Adventures in therapeutic parenting: spit cup in a tree

IMG_4350-by Laura Dennis

I was enjoying my coffee when a
panicked voice rose from the back yard. “Help!” My spit cup is in a tree!”

I never imagined these words in the same breath: help, spit, cup, tree. Well, not until I became a parent, and not just any parent, but a parent with special powers, for I am raising a child with attachment disorder. I acquired these powers thanks to a series of so-called experts, so-called not because they lack ability –a handful truly were helpful– but because they claim impossible knowledge, that of fully understanding another human being. I also have my doubts where the “experts” are concerned because they ask parents to do the impossible, yet inexplicably fail to grant us superhero status, preferring the more prosaic moniker, “therapeutic parent.”

One of the tenets of “therapeutic parenting” is that you may be able to help a “challenging child” extinguish an “undesirable behavior” by “prescribing the problem.” This means that the parent, in tandem with the therapist and against all logic, orders the child to engage in the offending behavior. This allegedly creates a win-win situation. If the child agrees, he is accepting the rules of family life by obeying the parent. If the child refuses, abracadabra! The negative behavior is gone.

I tried this out for myself when my supposedly charming kindergartner took to expressing himself with forcefully emitted saliva. According to the therapist, I was to instruct him to spit as much as he possibly could. We even obtained a specially designated container that quickly acquired the apt, if unoriginal, name of “B’s spit cup.” B would fill the cup to the appointed level, clearly indicated in red marker, then heIMG_4351 would dispose of the spit in a both literal and symbolic manner. Literal in that the spit went away, symbolic in that my son’s brain would see its disappearance as proof that a “weak” (we therapeutic parents never say “bad”) behavior can also vanish, ideally forever. Toward this end, B’s therapist suggested he bury the spit, so my son’s goal became to fill the cup, then take a small garden spade and plant the fruits of his labor at the far edge of our one-acre country yard.

What the experts failed to address is just how nauseating it is to watch a human being spit intentionally and repeatedly, and worse, collect the results. We are to remain stoic and not react to anything the child might do, yet to this day, I do not know how a person is supposed to remain unmoved in the presence of so much spit. My solution was to send my son to the back deck to accomplish his mission, since the patio doors between us afforded me some protection from the sights and sounds of the task at hand. Unfortunately, him being on the other side of the door also had certain drawbacks, chief among them the very real possibility that he would escape the confines of the porch. This, of course, is exactly what happened: as I was topping off my coffee, my little darling absconded to the yard with his own, rather less appetizing cup. Said cup was now stuck several feet off the ground in the branches of our red leaf maple tree, for reasons that he could not –or, more likely, would not– explain.

There are probably a thousand ways to respond to the pitiful cry, “my spit cup is in a tree!” There is laughter, of course, but my son tends to feels ridiculed even when such is not the intent. Denied mirth, my mind let itself hijacked by frustration, as often happens whenever the experts’ solution becomes as burdensome as the problem it was meant to solve. Why can’t we have even one ordinary afternoon? Boring sounds so good sometimes! Along with frustration came the unsettling feeling that someone, somewhere, was watching this, and I don’t just mean the neighbors, though you can bet they were watching too – in middle class America, not much goes unnoticed. But what I really mean is that eerie sensation you get when you think your family has either become part of the most inhumane psychosocial experiment ever, or the producers of Candid Camera have finally gone too far.

Eventually, I snapped out of it and opted for the only response a “true” therapeutic parent ever could: gratitude and relief. After all, this child who trusts no one to meet even his most basic needs decided, for once in his short and troubled life, that he needed me. So I stifled my laughter, choked back my vomit, and instead lifted a silent prayer of thanks as I grabbed a ladder to get that spit cup out of that tree.IMG_4306

The tree is these images is ‘the’ tree. The cup, however, is a replica.

(Keeping that would be too gross, even for a superhero therapeutic parent!)

I am a solo mother of three, all adopted as older children from India, all of whom have been affected by early childhood trauma, particularly my youngest, who was diagnosed at age six with RAD, ADHD, and ODD. We had struggled along as best we could for more than two years before that, whereupon I started learning all I could about trauma and attachment. It has changed our lives for the better. Not only has it set my son on a path that could –maybe– lead to eventual healing, it taught me the type of help my eldest would need as she dealt with her own past en route to young adulthood. Perhaps best of all, it led me to ATN, who not only helped our family, but also gave me the chance to pay it forward by helping families like ours find the support they need. In my “real” job, I am a World Languages professor and department chair at a private liberal arts college in the Appalachian mountains. I have found a way to merge my passions by researching the depiction of intercountry adoption in world literature and film and guest-lecturing for education classes about diversity, inclusion, and trauma-informed instruction. In what passes for my free time, I enjoy long walks, reading, writing, playing piano, and caring for our dog and cats.

Tagged with: , , ,