By K. Hecht, P. Berman & A. Hosack
I still don’t want to talk about my mean dad. No one can make me talk about him.
Davy is sitting at the small table with crayons again. His mom and Dr. Berman are sitting on each side of him. In the middle of the table is the totally black scary thing Davy and his mommy drew yesterday. Davy cried a lot yesterday and was able to avoid talking about his daddy. But now they are back. His mommy has that firm look on her face- that’s the face that means he better be a good listener or no dessert after dinner.
Dr. Berman smiled at Davy and then said, “I know that talking about your daddy is scary. (Davy starts shaking his head back and forth). I know that it is up to you when we start talking about your daddy. (Davy smiles at his mother who just looks firmly back at him).
Oh know, she is already getting ready to say no dessert because I shook my head back and forth.
Davy saw that Dr. Berman was pulling out his picture of his family. She looked at him and said, “If you were feeling scared, what might your mom do to help you.” Davy looked up at his mom and said, “she will hug me and if that isn’t enough, she will read me a story.” “That’s smart. Sometimes a hug from mommy is all it takes. (I-minute pause) sometimes things are so scary, you need more.” (Davy is nodding)
“Is there anything else you can think of Claire, that you could do with Davy if even the story isn’t enough to help him feel safe?” (1-minute pause) Claire thought about it for a while and said, “I learned to do mindfulness using my pet fish. Do you think Davy is old enough to do that too?” “I don’t know Claire,” Dr. Berman said, “sometimes you don’t know until you try. Next time Davy wakes up in a grumpy mood, but not scared, try telling him what you do as you watch the fish and see if he feels better after he tries it.” “Davy, do you think you are big enough to try to use your mommy’s pet fish to feel better? (Davy nods), even though it is something your mommy learned as a grownup?” (Davy nods and smiles)
“I go to school and learn lots of things””, Davy said, “I think I could learn it. I love doing things with my mommy.” Davy smiled at his mom again, this time she smiled back. Davy immediately felt less on edge. He still didn’t want to talk about his daddy, but he didn’t want his mommy mad at him either.
“Let’s say that you are feeling scared and you are with Mrs. Carson. What could she do to help you not feel scared?” Davy didn’t hesitate an instant, “she could make me an ice cream sundae!” Claire began to laugh. “Yes, we all love ice cream Davy but that is our special before sleep snack. If we all had ice cream every time we got scared, we would be so fat we couldn’t fit in our favorite backyard swing.”
Davy loved to swing, he wouldn’t want to get too fat to fit in it. “Well, I love the way she makes food smell. Could she teach me about cooking and spices?” Claire’s face lit up, “Davy, that is such a great idea. Not only would you get less scared, but you would learn how to cook all our favorite foods!”
“I agree, it would be great if Davy felt safe and learned to do something important for the family. Now, sometimes scary is so big- it fills the whole page. You might need more things to try. Is there anything else you could do with Mrs. Carson if cooking just wasn’t enough?” Dr. Berman asked. (2- minute pause) Davy kept staring at his picture. Finally, he looked up and said, “She draws really nice pictures. Could she help me to learn how to draw a happy picture to replace the scary black one?”
I am so proud of my Davy. He can really think and come up with great ideas. I like this time together.
Claire reached over and squeezed Davy’s hand. “I am so proud of you. Here you are coming up with great ideas of what to do if you are scared.” Davy smiled back. He loved it when his mom was proud of him. So much nicer to see her smile than her stern look.
“Davy, we have one family member left, what can you do if you are scared and with Mr. Carson?” Dr. Berman asked. “Well,” Davy said, “we could take a walk together and he could just hold my hand. His hand is so big. I always feel safe when he is holding mine. (I-minute pause)
I guess you want a second thing too huh?” he said smiling at Dr. Berman. “Yes, that would be great Davy. (I-minute pause) “The black scary dad is so big. I think that I would want to sit on Mr. Carson’s shoulders and walk around the house. When we do this, I can touch the ceiling if I stretch up my hand. I would be even taller than my mean dad if I was on Mr. Carson’s shoulders.”
“Claire, could you make a chart with all of Davy’s great ideas and put it up where everyone can see it? (Claire nods), Davy, this week if you get scared, about anything at home, can you go up to whatever grown up is close by and tell them you are scared? (Davy nods), Then, it is time to go home, I think you both have earned your ice cream sundaes for tonight.”
Claire and Davy walk out of the room holding hands and laughing.
Davy’s fears of his father Larry are realistic; he was physically hurt by his dad and witnessed his father hurting his mother. Despite being safe for months; the fear is great enough to still be giving him nightmares every week. The strategies being used in his family work with Dr. Berman are designed for a young child who has many protective figures in his life.
However, dealing with fear can be tough; it is possible he will need a more intensive form of treatment. There are many evidence-based treatments that can help children and adults reduce their fears. One common model that is highly effective is called exposure therapy.
The American Psychological Association provides free information about the many different forms of exposure therapy at the link below.
A YouTube video that provides a clear explanation for exposure therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder can be found at the link below.