Shortly after I finished graduate school, a friend of mine shared with me a book called Indirect Hypnosis, written by Milton Erickson, a most unorthodox psychiatrist if ever there was one. "Indirect" meant that Erickson didn't use swinging watches or a soothing monotone voice to encourage his subject to go into a trance. In fact, Erickson rarely put anyone in a trance.
Instead—and this is admittedly simplifying his methods—he simply suggested things to people while they were fully conscious. A lot of his work was done with children, and one of the things Erickson pointed out was that up to age nine or ten, children are very impressionable and therefore suggestible. That quality can be exploited by people with evil purposes, but it can also be used to help children get over certain "humps" in their lives.
Based on Erickson's work, I developed an approach to behavior problems with children that capitalizes on their suggestibility. I call it "The Doctor," and—this may sound self-promoting, but it's the truth—I've never had a parent tell me it failed. The Doctor is based on three unarguable facts:
- No matter how stubbornly a child misbehaves, a behavior problem is a burden to a child. He would rather get rid of the problem and behave properly. He just doesn't know how. He's a child, after all.
- A child with a behavior problem doesn't know how the problem started and can't explain why he has it. In other words, the child is as much "in the dark" about the problem as are his parents.
- A child is more inclined to accept the authority of a third party (e.g., a doctor) than he is the authority of his parents, and this is especially true of a child who has acquired or developed a behavior problem or problems.
Consistent with Erickson's findings, the Doctor does his best work with children below age ten. I've called him in on a broad range of problems, ranging from belligerent defiance to various fears. Here are several true stories from the Doctor's files:
The Doctor Cures Suppertime Anorexia!
Lucy refused to eat what her parents put on her plate at suppertime. The problem started when she was a toddler and became steadily worse. Every family supper turned into a drama, if not an out-and-out battle, as her parents tried to get Lucy to eat and she steadfastly refused. Her parents' feelings vacillated between anger, guilt, and worry. When they were angry, they insist that she eat what everyone else is eating. When they felt guilty and anxious, they would fix a special meal for her and serve it with great obsequiousness.
Enter the Doctor! Lucy's parents sat her down one afternoon, after school, and told her that they had spoken to "the Doctor" about her refusal to eat what was put in front of her at suppertime. With very serious expressions on their faces, they said something along these lines: "The Doctor told us that when children your age won't eat their supper, it's because they're overtired. It's because they haven't been getting enough sleep. Not getting enough sleep, the Doctor said, causes children to have bad reactions to food. So, the Doctor says that when you refuse to eat or act like the food we have served you is bad, we have to put you to bed right away. More sleep will solve the problem. And honey, we're so sorry. We thought you were just being difficult about food. Now we know we just haven't been making sure you get enough sleep."
This is an explanation, however fictitious and ultimately absurd, that even a six-year-old can understand. Besides, a doctor said so! By age two, a child has figured out that that guy in the white coat called "the doctor" has almost magical authority. When he says, "Do this," people do it. By invoking the Doctor's authority, the power struggle that's developed over the problem—whatever it might be—between the parents and the child is effectively defused, nullified.
Engaging the Doctor in a power struggle is impossible, if not unthinkable, because he is not real. And by the way, since inventing the Doctor was clearly in Lucy's best interest, this does not qualify as a lie. This was helpful, not hurtful. It was no more of a "lie" than telling a child that the Tooth Fairy came in the middle of the night. In Lucy's case, the explanation provided by the Doctor provided her with the means of gradually moving past this little glitch in her life. She really didn't want to be such a problem at the dinner table; she just didn't know how to stop. Add in the consequence of going to bed early and you have a little girl who finally had a plausible explanation of why she reacts negatively to food and finally found the motivation to do all she could to bring her "suppertime anorexia" under control as quickly as possible. And she did. In no time, Lucy was eating whatever her parents put on her plate at suppertime. Even broccoli.
From SAD to Glad in Two Days!
I was speaking at a church in Durham, North Carolina, one cold wintry evening. During a break in my seminar, a mother approached me and thanked me for referring her to the Doctor. Seems her five-year-old son, Frankie, had suffered since age two from a raging (literally) case of what mental health professionals call "separation anxiety."
Every time Mom took Frankie to his preschool program or left him with a sitter, Frankie had a major meltdown. I emphasize major. He would scream, cling, become hysterical, and generally act certifiable. Otherwise, mind you, Frankie was a normal kid in all respects. Oh, I should tell you: Frankie hates to take naps. I mean hates.
Shortly before his fifth birthday, Frankie's mom read a column of mine in which I described one of the Doctor's miracle cures. She decided to ask him to make a house call.
The afternoon following one of Frankie's certifiable meltdowns over being taken to his preschool program, his mom sat him down and told him that she'd talked to his doctor about his little problem. The Doctor, she said, was concerned and told her that Frankie is throwing "don't leave me!" fits because he's not getting enough sleep.
"So," she said to Frankie, "on those days when you have a fit because I leave you at your program, you have to take a nap. Your doctor says so. He also says you have to take a nap the next day if you have a fit over being left with a sitter at night. And Frankie, since you had a fit this morning, you have to take a nap this afternoon, right now."
She promptly took Frankie to his room and put him to bed. After about forty-five minutes of howling, screaming, crying, and pleading, he fell asleep. The next day, when his mom took him to his preschool program, he got out of the car and walked right in, with nary a backward glance. And Frankie hasn't had a problem with separation since.
It's fair to say that if Frankie's mom had sought help from a mental health professional, there is considerable likelihood that Frankie would have been diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder (SAD). Said professional might well have taken Frankie into talk or play therapy in order to help him work through the supposed "issues" that were causing the problem. It's anyone's guess as to how much time and money this process might have taken (not to mention the cost of continuing consultations with Frankie's parents). Furthermore, the therapy might not have resulted in progress (in fact, the problem might have grown worse in the meantime) in which case perhaps said therapist might have given Frankie yet another diagnosis and scheduled yet more treatment.
Frankie's story simply proves that there are times when common sense trumps graduate school.
I should mention that whereas the Doctor usually ties the problem, whatever it is, into a lack of sleep, that he has also prescribed no television or video games (sometimes in combination with early bedtime) as cures for various behavior problems. The key to the success of one of the Doctor's prescriptions is that the child would rather have the "therapeutic" privilege or privileges than the behavior problem.
Copyright 2014, John K. Rosemond