Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Turning Passive into Active

I’m thinking more about the issue of helping children cope with tragedy. The principle of turning a situation in which one feels victimized and helpless into something in which we can experience mastery is a challenge presenting itself over and over in our lives. On one side lies despair, on the other empowerment. Students of writing are always being instructed to eschew the the passive voice and to design sentences that feel and sound stronger by employing the active voice—“mistakes were made,” a favorite of politicians, has a whole different feel from “ I made mistakes.” If mistakes were made, what the hell can I (or you) do about it. If I made mistakes, there are things I can do about it.

The mechanism of “turning passive into active” is a fundamental building block of psychological development, a way to manage anxiety. Freud and the early Freudians spoke of this. The child who plays out with dolls an anxiety ridden situation making the play the answer to his anxiety is employing this brilliant and highly adaptive defense mechanism. My 3 ½ yr old grandson dealing with the advent of a new and sometimes fussy sibling plays out with his beloved bear, situations which he cannot do much about in reality. He is rocking “bear” much like his mother rocks the baby, complaining about how “frustrated” he is that bear will not stop crying.

I was thinking about a woman I knew who was unable to leave her house. She was poor, unable to work, quite disabled by chronic post traumatic stress disorder. She was agoraphobic: afraid of going outside, afraid of the world. She and her husband lived on a small pension of his. She felt she was totally trapped by her mental illness and her economic circumstances. And to a great extent this was true.

A few years ago, the house next to hers was razed and a construction crew came to work to build a new home next to hers. Jack hammers, electric tools, hammering, loud voices, even dogs barking became part of her daily torment. One very prominent aspect of PTSD is a hypersensitivity to noise, and a strong startle response. Although she was retreating from the world in many ways she could not retreat from this noise. She could not screen it out. Nor could she leave the house to hang out in Starbucks for 3 or 4 hours, or go shopping or visit a friend.

Her mental illness presented insurmountable barriers to these very ordinary options. She was despairing of her situation. She felt totally victimized, and helpless, a chronic condition with her, and in many ways a repetition of the original traumas, extreme physical and emotional abuse throughout childhood. Her very astute therapist (no, not me) told her to make her own noise: put on the radio, play her own music, use her earphones make music herself. Instead of the passive suffering, which was intense, she now had the option of meeting noise with noise of her own choosing. It was a very simple directive and it worked! She needed to be reminded repeatedly that she could do this, as she easily fell back into the very familiar and to some extent comfortable role of passive victim, the legacy of her horrific childhood. While she and the therapist continued to work on the historical roots of her suffering and the role she played in maintaining her suffering , she now had a coping mechanism that was totally new and provided her with a measure of mastery, i.e. think of what you can do to put yourself back in control.

Posted by Note From the Unconscious at 9:30 AM 0 comments Links to this post

Labels: children, Freud, mastery, psychological development


When the world seems too damn dangerous for kids

My first post is inspired by the blog (full disclosure, my niece Rebecca Joyner). CFM is struggling with how to explain the immense tragedy that is now unfolding in Haiti to a not quite 4 year old. Miss D., her daughter, is all ears and seems to pick up on just about any mention of death and destruction. Its not hard to imagine the anxiety in store for a tot that has just learned that the earth can open up without warning and bury a couple of hundred thousand people and all of their homes and loved ones. And yet, eventually every pre-schooler will hear about these things, if not from TV or the radio, through the colorful if distorted accounts of other pre-schoolers. We would all love to shield our children foever from these accounts. Just think back to 911 and how that went down with children who could and did watch the towers fall on the TV, over and over, and over....

While we should by no means go out of our way to share every bit of bad news, if it does seem inevitable that they will be exposed, some version can be told. Some children will (strange as it seems) shield their parents if an obvious subject is not broached and not be able to speak of their fears and images which may be quite distorted. As awful as the Haitian earthquake is, I'll bet a small child can imagine worse things: like everybody is dead in the next state, or even the next street over from ours. Something like that. Open talk leads to open talk.

Most importantly though, emphasis should be on what we can do to help. Turning passive helplessness into a way to help can be both empowering and restorative. If you can brainstorm with your kids about "how we can help" you are teaching a coping style that will come in handy forever(!).

Three kids came to the door this week collecting for the Red Cross. Two little girls (really little) were selling lemonade down the street, flagging down traffic on a busy street to collect money to help the homeless in Haiti. These are opportunities to teach lots of things: citizenship, charity, and coping.

I read some years ago about a study on the coping skills of children faced with the threat of nuclear annhilation--a threat very real to my generation. Children whose parents were anti-nuclear activists seemed less afraid, less paralyzed by the threat. If they marched along with their parents, so much the better.