Based on a case true case story told by Slovak psychologist and Kids’Skills coach Katarina Baráč.
The mother of an 8-year old boy, Daniel, called Katarina to reserve an appointment. She explained on the phone that she did not approve of the way in which Charlie, her current partner, communicated with Daniel. The situation was so serious that she had even been contemplating separating from Charlie.
“Daniel is a sensitive boy and Charlie is far too demanding and impulsive on him. I don’t like it and I don’t think it is good for Daniel”, she explained on the phone to me.
When children have behavioural problems, their parents instinctively try to find an explanation to why their child behaves in a peculiar manner. The explanations that parents often come up with are usually what could be called “blaming explanations”; they blame the child’s problem on someone in the child’s social network; their partner, the child’s teacher, the child’s peers or even themselves. Blaming explanations – regardless of whether they are just flight of fancy or there is some truth to them – tend to become an obstacle to problem solving by killing creativity and jeopardising collaboration. When utilizing a solution-focused frame, the counsellor may allow the parents to share their thoughts about why the child is behaving in a peculiar manner but is more interested in finding out what the child’s problem is and what skill the child might need to learn in order to overcome the problem.
“Ok, I see”, Katarina said understandingly, “but tell me about Daniel. What problems does he have?”
“He has a nervous habit”, mother explained, “He chews on pens, sleeves, collars and hoodies. He does it at school as well as home. The chewing started around the time when Charlie moved in with us tree years ago.”
Katarina gave mother an appointment and asked her to bring along both her son Daniel and her live-in boyfriend Charlie. She explained to mother that helping children overcome problems is teamwork and that by working together they would surely find a way to help Daniel.
When the came in a few days later Katarina’s stared the session by introducing them to her two cats and her Rhodesian ridgeback dog. Daniel was delighted. He was fond of animals and there was a rather long chat revolving around the cats and the dog including their diet and what they enjoyed doing and what they were good at. Once the mood was relaxed and warm, Katarina also asked each family member to say a few words about what they enjoyed doing and what they were good at.
“You are all important”, Katarina said, “and therefore I want to know from each of you what you think we should talk about today. Who wants to go first?”
Mother said that she wanted to talk about how the ‘boys’ communicate with each other.
“I think Charlie is often too strict and demanding on Daniel and I don’t think it is good because Daniel is not used to it and he suffers from it”, she said.
As a solution-focused counsellor Katarina does not usually give much attention to her clients’ speculations about the causes of children’s problems but this time, since she had just invited each family member to tell her what they wanted to talk about, and also because mother clearly had a need to talk about the relationship between Daniel and Charlie, she decided to allow some space for this topic. She turned to Charlie and said, “You must have a good reason to talk to Daniel in the way you do. Do you want to say something about it?”
“Yes, I can explain” said Charlie, “I want to be a good father to Daniel. I want to teach him good values while he is still a child. When he will be adult, he can decide for himself what to think, how to behave and what decisions to make, but as for now, as long as he is a minor, I want to make sure that he learns what is right from wrong. I think that is important and that’s the reason why I am sometimes strict with him.”
Daniel listened carefully to what Charlie was saying.
After a short silence Katarina turned to Daniel and said, “Did you understand what Charlie had said?”
“Yes, I understand”, Daniel said and nodded.
“So, what do you think about it?” Katarina asked Daniel.
“Daddy (Daniel called Charlie ‘daddy’) is strict with me because he wants me to do the things I am told to do. He wants to teach me that I have to do what I have promised to do. We men need to stand behind our words. It is true.”
Mother appeared to be convinced that Daniel’s problems were related to his relationship with Charlie, but based on what Katarina was observing in the session, the relationship between the ‘boys’ didn’t seem quite as tense as mother was suggesting.
“Just out of curiosity, may I ask you Charlie, why is it so important for you to teach Daniel good values?” Katarina said.
Charlie didn’t answer but his eyes got wet. After a moment he suddenly said, “OK, great! Now I’ll probably start crying… “ He paused and then said in a soft tone of voice, “It’s because I love him”.
The silence in the room was palpable. Finally Katarina broke the silence by asking mother and Daniel if either of the two wanted to say something.
Daniel said: “I know daddy loves me”.
Mother said, “It’s OK. We don’t need to talk more about the boys. There is something else we should talk about.”
“Ok, what is that?” Katarina asked.
“I think that Daniel is unhappy. His biological father is very busy at a work and has very little time for him.”
Mother proceeded to criticize Daniel’ father telling various examples of things of he had done. For example, when Daniel was visiting his father, he didn’t get much attention from his father and his father should have picked him up for floor hockey rehearsals, he was often so late that Daniel almost missed his rehearsals. Daniel agreed with mother and added that he would want to spend fewer days at his father’s place and more days with his mom and Charlie.
At this point the conversation had revolved around Daniel’s relationship with his stepfather and his relationship with his biological father, but Katarina still didn’t know what was the reason why mother had decided to consult her.
“Ok, I see”, Katarina said in an understanding tone of voice and asked if there was anything else that needed to be talked about in order for the conversation to be useful for them.
“Why don’t you tell Katarina your problem”, mother said to Daniel.
“I chew on pencils”, Daniel said candidly.
“You chew on pencils. Ok. And was it your own idea or your mother’s idea to come to talk about it with me?”
“It was my mom’s idea”, Daniel said.
“And how did your mom succeed in getting you into coming here? Did she force you or did you come voluntarily?”
“She didn’t have to force me”, Daniel said. “I wanted to come”.
“Excellent, and why did you want to come?” Katarina asked.
“It’s not good for me to chew on pencils and mom doesn’t like to buy me new ones every week”, Daniel explained showing that he was motivated to overcome his problem.
At this point Daniel’s mother reached for her bag and pulled out a bunch of ruined pens that Daniel had chewed on. She had brought them along to show to Katarina to convince her of the seriousness of the problem.
“You must have strong teeth to have been able to chew on all those pencils”, Katarina said to Daniel. “Do you have any teeth left? Can you open your mouth to show me?”
Daniel opened his mouth wide open to show his perfectly normal unharmed teeth.
“How come your teeth look so good even if you chew on all the pencils you get hold of?” Katarina asked.
“It’s because I am a beaver”, Daniel said with a proud smile on his face.
‘Beaver’ was a nickname Daniel’s classmates had given him that he seemed rather happy with.
“So, Beaver, here’s one for you. Show me how you gnaw it”, Katarina said handing a pencil to Daniel.
Daniel took the pen, lifted it close to his mouth and pretended to gnaw it.
Katarina and Daniel began to talk about what it takes to be a good beaver; how to know which pens are easy and which ones are difficult to gnaw, how different pens taste, how to start gnawing, how to know when to stop gnawing etc. Turned out that Daniel was not only a true connoisseur of the art of pencil gnawing but also enjoyed sharing his inside information about the topic.
“Would you want to change something about your gnawing?” Katarina asked Daniel.
“Yes, I want to stop doing it because I’m not only gnawing on pencils. I also eat my clothes and I don’t know why I do it. It’s not that I want to do it. It just happens. I don’t want to damage my sleeves and hoodies and mom doesn’t want me to do it.”
Finding a skill to learn
“You have been gnawing pencils for a long time so it has become a habit for you and as we all know, quitting bad habits is easier said than done”, Katarina said preparing Daniel for her next question. “What skill would you need to learn in order to be able to stop gnawing pencils?”
“I just have to stop doing it”, Daniel said. “I have to learn to leave pencils alone. I have to leave them just as they are.”
“That sounds good Daniel”, Katarina said. “So, you would need to learn the skill of leaving pencils just as they are. And by learning that skill you would save your mom money as she wouldn’t have to keep buying new pencils to you all the time.”
“It’s not only pencils I’m buying him”, mother interjected. “I also constantly need to buy him new clothes because he destroys them with his biting.”
Giving the skill a name
“I see, so it’s really important for you Daniel to learn to leave pencils just they way they are”, Katarina said. “Let’s start by giving that skill a name. What do you want to call the skill of taking good care of your pencils?”
“I don’t know”, Daniel said.
“It’s not so easy to think of a good name for a skill like that. Would you want your mom and Charlie and me to help you by offering you some suggestions?” Katarina asked.
Daniel was willing to hear our suggestions, but none of our proposals appealed to him. Eventually he gave a name to the skill himself. He wanted to call it the ‘Anti-beaver-skill. “Anti-Beavers don’t gnaw on anything”, he explained. “An Anti-beaver leaves pens exactly as they are.”
Katarina asked Daniel to draw a picture of the Anti-beaver and he quickly sketched a funny illustration of a rodent with two large front teeth protruding in opposite directions. ”These are his special teeth”, he explained pointing at the rodent’s teeth. “They are anti-teeth”.
“So, Anti-beaver can be your power-animal that helps you learn your skill. Perhaps you can hang this picture somewhere at home to remind you of your skill, but you may also need some people to help you learn the Anti-beaver skill. Which people will you ask to help you?”
Daniel wanted his mother and Charlie and his grandma to be his supporters. He didn’t want to include his teacher in his circle of supporters, but agreed that she will be informed about his project to learn the Anti-beaver skill.
“How can your supporters help you to learn your skill?” Katarina asked Daniel. “How would you want them to remind you of the Anti-beaver skill when you sometimes forget it and they see you gnawing on a pencil or on something else? What do you want them to say to you to in those situations to remind you of your Anti-Beaver skill?”
“They can say, ‘Hey, Anti-Beaver’. That will help me to remember the Anti-beaver skill”.
Katarina turned to mom and asked her how confident she was that Daniel would manage to learn the Anti-beaver skill.
“I am quite confident that he will learn it”, mother said. “He has managed to learn so many other things too including skating, playing floorball, and writing and reading.”
Planning the celebration
“I would suggest to you Daniel that when you have learned the Anti-beaver skill, you celebrate your accomplishment by doing something fun with your family. What do you think? Would you like to do that?” Katarina said.
Daniel’s eyes lightened up. “Can we all go ice-skating together to the winter stadium?” he asked looking at his mother.
“I’m in”, Mother said and gave Charlie a questioning look.
“You know Daniel that I’m not good at skating and don’t like it very much”, Charlie said. “But what the heck. If that’s what you want I’ll come along.”
“And for how long time will Daniel need to manage the Anti-beaver skill in order for all of you to celebrate his success?” Katarina asked.
After a brief discussion the family came up with a plan. They would go skating twice. First time, when Daniel would have succeed in keeping just one of his pencils in its original shape for a week, and second time when he would have succeeded keeping all his pencils intact for one whole week.
Showing the skill
“Before you all go, I would want you to try the Anti-beaver skill?” Katarina said to Daniel. “Pick any pencil you want from this pencil case and write something with it on this piece of paper. Show us how you use it for writing without it gnawing on it.”
Daniel picked a pencil, drew a picture, wrote something beneath it and returned the intact pencil into the pencil case.
“Well done Daniel!” Katarina said. “Was it difficult?”
“No, it was not difficult. It was normal”, Daniel replied.
“Do you think you’ll manage to do the same at school?” Katarina asked.
Daniel nodded. “I can do it easily “, he said in a firm tone of voice.
Involving the teacher
“It will be important to tell your teacher at school about the Anti-beaver skill so that she too can support you in learning it” Katarina explained to Daniel. “Will you tell her or do you want your mother to speak with her?”
“I can tell her”, Daniel said decisively.
“Good idea. Let’s see how you’ll do it. I’m now your teacher”, Katarina said. “How will explain this Anti-beaver thing to me?”
Daniel played along. “Mrs Varga, I want you to know that have decided to stop biting my pencils and I’m working on it now.”
“Perfect! We have a plan. I will reserve another appointment for you to see how things have gone. I want you Daniel keep a record of your progress. Can you draw a chart where you mark each successful day with a star and the days that you have forgotten your skill with a cross?
“I can do that”, Daniel said and we shook hands to confirm the deal.
At home, later that same day, Daniel prepared a calendar that he attached on his wardrobe door. The calendar had a picture of the Anti-beaver and an agenda where he marked each day with a colour code; blue for successful Anti-beaver days and red for days when he had forgotten his skill.
Daniel worked on his skill diligently. There were initially a few red marks in his calendar but within a few weeks all the new days his calendar were blue. When Daniel had first learned to keep his all his pencils intact he then expanded his new skill to include also his clothes.
The skating event that Daniel had wished for took place about a month later and it had been an enjoyable treat for the whole family.
Daniel overcame his bad habit and his classmates stopped calling him Beaver.
Kids’Skills is not only a method for helping children to overcome specific problems, but also a learning experience that gives them an idea of how they can solve any difficulties in a positive and creative manner. Soon after Daniel had mastered his Anti-beaver skill he said to his mother, “I am a big boy now and it’s embarrassing for me that you escort me to school every day. I want to learn to go to school by myself.”