Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Empty Spot at the Table

One night a week I set up my space at the domestic violence shelter where I provide small group counseling and therapeutic play for kids from 3-16. Then I have dinner with some of the residents, followed by my taking their children to this space for group before the "outside" kids and women come in for theirs.

One child, "Jesse", his mother, and sibs stayed at the shelter an unusually long time. After he'd taken part in a few groups with me, he started to sit next to me at dinner. He'd be very charming as he told me about his week, showed me new toys, and expected my complete attention and approval.

This was fine unless another child sat down near or next to me while he was there. In that case, he escalated his "stories" and demanded my attention by raising his voice, grabbing my sleeve or doubling the charm. I'd remind him he was not the only child in the shelter and that I liked all the children.

He would sulk or leave the table, apparently hoping I would change my mind and send the other child away. In group, however, he soon acted more appropriate and "shared" me quite easily.

Unfortunately, I learned from another mother and at dinner each week that Jesse's improvements in group didn't carry over to daily life in the shelter. The other mother revealed that Jesse was often aggressive toward her child, but Jesse's mother didn't think his behavior needed correction. She ignored complaints or laughed off his aggression as typical male behavior.

Why so different points of view? Think of your marriage or any significant relationship in regard to bringing up children. Do you both agree on what behaviors require limits/discipline and what can be ignored? Do you fear disagreeing with your partner or going against his/her wishes? Do you disregard your partner's wishes?

This is not a problem only in a domestic violence situation. It is a common, almost universal problem when raising children. The two people in charge need to agree and cooperate concerning their children's needs, struggles, and behavior.

Some people can do this without a huge power struggle; others can after counseling and some couples never agree on "appropriate" discipline.

In a domestic violence situation, however, power is mainly what the abuser is about. Some victims develop post traumatic stress syndrome as a result of sustained abuse and once they leave the abuser, may develop the dangerous belief that now they are in charge, there will be no violence of any kind visited on their kids ever again.

The problem is, the victim often confuses discipline (which means "teaching") with violence or cruelty, leaving her unable to provide the appropriate limits and consequences children need every bit as much as they need encouragement and support.

"Jesse" and his family have left the shelter. I miss him but worry about his superficial charm, manipulative skills, and lack of regard for others. I wonder how long it will take his mother to realize she is already under his control in ways similar to those of the abuser she has escaped. I wonder how long it will take Jesse to figure it out.

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