Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Brain Talk: Helping Kids with Brain-Based Problems Not Feel like Aliens

Magazine article Psychotherapy Networker

Brain Talk: Helping Kids with Brain-Based Problems Not Feel like Aliens

Article excerpt

Brain Talk

Helping kids with brain-based problems not feel like aliens

   by Marcia Stern

In the middle of a family therapy session, 11-year old Roy stormed out of my office when asked to wait until his father, Joey, finished talking. The door vibrated as it slammed behind him. With my back to the door, I couldn--t see him when he returned and stood behind me, although I could sense he was holding something above my head. Then his parents, looking on in horror, suddenly started yelling, "Don--t do it, Roy, don--t do it! You better not do it!" Then I heard the sound of something plastic rubbing against itself. "Oh no," I thought. Roy was holding a water balloon above my head (at least I was hoping it contained only water!).

Joey grabbed the balloon from Roy--s hands and it exploded on the office floor. He dragged Roy into the waiting room shouting, "You--re going to apologize or you can--t come back in here and be part of this family!"

"Welcome to our life," Roy--s mother, Annette , said sadly. "We yell, we plead, we cry--nothing helps. Roy has been impossible since the day we took him home from the hospital. We want to understand, but all we really do is scream at him."

Although he definitely had a distinctive flair for the dramatic, Roy wasn--t that different from many children with brain-based differences whom I see in my practice. These are children who, because of the hardwiring of their brains, may struggle with learning and language, and have problems in interpreting social cues and getting along with others. Many are oppositional and have AD/HD, mood disorders, and  severe behavior problems. Before they ever enter my office, they--ve frequently stretched their parents-- and teachers-- patience to the breaking point. These kids, particularly those with weaknesses that cause severe behavior problems, are often described to me by their parents and teachers as if they were aliens living in a world of their own, disconnected from their peers, never quite fitting into their own families, usually complaining that no one understands them. In quiet moments, these children themselves often tell me that they feel different--just not like the other kids.

Because of the way their brains work--the way they take in information and respond to the world--traditional interventions, including family therapy, often don--t serve these children as well as they should. But during the past decade, I--ve found that, by combining some of the lessons of the new brain science with not-so-new techniques like reframing, multisensory metaphors, and externalization, I can help transform a toxic family atmosphere to one of hope. With simple, kitchen-table language about brain functioning, I turn the family--s attention away from what--s wrong with their child to an interest in the different ways different brains work. Brain function provides a new lens through which family members can view familiar problems in a different light, without the same sense of blame and demoralization.

When working with a child who has a brain-based problem, I begin teaching the family about how the brain works in client-friendly language that helps even small children understand puzzling questions about their own troubling behavior. I find it--s especially helpful to talk about the new brain--the "thinking cap"--and the limbic system--the "feeling brain," where our emotions and our primitive responses, such as rage, aggression, joy, and pleasure, reside. …

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