Friday, February 9, 2018

Looking for the Victories

I sat in the waiting room of the psychologist's office, nervously flipping through websites on my phone. The psychologist was busy with the one-on-one portion of her session where she was talking alone with P. She hadn't seen P since before Christmas...she saw me a couple weeks after the holidays, but had instructed me to leave P at home. She said he liked to meet with the parents once on their own during the course of therapy, and it had just so happened that the parents-only appointment had happened in the middle of a big turn-around for P. He had finally admitted that he didn't like feeling so out-of-control all of the time and he understood what it was doing to everyone around him. He also felt powerless to stop it. It broke my heart, but I think it was necessary. He was ready to start doing some work.

I decided to start an incentive program. I hated to bring extrinsic motivation into this - after all, shouldn't he just naturally want to get better? - but he seemed to need the little extra push. I offered to buy him a prize if he didn't have a big meltdown for a whole week.

It lasted three days. And it made things so much worse - not only would he melt down over whatever made him upset, he would have a second meltdown over losing his prize. After re-starting his week timeline about five times, we took a different approach.

"So, instead of just trying not to have tantrums, I want you to concentrate on coping," I said. "Every time you use a coping strategy to keep from getting upset, or to calm yourself down if you start to get upset, we'll call that a victory. Three victories a day for a week gets you your prize."

"But what if I don't have any meltdowns for a day?" he asked, still stuck on our old way of measuring his behavior.

"Well," I said, "then maybe it means you coped. Or maybe it means you just had an easy day. Everything went your way. That's not the same as coping. We're going to concentrate on you coping and having victories."

The shift in focus changed everything. After a couple of days of catching victories at home, winter break ended and he went back to school. I said a prayer and hoped for the best.

And it came. People started to notice a change in him. The woman who ran the after-school board game club...his chess coach...his parents...everyone noticed that he was calmer, more even-keeled. He earned his prize, a giant wristwatch. Having a watch and being able to keep track of time himself made him feel even calmer and more in-control. We set a longer-term goal, and he earned a pocket knife that he'll use in Cub Scouts and while camping. His overall demeanor was happier. He started to see himself as capable, and his days as positive. I was so encouraged.

During my parents-only session with the psychologist I had relayed all of this and she said it sounded promising, and that if he was still doing well at his next appointment, then it would be his last. Which brought me to her waiting room yesterday, refreshing weather information about the upcoming snowstorm and hoping that she would give me some good news when she was done talking to P.

His appointments typically last 45 minutes, but after about 20 minutes alone with him she came to get me with a big smile on her face. "Yeah, he's ready to go, " she said. I broke into a huge smile, so grateful that she saw the same thing we did, and seemed to think the changes were lasting.

"He's a little bit sad," she said quietly as we walked down the hall to her office to get him. I knew he'd miss seeing a sympathetic adult, but he was handling it better than I thought he would. After reminding us that she's always available in the future, we left.

I'm bursting with pride for him, but I can't share it. "Guess what! My kid doesn't need to see a psychologist anymore!" doesn't quite go with my friends' good news about their kids, like the new vocabulary they've learned, the sports milestones they've reached, the recitals and performances they've given. But even though I can't share, I couldn't possibly be prouder of him.

I'm so glad I got over my own anxiety and took him to therapy. He's one step closer to being the amazing young man he was meant to be.

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