Sunday, December 31, 2006

Streaming, literally and Eating kid-food

So you know I like tropical fish, which means of course I liked that movie, Finding Nemo.

I never did want to be a stream of consciousness blogger, but it's late and I'm tired, and I just have to tell this story before I go to sleep and get up in a couple of hours to have coffee before the fast (it's the 10th of Teves, if you really want to know, shortest fast of the year, but still I have to get some coffee in me before it begins at 5:30).

Anyway, on with the story.

I was cruising the blogosphere and found Life, Everything, and the Universe and the blogger had a pic from Nemo. She quoted Nemo (boy, I hope I have this right, I think it was Nemo) the clownfish who said,

Just keep swimming. Just keep swimming.

And you know that's great advice, although I'd add that occasionally floating is fine, too.

For those of you who want to communicate to little children, it's PRETTY important that you watch these movies. Chicken Little was a big one in it's time, and Babe is a classic. But THE LITTLE MERMAID saved me on a case about 10 years ago.

The little girl I saw back then is probably a teenager now, hopefully talking up a storm and giving her parents grief about her cell minutes. But when she was 5 she had a disorder we call Selective Mutism (313.23 is the DSM code).

It's just what it sounds like, a person consistently fails to speak in specific social situations and this interferes with educational or occupational achievement despite knowing the language and not having a psychotic disorder.

So the kid might talk at home, but not at school or to a piano teacher.

It's like the four-year old kid, we'll call him Eddie, who hasn't ever said a word in his life and finally blurts out, "Uh, Dad, would you pass the ketchup please?"

The family looks at him in shock and says, "Eddie! You speak! What took you so long?"

And Eddie says, "I didn't think I liked ketchup."

So you get the joke.

But the disorder isn't funny and can be very frustrating. It's basically an anxiety disorder.

My little patient, call her Tillie, couldn't squeak a word out in kindergarten. Her mom brought her in and Tillie didn't want to talk to me, either.

But I have toys and naturally like to play, so kids always like playing with me and within a few minutes they're usually chatting up a storm.

Well, Tillie didn't chat up a storm. She played with me and with my toys, but her anxiety was palpable that first visit. Second visit, however, she loosened up and could answer a few questions. She was very into the toybox and had found some toys from THE LITTLE MERMAID that seemed to satisfy her quite nicely.

Then I remembered.

Someone in that movie can't talk, right? I asked. It was Ariel, right?

Tillie smiled and batted her dark eye-lashes. Maybe.

It was, wasn't it! Ariel didn't talk. I almost shouted, I remember thinking, Gotcha'!

Play along with me, friends, I can't remember if it was Ariel or not, let's assume it was.

Uh, huh, she said.

Then I included her mother in the conversation. Mrs. L., I asked, Was it Ariel who couldn't talk in that movie?

Mrs. L. shrugged. She couldn't remember.

But you did see the movie, right? I asked them both, seriously.

Oh, yes, Mrs. L. said. We have the movie on tape. She watches it all the time!

Me: Then you have to sit down and watch it with her and get the details on how Ariel learns to talk, then Tillie will know what to do so that she can talk in school. Or do you already know what to do, Til?

Tillie didn't answer. She got pretty coy.

So do you want to watch the movie with your Mommie?

Yes, she smiled, I want to watch The Little Mermaid with my Mommie.

Great. See you next week.

The next week, when they came back the kid was already talking a blue streak at school.

End of therapy.

I have no recollection of the story behind the movie or what Mrs. L. did to get Tillie to talk. But I do think my story about Tillie demonstrates how children's minds work.

They're scared, just like you and me, of new situations, especially when they're really little. Yet they're looking for good strategies all of the time. They soak up stuff from the media, literally absorb what they see and incorporate media coping strategies into their personalities and psychology. They're on the look-out for defenses that work for them.

Selective mutism seemed like a great idea to Tillie, probably consciously. I'm guessing that during the intervention, Mrs. L. focused on showing her how much better life was for Ariel once the little mermaid started to speak.

So if a kid's acting weird, we can assume it's the emotional defense system rallying to protect the child from unspecified dangers. Kids are basically little and scared and who can blame them, face it. They absorb our anxiety, too.

But to help children build more functional defenses, parents have to do a little detective work. They have to find out where their kids learned the defenses they're using. This is true at all ages, by the way. Then they have to revisit the source literally, if possible, or talk about it, offer an explanation and devise better coping strategies.

No, of course most of life is not this easy and this "investigating" can be frustrating, especially as the years pile on. Like understanding your spouse of many years might mean asking a LOT of questions about his or her life and there's no saying you'll get a straight answer.

Try asking an octogenarian why he is the way he is.

I'm just suggesting people eat the stuff they feed their kids, not SO hard to do when they're little. Gets harder.

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc


Mary-LUE said...

Yes, Linda, this is a good story! A very good one at that.

My daughter loves that story "Mama, do you love me?" (It is the story of a little girl who asks her mom a lot of "What if?" questions. What would happen if I did this or that, etc.) One day I had lost my temper with her and I went in to talk to her. I apologized and then told her that I loved her even if I was angry with her. She looked up at me and said, "Like the book?" I knew immediately what book she meant.

This post gives me a lot of food for thought. I'll have to do some thinking about my children's defenses.

Thanks for stopping by, LUE!

Therapy Doc said...

So good, that story, m-l. Thanks for sharing it. Perfect demonstration of what I'm talking about.

Caroline said...

I was selectively mute when I started kindergarten too. I am now 30 and when I become depressed talking is almost painful. I just now connected the two after reading this.

Good story.

therapydoc said...

When you're depressed, talking's a lot of work. The whole brain slows down, you know. Thanks for writing.

abbie said...

OK, I'll be the ONE. It was "Dori" who said that, not Nemo. (Played superbly by Ellen!) but, yes, it IS a rather handy quote, and I'll admit to having used it to encourage ppl here and there, as well. :D

therapydoc said...

THANKS Abbie. I love constructive criticism.

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