Last week, my four-year-old son woke up and did not want to go to school (aka day care). He refused to get dressed and I could sense a meltdown was coming.
In my wheelhouse as a play therapist, there are a great deal of theories, techniques, and “interventions” that I can sometimes summon appropriately at 6AM.
I might have offered a choice, “Would you like to wear the football shirt or the basketball shirt today?” hoping to reduce the power struggle of getting dressed.
Sometimes, I will try the standard therapeutic reflection of feelings and limit setting. That goes something like, “You’re really not interested in school today. You wish you could stay home. But today is not for staying home. (Back to the choices) – would you like to get dressed first or eat breakfast first?”.
Other times, we might be more play-based and have a race to see who can put on their clothes the fastest. Or maybe with our eyes closed. Or in the dark; while singing a silly tune. The options here are endless.
And some days, I would have just forgotten all of my therapist skills and just hollered to GET. DRESSED. NOW. (Possibly, followed by a threat to remove some privilege later on).
Anyone who has ever dealt with a four-year-old will know that some days any of those things will do the trick. And other days, nothing seems to work at all. That’s how four-year-olds work, by the way.
But on THIS day, I didn’t do any of those things. I decided to try another approach.
I sat down and just got curious about what was going on for him on this day. This is a child who typically enjoys going to daycare. Not wanting to go was unusual for him.
“Hmmm, I’m wondering what makes you NOT want to go to school today?”
And his response was what makes four-year-olds so spectacular.
He said, “Because I’m tired of learning stuff.”
I literally laughed out loud. I could empathize with that. There have been many mornings that I am simply tired of learning new things.
And this kid learns plenty. In fact, he is the king of educational one liners.
The dentist brushes your teeth one at a time.
The longer you wait to put out a fire, the bigger it gets.(This was after the fire department came to visit, but deep thinking, right?)
He is always learning something, you see. But on this day, he was tired of learning.
And so I decided to use a version of a paradoxical approach known as “prescribing the symptom.” You might use this for a person with insomnia by telling them NOT to sleep at all tonight. It’s slightly more complicated than that in a clinical setting, but the four-year-old (hopefully meltdown avoiding) version for the day was simple.
“I get it. So, let’s try this. What if you get dressed, go to school and don’t learn anything today!”
He was interested, but confused. “Learn nothing?”.
“Yep…. Just get dressed, go to school. You need to listen to your teachers (don’t be disrespectful or cause a ruckus), but you don’t have to learn anything today.”
And (after quickly getting dressed), he proceeded to brag to his brother, sister and his Dad about his plan to learn nothing.
“I’m going to school but I’m not going to learn ANYTHING today. Nothing at all.”
And the even more appropriate,
“MOMMY SAID…. I don’t have to learn anything today. I can just go to school and that’s it.”
And so off he went, dressed and happy to go to school. Crisis averted.
Sometimes success is just about showing up. Even when you’re tired. Even when you don’t feel like it. Even when you it’s the last thing that you want to do.
And so, as the paradox of prescribing the symptom goes: you learn something either way.
Either he learns that it’s totally okay to take a day off and to let go of the expectations for success that is found in measurable objectives. The lesson of self-compassion.
Or, he learns when something sparks his curiosity that day and he learns something cool by accident.
I was more excited than ever to pick him up and hear how his “learn nothing day” went.
“So…tell me about your day.”
And, in true form, he said. “It was good. Today, we learned about how to keep the ocean clean.”
“Yeah, like you shouldn’t throw garbage in the ocean – or poop in the ocean.”
Just keep showing up, son.
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Jennifer Taylor, LCSW, RPT is an experienced child and family therapist and public speaker who specializes in trauma, ADHD, and conduct problems. Discover more about her diverse clinical background and family. Reach out to Jennifer with questions or comments by emailing at firstname.lastname@example.org
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