During my practicum years, I remember my supervisor telling me the way to begin a session was to ask, “What brings you here today?” I thought this was a cool way to get a family started. She said to note who was the first to speak. When the five-year-old little daughter broke the silence with, “Daddy’s car”, I laughed until my eyes (and nose) watered. Well, that certainly broke the silence and the family’s tension and mine as well.
I was hired by that same social service agency, my first paying job. I was all of 26 years old. The first family assigned to me was a family of five kids, and Mom and Dad. I did my best to appear in control and confident. Half way through the second session, the Dad interrupted with “How the hell old are you?” He was staring directly at me with piercing, authoritarian eyes. Somehow we continued, even with my face turned Irish red. At home, that night I convinced my wife to let me grow a beard, thinking that would age me enough to be a real, experienced family counselor.
Some years later, I found that certain referral sources trusted me enough to send me what they considered “tough” kids. A junior high school boy had ‘super glued’ all the locks to the second floor classrooms. The dean felt I could help this kid. He entered my office with a disgusted sneer, plopped into the overstuffed couch, and told me he would never talk to me. Knowing he had been suspended and grounded for the rest of his life by his parents, I asked him if he knew what a ‘consequence’ was. “Yes”, he answered, “it’s coming to see a lame old dude like you”. The ‘kid is now 20 years old and a junior attending the same college I graduated from. He stops by occasionally to catch up and once asked me if he could have the old couch when he starts his own practice. “After you retire, of course,” he added.
The husband asked to have an appointment. He explained he needed some help understanding his wife. It became clear what he really wanted was his wife to ‘understand’ him. He complained,” my wife has no taste at all, why, she decorated our whole house…. a lot like your office here”. By now, I was experienced enough to be able to control my red face, but I thought ‘reflective listening’ and ‘I messages’ might be a hard sell for this guy.
Even now, as I contemplate retirement, seeing humor with my clients keeps me young. I still do play therapy with kids, but referring them to my able colleague and office mate, Carrie, is looking like a good idea. A six-year-old little girl seemed to enjoy our session of role-playing with the dollhouse. I have always moved to the floor to be at the same level as the kids. When it was time to clean up the floor, the little girl pitched right in, she finished replacing all the characters and closed the house up. Before returning it to the shelf she turned to me and asked,”Mr. Walsh can I help you get up?” Yes, my face was red, I told her I was fine, but I did need the chair to get the old bones upright again.
The years of counseling people has been rewarding. I have learned as much, or more than my clients have. The best lesson was how to appreciate the humor, fun, and humanness I experienced over the years working with wonderful and challenging clients.
Norm Dasenbrook and Bob Walsh are counselors in private practice, consultants, and authors (www.counseling-privatepractice.com)