To develop competency working with children, I have practiced one-on-one psychotherapy with kids at the elementary level for two years, and now, I’m working with teens at a high school wellness center.
As with most other mental health placements, there can be a lot of emotional heaviness to the work. Students tell me about their uncaring parents, their siblings in jail, the friends who have betrayed them, their stress, fear, boredom, and uncertainty about the future. Although I feel glad to be able to connect with teens who struggle, it can be difficult not to feel dampened by their pain.
Something wonderful about working in the wellness center is that the staff are all warm, kind, and inspiring people. We express care and concern for one another, and find moments to laugh together. Ah, if laughter isn’t sometimes the most healing human expression! My whole mind-body feels different after a spontaneous belly laugh, and even more so, when I share that delightful humor with others.
A funny moment happened, in the course of a regular day of high school counseling, that I would like to share with you.
The center receives referrals for counseling from students, parents, teachers, and administrators. My supervisor then passes a referral on to me or the other therapists on staff. This day, he had a referral from one of the academic counselors. He was reading the remarks on the form in a routine manner, about a student who has frequent outbursts of anger. “She gets angry suddenly, going from 0 to 100 in a moment,” he read. “I have discussed it with her and she agrees she can improve on this issue.”
All was well and fine, except that what I heard instead of “I have discussed it with her” was “I am disgusted with her.” My eyes widened, and immediately an alarming profile of a hopelessly out-of-control teenager began forming in my mind.
Perplexed, I interrupted him to clarify: “Wait, did he say he’s disgusted with her?!”
He responded calmly, scanning the form again: “Yes, he’s discussed it with her and she agrees she can improve on the issue.”
We then proceeded to have a 5-minute-long discussion of the referral with the misunderstanding firmly in place — our own spontaneous version of “Who’s on first?” Finally,
Him: So what do you think? Sound okay?
Me, hesitantly: Uh, well, I’m a little concerned this student is going to be more than I can handle. I mean, if he’s disgusted with her, it sounds like a pretty extreme case.
Him, in a reasonable tone: Well yes, he’s discussed it with her, but she did say she wants to work on it.
Me, doubtful: Yeah, I guess that’s good. Still though, if someone wants to be a high school counselor and he’s disgusted with her? That’s strange. Maybe he needs a vacation.
Him, puzzled but encouraging, trying a different tactic: Well, she does have a lot of strengths. Creative, outgoing, lots of friends, good attendance. And she’s open to working on the anger.
It seemed like that was all there was to say, so I shrugged and said, “Alright, I’m no miracle worker but I’ll give it a shot.” I took the form from him and drifted out of the office, filled with trepidation and wondering if I would need to meet this student in a less isolated room than usual, in case of persistent angry outbursts.
When I read the words myself, I went back in to tell him what had happened and we had a good laugh over it.
I’ve met with the student since then and she is a lovely, bright, complex, and vibrant person who suffered some early relational trauma and is easily hurt. I look forward to our sessions and it’s a tender process, letting her know I am on her side, and witnessing her slowly come to believe that is true. Can I actually trust you, or are you going to let me down too?
I guess the whole funny introduction to her was a reminder that you really don’t know much about any kid before you take the time to get to know her. Especially in today’s school environment, where a child’s diagnosis and behavior history is clipped to his file, having all sorts of adult opinions still won’t tell me what our connection will be like — what’s between me and this unique individual.
Hey, don’t forget, Who is on first, after all. Yeah, that guy!
Karen Liu is a Marriage and Family Therapy Intern with a practice in Noe Valley and the Fillmore, in San Francisco. She works with adults, adolescents, and children in primarily gestalt, art, and sandplay modalities.