeling vulnerable and you start worrying that you’ll look bad or get in trouble. So you begin to get anxious and snap at her when you feel like she is doesn’t get you or is being critical.”
He thinks for a moment and says, "Yeah, I guess so."
[I think that this type of framing of his actions is what helps him to not feel judged or criticized and invites him to wonder about himself in a new light.]
His mom is silently blown away, sitting back in her chair, sometimes smiling. She is touched by his wanting to be understood by her and feels sad for and can totally relate to his fear of being misunderstood or judged. As they leave, she touches him tenderly, and he reverts back to being an externally focused, self-focused pre-teen boy, asking if they can take a cab home and asking when his next baseball game is.