Healing Through Holding
Wendy Kovacs, LMFT, House Calls Counseling Therapist
So today I was faced with a classic decision while with a client… to pick a battle or not. A moment that therapeutic parents face at least a thousand times each day.
I weighed my options. I thought about my energy level and her parent’s energy levels. I wondered how much I cared about the shirt I was wearing and if I could take my earrings out inconspicuously. I double-checked that the dogs were safe in another room.
And then I went for it… I wondered about the core of the difficulties in this home: “How does it work out for you when you say no to your parents?” And so we danced. She gave excuses, to which I wondered what was going on underneath. She blamed her parents, to which I empathized. She told me that she hated me, which I accepted openly.
But it all came down to my observation that she felt that she was better prepared to parent herself than her parents were. This statement lingered in the air for a few moments before the real drama began. Before our eyes we watched this intelligent and verbose nine-year-old girl disappear, to be replaced by a scared, angry, irrational yet demanding two-year-old in a nine-year-old body. We wrapped her in our safe arms while she tried to push us away. We rocked and hummed to her as she screamed out her feelings. We quietly reminded her that she was safe, and would continue to be kept that way.
In the moment, I was reminded of the tantrum that my one-year-old daughter had thrown earlier that exact day. My daughter, who does not yet have the words to express her frustration at not being allowed to do what she wants, screamed to try to get me to understand. She does not yet have the conceptualization of parental control. Though she relies on me for everything, she is not able to separate that from her innate desire to control her world. But even as my daughter pushed away from me in order to try to convince me that she should get to do as she wanted, I continued to hold and soothe her. I hummed and rocked her. I reminded her that I would be there to keep her safe and help her learn about the world. I knew that I was instilling a lifelong sense of the world and her valuable place in it by keeping her safe.
When I looked at my client today I saw the same need in her eyes as in the eyes of my daughter. She wanted to see if her world was safe. She needed to know that her parents would provide her with boundaries and structure. She actually was a toddler in that moment acting on instinct, testing the safety of the world in which she found herself. Finally, as she relaxed, she began to cry in genuine for “mommy” and “daddy” and we could see the nine-year-old girl returning. She snuggled like a baby in her mom’s arms while holding her dad’s hand. She drank from a bottle and visibly relaxed. And she was able to talk to us again.
We reminded her that she was with her “safe and forever parents,” and that her need for them to protect her was natural and welcomed in their home. We explained to her how her siblings all worked through a similar process. And then she gave us the why behind the behaviors: she asked why her birth parents left her, and why God’s plan for her included being abandoned.
I wish I had the answers to those
questions. Unfortunately, I did not. But I do know that her parent’s strength and compassion can help to give her a sense of internal safety that she has not yet known in her young life. They can provide for her the nurturing, contained, developmentally-appropriate interactions that she did not receive before coming into their family. And they can restore her faith in both herself and her world.