No matter what I offer, my daughter is not happy. Whenever she doesn't get what she wants, she throws a temper tantrum. Putting on her seat belt in the car is a major struggle. Taking her to the grocery store is a nightmare. She won't sit down in the cart and cries when I insist. She always demands candy as we are leaving the store. When I take her to the doctor, she runs the other way. It takes both a nurse and the doctor to hold her down for her shots. It's embarrassing to have people look at her and think she is a brat and that I am an incompetent Mom. I've tried everything to get her to listen to me and do what I want her to do. Time out just doesn't work. She doesn't get along well with other children because she is so rough and demanding. I can't leave her with anyone, because she cries the whole time I'm gone or they come to get me because she is so upset. I feel like a prisoner.
One day as she and I were crossing the street, Krista threw herself on the ground and refused to go one step farther. With cars whizzing by in both directions, I frantically tried everything--cajoling, bribing, begging--finally in despair, I grabbed Krista by the arm and pulled her to the other side of the street. Krista screamed in pain. To my horror, I realized that I had pulled her elbow out of joint. After attending to the elbow, my pediatrician asked how it had happened. Upon hearing the story, he recommended that I seek psychological help for myself and for Krista.
When we came for that first interview at The Theraplay Institute, I felt ashamed that I hadn't been able to figure things out. I was sure that we were going to find out something terrible: that there was something wrong with Krista or that we were terrible parents.
When I first started trying to do Theraplay with Krista, I was just going through the motions. It felt unnatural. I was stiff and awkward. When my therapist told me to hold Krista's hand all the way to the elevator at the end of a session, I did it robot-like, as a job to be done. And Krista fought me all the way. Finally one day I took her hand and we skipped all the way to the elevator and it was fun! I had that " ah ha" feeling--this is the way it is supposed to feel. I was no longer pretending. It was suddenly pleasurable to take care of her and to see her so happy. I liked feeling competent.
As Krista became happier I began to delight in her happiness. She learned how to play with other children without being rough. She now smiled at the doctor as he walked into the room. The nurses, who once had to hold her down each time she got a shot, thought she was one of their most adorable clients. I took great pride in her and the fact that I had taken an active role in putting that smile on her face. As my confidence grew, so did Krista's. I was no longer at a loss for words, solutions, help, inspiration, and fun. I finally knew what a good parent does. Thank goodness kids are always willing to give you another chance to do it over the right way.
When I look back at my difficulties with Krista in the light of all I know now, I can see so many ways I could have handled things differently. If we had been more patient in helping her, she might have settled into a more comfortable schedule without all that interference on our part. We were trying to force her to fit our schedule. Because I was not in tune with her needs, everything was a battle. I wanted her to listen because it would be easier for me. I never imagined that she was having a hard time too. At that point, I did not understand that it would be good for her to know that I could take charge and make things safe and fun for her. I gave up very quickly when she protested.
As a mother, I have always been afraid that I might be labeled as having messed up my kids. It used to be that parents were blamed for their children's problems. Nowadays, therapists are more likely to look for the source of the problem in the children: a neurological problem, a difficult temperament, all beyond parents' control. Theraplay gave me back the power to affect my children's lives in a healthy, powerful way. Yes, my children had brought their own stuff into our relationship. But, as a parent, I could decide to change their "stuff" if it was unhealthy for them and to make changes in the way they related to the world if I felt it would benefit their lives. Everything was not written in stone. It is scary to think that I have that power, but it is also wonderful to think that I can make my children's lives better.
*Note: These Theraplay stories are all told by real clients, but their names are being withheld to protect their privacy.