Everyone was yelling.
We were gathered in my office, so many of us that some were seated on the floor, for an intake appointment for 9 year-old Jenny.
Jenny’s mom and stepdad had brought her uncle. Jenny’s dad and stepmom had brought her grandma. Everyone had brought their outside voices.
Jenny’s grandmother had video “proof” on her phone to play for me at top volume. Her stepfather had stories to shout in my direction. Her uncle was performing devastating impressions of everyone else.
And I had a raging headache.
When I was newer to this “assessment” thing, Wild West intakes like this rattled me. I’d feel it was my job to wrestle this extended family into some form of civilized conversation, even if it took the whole hour to do so. I’d use my “teacher voice” and every family therapy trick in the book to try to get these people talking to me, rather than shouting at each other.
And I’d be brutal with myself when those techniques did not work.
These days, I think of my job as hearing the messages behind the words. The meaning wrapped up all that yelling. The fears underneath the anger and defensiveness. This job is easier for me when I remember to use this technique for listening to Secret Questions:
Listen to your body.
I’ve learned to listen to headaches. Without fail, I get a headache when a family system is stuck. My neck aches when family members are entrenched in competing views of a problem, each too scared to see things from the others’ point of view. Each terrified that finding a middle ground would mean giving up on some dream or hope or need.
Other clinicians I know notice when they’re holding their breath. Or when the hair is standing up on the back of their neck. Or when their fists are clenched. I get those signs too.
But my most reliable barometer is how much my head hurts.
And Jenny’s family had my head pounding.
So I decided to listen to my headache. I stopped trying to have any ‘control’ over this intake. I sat back, let my gaze go soft, and let the voices float to me from far away. I focused, first on my heartbeat, willing it to slow down. Then I focused on imagining what life was like for this little girl.
What would it be like to be caught in the middle of this? To see adults so mad at each other all the time? To be recorded or imitated or fought over as a part of daily life? How would I feel? How would I cope?
This is a skill I’ve always heard called Self As Assessment Tool. You’re gathering data and forming hypotheses, but through empathy and observation, rather than direct questioning or a quantitative assessment tool. (A Google search tells me that “Self As Assessment Tool” is probably not what most clinicians call this technique. Maybe you call it something like “noticing your counter-transference” or using “immediacy” or even just “having empathy.” Whatever you call this technique, you certainly use it, either consciously or less so.)
Imagining life for Jenny was not hard. We’ve all assessed many kids who are growing up in families this stuck. Maybe you even come from a family like this yourself. You can “hear” the emotions and struggles Jenny may have inside, even when she’s not in the room.
What can be harder is listening for the secret emotions of these adults. What could all this yelling tell me about the fears of these parents and partners and supporters?
This might be the time when you are wondering:
“Why does this matter? Haven’t we been talking about writing reports? I get that these adults harbor secret pains and hurts and disappointments and fears. But what has that got to do with writing Jenny’s report?”
My answer is: Because you want to write a report this family can read.
If you don’t answer these Secret Questions in your report, at least some of Jenny’s family won’t be able to take in the info you have to share. Even if you answer all the Secret Questions in the feedback. People’s emotions are “hot” during a feedback. They may not hear your answers, or be able to remember them, or believe you really meant them. They need a report that speaks to their Secret Questions that they can read when their emotional volume is turned down.
The Secret Questions that Jenny’s family hold are in the category I call “Navigating the Modern World.” These questions are about how hard parenting is today. Or at least, the specific ways it’s hard, since there’s surely no time in history that being a parent was easy.
Often, you can recognize these questions because the family is saying to you (sometimes actually out loud):
Help Me Settle A Dispute
Sometimes the dispute is between the family and the outside world, as when there’s a fight between the family and the school. Other times, the dispute is all inside one family member, like when a parent wrestles with two different viewpoints on her child (e.g., she has a problem vs. it’s just a phase). But perhaps most often, it’s a dispute between two family members, or between warring family factions. Team “Jenny’s Mom’s a Marshmallow” vs. Team “Jenny’s Dad’s a Bulldozer.”
Certainly, Jenny’s family had Secret Questions about what type of parenting style was best.
They did not come right out and say ,“We want your report to tell us who is right,” but they might as well have. Below that surface, though, were questions about what it means to be a parent these days, when the stakes seem so high.
When your child is not reaching her potential, what should you do?
Do you push her to work harder? Or do you try to protect her from failure? Do you spare her the setbacks you met when your parents didn’t care enough to encourage you to be your best? Or do you wish your parents had been able to save you from a cold and bitter world? If you coddle your child now, will she be tough enough to manage middle school? Or if you push her too hard now, will her spirit break long before she gets there? And will people judge you for your choices? Will everyone on social media seem to be a better parent than you?
Of course, the answer to all these questions is “YES.”
Jenny’s mom is right. Her dad’s right, too. Grandma and uncle and stepmom and stepdad – they’re also all right. Jenny needs both encouragement and a soft place to land. Empathy and coaching.
Mostly, she needs all these people in her boat, rowing for her when the waters are too rough, and teaching her how to row when it’s calm -- even when rowing’s hard and she doesn’t want to.
It’s your job to get all those people in the boat rowing in the same direction, or at least, to stop whacking each other with the oars. To do that, you have to hear where each person wants to go, and why they’re afraid the others are all headed in the wrong direction. And then you have to coddle them, and push them to row together anyway.
I don’t think you can do the coaching unless you also do the empathy part. Just thinking about it gives me a headache.
Next week (?), we’ll talk about some other “Navigating the Modern World” questions, and maybe get to “Questions about Healing.” Stay tuned for more tips on “How to Listen for Secret Questions.” We’re also rowing towards “Words to Use in Reports That Will Actually Answer Secret Questions,” so sit back and enjoy the ride ‘til we get there.
In the meantime, write a comment below. How do you listen to your body during an intake? What Secret Questions does it help you hear?
Note: This post is written at the 5th grade level. There are 104 sentences. 16 are hard to read and 4 are very hard to read. There are 7 uses of the passive voice.