Ahhh - one of the good days. I'm constantly amazed at the different families that I get to work with - I love seeing them change, grow, and adapt in healthy ways. I also love feeling like I actually helped someone. Even better when I get to help a whole family. Two weeks ago I got to have one of those days.
Evan is a 5 year old boy that I have been seeing for about 4 months. He came in because his parents were concerned that he may have OCD. He has an extremely hard time with transitions, likes "everything in its place", has lots of rules about how things should be, and completely falls apart when he can control these things. Well, I didn't diagnose Evan with OCD- I diagnosed him with generalized anxiety disorder. I see him weekly with both of his parents. This is unusual enough in my experience - getting a Dad into a therapy appointment? Almost unheard of around here.
Even more interesting is that(Mom)Connie and(Dad)Ken have been seperated for about a year and are in the process of filing for divorce. No, the seperated parents isn't the unusual part sadly. What's unusual is that they both show up, every week, for their child's therapy appointment, and I've never once heard them argue. They are polite to each other. We discuss delicate topics like parenting styles, tolerence levels, daily routines, and visitation schedules - all without disagreement, finger pointing, or defensiveness. They are both solely focused on doing the best for Evan that they can. Sorry if this sounds jaded - but I rarely get to experience such a thing.
Well, a couple of weeks ago it became obvious that both parents were 'tip-toeing' around some issues because they didn't want to be negative in front of Evan. So, I offered for them to be able to come in without him. I was a little nervous about this session. I was convinced they were going to break my rose-colored glasses. But they didn't though - they continued to be respectful albeit more honest about some of the challenges they've faced in their co-parenting. One topic was brought to the forefront which was obviously causing problems for both of them. Here's the story - I'll try to keep it simple.
-Before Connie and Ken were married, Ken was married to another woman named Jen. Jen had an infant son, Jake, from another relationship. Jake's father wasn't involved with him at all - so Ken legally adopted Jake. Ken and Jen divorced, Jake's biodad resurfaced. Jake was still very young, so Ken stepped out of the picture, figuring that it would be less confusing for Jake to only have 1 dad.
-Then Ken married Connie - they have 2 children, Evan and his younger sister Izzie. They were together for 7 years before they separated.
-Ken gets back together with Jen. Jake's biodad has long since exited the picture. So, Ken reassumes the role as Jake's dad (which is also still is legally). However, in an effort not to confuse Evan and Izzie, they haven't told them that Jake is Ken's son.
-This is now causing problems for Jake. Ken wants to tell Evan and Izzie the truth. Connie, and Ken to some degree, are concerned that is this going to be so confusing and upsetting for Evan and Izzie. They don't want Evan and Izzie to feel displaced or that Ken isn't going to be their dad anymore. And they don't know how to explain the whole "adopted/biological" issue to them either. Plus, Ken is being very protective of Jake and doesn't want him to feel like he is any less his son. Ken is committed to Jake no matter what happens with Jen this time.
I could see how this was overwhelming for them - I mean, I could barely keep up! But, in all honesty, I didn't really think that Evan and Izzie were going to have a big problem with it all. They are securely attached to both their parents. Jake lives with Ken and Jen - and Evan and Izzie visit every weekend - so they know each other well. Kids' ideas of family are pretty fluid at this age. But figuring out how to talk to kids about sensitive issues like this feels very tricky to parents who have their own emotional baggaged tangled up in it too. So, we discussed some possibilities about how to approach it with all the kids. But Ken and Connie just couldn't get completely on the same page about it. So, finally we decided that they would come in with all the kids, and that I would help facilitate the discussion.
A week later, in they come with all three kids. I thought Ken and Connie were both going to fall apart - they were so nervous! We started by playing a game - I'd hoped to avoid making this a "formal sit down" type of talk. But they kids were pretty riled up and just couldn't focus on the game and the 'casual' questions I was trying to use to get the conversation started. So, we ended up just waiting for the game to finish.
After cleaning up, I asked Evan and Izzie to each sit in a parents' lap. Mostly so they'd sit still, also for some reassurance if needed. Ken also patted the floor next to him and told Jake to come sit with him. I started out by asking each child to tell me who was in their family. They all named their parents, grandparents and various cousins and pets. Then we talked a little bit about parents and what makes people parents - they care for kids, make sure they have things like food, beds, and toys, and they love them. (Broad generalization) Then we brought up the concept of adoption. I explained how some kids only have 2 parents - their mommy and their daddy. Other kids have more parents - like when parents seperate like theirs. And then we talked about how sometimes kids are adopted and they have a new parent.
I didn't want to get anymore specific - they're only 10, 5, and 4. So, then I explained that Jake has a Dad that he was born to, but he doesn't see that dad anymore. So, their dad, Ken, decided that he would be Jake's dad. We made sure to reassure them that this didn't mean that Ken wasn't their dad anymore. It meant they had another sibling. Evan had a question - "Is Jake going to come live with us at Mom's house?". We explained that Jake's mom was still Jen - that wasn't changing. Jake asked if this meant he could call Ken "Dad" all the time now. (He hadn't during the little kids' visits) We told him that was fine. Then Izzie asked a question, "Can we play another game now?" Conversation over. :)
We played another quick game, and Ken and Connie and I had a small discussion about what to do in the event of more questions coming up. (Keep the answers short, simple, and don't over-react) All five of them left cheerfully.
Its really nice to see a family with such strengths in the midst of the tragedies that sometimes threaten to overwhelm me.