(this is raw unedited text transcribed directly from the audio)
Dr. Kenner: Tom, welcome to the show.
Tom: How are you?
Dr. Kenner: Very good, thank you. Tell me, what’s your question?
Tom: My question is, I’m a single father.
Dr. Kenner: How old?
Tom: Me or my son?
Dr. Kenner: You.
Tom: I’m 30.
Dr. Kenner: And your son?
Tom: He’s 8. I obtained full custody of him and his mother had abandoned him.
Dr. Kenner: He was how old at that point?
Tom: 3. Just turned 3. After that, we had split and shortly after that, maybe five months, she left state.
Dr. Kenner: She just got up and left?
Dr. Kenner: Was she an alcoholic? Was she troubled? What was going on?
Tom: Probably troubled.
Dr. Kenner: In what sense?
Tom: She had a bad childhood. Her mother had basically done the same thing, similar, to her.
Dr. Kenner: So she’s repeating history.
Tom: I believe so. I would say that’s an honest answer or assumption.
Dr. Kenner: What’s your question?
Tom: My question is, now my son has been doing very good in school. There’s more to this equation, but my son has been doing very good in school. I got involved in another relationship, since he was about 6, so basically from the time he was born until 3 was me and his mom. From 3 to 6 it was just me and him, and then from 6 until recently, it was me, him, my girlfriend and her child.
Dr. Kenner: How old is her child?
Tom: Her child is 4.
Dr. Kenner: Male, female?
Dr. Kenner: And so the problem or the question?
Tom: Here’s the crux. We split up about a month ago. She lived with us in our home for two years. And then we split up about a month ago and every since then, his grades have been dropping.
Dr. Kenner: Has he been open about it? Has he been talking about what that was like?
Tom: Not a very open child.
Dr. Kenner: He’s not open. So one of your skills as a parent is to what?
Tom: Promote communication I guess. I’m not a very good communicator myself.
Dr. Kenner: I was a horrible communicator before I had kids and it motivated me to learn communication skills. And when I went back to school for therapy, you learn all sorts of communication skills. You can’t be a therapist without communication skills. And then I read a parenting book that taught me the same skills without all of the psychobabble that I learned in grad school. The same terms. The book is fabulous. It was my lifesaver for parenting. I can look back and say I loved my kids’ childhood. They tell me the same thing. They want me to raise their kids. They may have a surprise there. But the book is How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk.
Tom: Do you have an author?
Dr. Kenner: You can go to my website, DrKenner.com, and the authors are Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. Fabulous book. You can get it on tape, maybe CD now too. I gave it as a course many years, just so I could learn it. You don’t have to be an expert to give the course. But let me give you some tips. What have you tried so far? What are your clues?
Tom: I don’t even know where to begin, to be honest with you.
Dr. Kenner: What does he do? What is his behavior? Is he just sullen? Is he angry?
Tom: He’s not angry. He can be very emotional.
Dr. Kenner: In what sense?
Tom: Cries at the drop of a hat.
Dr. Kenner: So he’s sad.
Dr. Kenner: Notice, if you had said he was angry, then he’s looking at the world and saying, “Things are not fair.” If he was real anxious, he’s looking at the world and thinking, “I don’t know what my future is going to bring,” and he’s really anxious. If you see the tears, then he’s dealing with losses.
Tom: It’s very easily, he cries very easily. I’ll ask him, “What’s wrong, what’s bothering you?” And I can’t get him to open up.
Dr. Kenner: So you need a few … “What’s wrong and what’s bothering you?” are fine, but that’s not working with him. There’s nothing wrong with that. Other kids would open up to it. You can just say, “You know, you look really sad.” You can just reflect his mood. “You seem really, really sad. When you find the words for it, share it with me. I’d love to be there with you. I know that at times I feel sad too, and sometimes it’s hard for me to speak up.” He may feel like it’s a burden to you. What is the dynamics between you and your son where you notice he pulls back? Is he afraid of you at times?
Tom: Probably. He could be afraid. That wouldn’t be a wrong assumption.
Dr. Kenner: Do you sometimes lose it with him?
Tom: I’m not a very good communicator. I do tend to raise my voice probably more often than I should.
Dr. Kenner: So he may be afraid that if he shares his inner most life with you, that you’ll come down hard on him. Where did you learn that from?
Tom: My father.
Dr. Kenner: Isn’t that interesting? History repeating itself again. In order for us to get out of those tangles, we have to do thinking work. Otherwise we’re just on autopilot and what’s in our subconscious is what we grew up with. So if you want to move away from your dad, those books – when I say those books, it’s not just one book. That one book is the one I would begin with. My daughter even read it at about the same age that your son is, I don’t know if he’s a good reader, and she would correct me in my parenting errors. So my daughter helped bring me up. I’d say, “You’re right. I’m messing up right now. Give me some time. I’m learning new skills.” So you can help your son see that you’re a work in progress too and work together to make the experience raising him and his years much brighter for him moving forward, even with the losses in his life. Listen, thank you so much for your call Tom.
Tom: Thank you.
Male 1: It’s kind of sensitive.
Male 2: Listen, Phil, as a psychiatrist, anything you tell me will be kept in the strictest confidence.
Male 1: It’s funny how the more you bottle things up inside, the bigger they seem to be. I’ve never told anybody this before, but okay here it goes. Six years ago, I was abducted by aliens. You were right. Now that I’ve said it out loud, it doesn’t seem like that big a deal.
Dr. Kenner: And that’s from Frasier. I’m Dr. Ellen Kenner. What would you do if you were a therapist in that moment and somebody tells you that they’ve been abducted by aliens? What are you going to tell them? They’re crazy? That’s impossible? Well, in a way, yes. That’s what you need to tell them. But you can’t tell them that directly. You have to help them see firsthand. So you do that by asking some questions such as, “Tell me what happened,” and you get the whole story, and, “When did the aliens abduct you? What time of day?” You get the whole story as if you believe them, but you don’t. Then you ask them, “Now, what would be another explanation for what went on?” And you help them see that from a much more rational perspective – I mean, the other one isn’t rational – from a rational perspective, they may have been daydreaming or something else might have happened. But you help them connect with reality, not detach from it. That’s the goal of therapy. It’s to help you connect with reality. Set goals for your life that you’ll love. Deal with some bumps in the road. Some of them are boulders, not just bumps in the road. In a way that serves you well long-range, that makes you feel good about your own life.