Let's call him Andrew. He's dignified and cautious, with a slow, beautiful smile. He keeps to himself unless somebody has a new game or toy. Then he's all charm and he gets a turn. He manipulates like a pro. He uses his intelligence to get what he wants,
sucks in his "players" with praise, smiles, and promises. He's learned a lot from his
His mom is quiet, strong, and firm. She loves him, is proud of his accomplishments, but he can't charm her out of a decision or a consequence for negative behavior.
Not with pouts, insults, leaving the room, or refusing to eat. So many "social" skills and he's only in first grade.
I worry about these accomplished little guys at the shelter where I volunteer. I see the worst and the best of them at supper before groups when there's lots of activity, some confusion, and moms hurrying them to finish dinner.
In their small groups later, I'm more likely to see the real child, especially after the first week or two. My groups consist of two parts: "Work time" (Mutual Storytelling for the younger kids and a reality therapy for kids 9-up) and a play time (toys and games that elicit emotion like a doctor kit, children's hospital, box of soldiers,Candyland and Connect Four/"talk time" for teens). I give the kids checks for not listening, fooling around,verbal aggression,and so on. But it is rare for a child to make more than 2 mistakes because 3 mistakes mean no "goodie" (lollipop or small candies) at the end of group.
The time out chair is invariably empty during play time although some games elict lots of emotion because many kids consider losing a major disgrace. I always agree to play a game with them and always accept losing with, "Oh well, it's just a game and it was fun anyway." Eventually some of them react the same way. Some continue to compulsively want to win and will cheat (which is allowed if acknowledged) in order to do so.
Last week, Andrew volunteered to tell a story. Rules: the story cannot be about yourself or anyone you know. And "Miss Pat" will follow your story with her own. She'll use the same character, but will change everything so it's her own story. Confidentiality is explained based on their age level.
Andrew glanced at my posters on three walls and started to tell a story about a little bear who got in trouble a lot and didn't want to go home afterward. The little bear's mistakes were minor but involved aggression toward others bigger and smaller than himself. At the end, the little bear stopped still on the ice. "That's it!" Andrew said. "Where did he go?" I asked. "Nowhere," he said. "That's the end."
I asked if he had a "lesson" for the story. He looked at the polar bear poster over the table. It's a beautiful photgraph of a mother bear with two small cubs. She has her arms around both of them and her head lowered lovingly toward theirs. "The lesson is he goes home because that's his family."
My story about the little bear was different. It involved mistakes of a different nature, a normal amount of remorse, and forgiveness. My lesson was, "Little bears need to be with people they love and people who treat them right."
Andrew listened carefully and smiled at the end. The other children smiled, too. One boy showed the effect of the stories by getting aggressive during playtime. One girl sat teary-eyed for a few minutes, doing nothing. Another who usually plays with the soldiers choose to color, a "safe" activity.
Sometimes at dinner the week following a particular story, I see behavioral changes in one or more children. It may be from living in a "safe" environment long enough to show their real feelings. It may be the effect of story time or new residents. I might see more anger or manipulation; sometimes more sharing and playing. These changes may last as long as the child is at the shelter. More often,they are the beginning of a series of emotional shifts that I hope will end in the child and his/her mother's acceptance of the rightness of their leaving the abuser and a greater understanding of themselves.
Tuesday, if Andrew is still at the shelter, I hope I will see sadness. Depression is not always anger at self. With these kids, it is, to me, a sign of separating themselves from the abuser, of realizing their loss, of re-arranging their beliefs.
It is more real and to me, hopeful. Because if they don't lose the abuser and what he stirs inside them, they risk becoming or falling in love with another one.