I can’t stress this enough! Abandonment and broken attachments are all too often, the themes of my clients play. Even if they aren’t, let’s not make it a first for your child in the case of their relationship with me. Healthy closure is so important!!!
Endings are hard for everyone. Think back to the first time you were unexpectedly dumped…..does it bring up some unpleasant feelings? Just a few, you say? Some of which might include: the sting of rejection, the confusion of: what’s wrong with me? and why aren’t I good enough? and after those initial ones are starting to fade; the shock of not expecting it and the sadness of loosing someone you cared about, might linger on a bit longer. They say it takes about half the amount of time you were in the relationship, to get over the relationship (I’m pretty sure that was from Sex and the City but it feels true enough)
So, knowing this. Can we expect the same feelings from the endings of non-romantic relationships in our lives? They don’t often end in such an abrupt way but if they did, I think we can; and we can expect that our children will also experience confusion, loss and rejection if not prepared that a trusted relationship is about to come to an end.
I once worked with a 10 year old boy and I cringe at the thought of him, not of him but of how our therapeutic relationship was ended. Callum was referred to me due to getting in many physical fights at school and not being able to control his temper. His life so far was rather heartbreaking to learn about. His parents were very young and his mother struggled with addiction and left the family sometime during the first year of his life. Callum was mostly raised by his paternal grandparents until his father met his new wife and they had a child. Callum was brought into his father and step-mother’s home that now contained a young baby brother. When we started working together, Callum’s brother was about a year and a half.
I have a very strong visual of this child in my mind. He did not want to be seen or if he did he wanted to be seen as a ‘tough’ kid. He had a black hoody on with the hood almost covering his eyes and the front zipped up past his mouth. He shuffled into my office and slumped in a chair. I sat down and proceeded to point to all the various toys and activities in the room. After, I had given him the tour he looked at me and said in an annoyed tone, ‘well aren’t you supposed to counsel me or something?’ So I asked him some questions about his school, friends and family and he was gruff but very articulate. He could point out the problems he was having but didn’t seem to have any emotional connection to them.
So we worked backwards and by about the third session, we had built up enough trust for him to try some expressive activities. We did things like making different colored circles to place on the floor like a roadmap for his angry outbursts. He would describe the outburst from the previous day and step onto the yellow, orange, red or black circle of the corresponding feeling. He drew many pictures and made pipe cleaner models of the ‘alien’ in his head that told him to hit when he lost his temper.
He took to this very quickly and we were doing play based and creative work for the majority of the sessions. He was often a little hesitant stepping outside of his comfort zone but always agreed to try everything I suggested and then began making suggestions himself! He had a lot of success getting lost in his imagination with the sand try, and the change in his personality and demeanor was like night and day. He now looked like a regular, happy kid. Playful, intelligent and kind. With a self-awareness that was well beyond his years.
After about 15 sessions, I asked Callum if he would be willing to have his step-mother join us. The organization where I worked had a limit of twelve sessions per family member with some wiggle room for extensions. We had already received two extensions and Callum knew the only way to continue was to agree to have joint sessions. He expressed a lot of hatred for his step-mother and brother although he obviously loved them in his own way. I was very surprised that he agreed to my suggestion without argument and realized just how much our weekly sessions meant to him and how much trust he had in me. I must admit, I was reeling with the success of our time together and very excited to see what the dynamic of the family sessions would bring. So I was taken completely off guard when I checked my messages one morning and listened as his dad stated that Callum’s school suspected a disability and they would be going in another direction for treatment. So matter of fact and no word of an ending session…
I left several messages asking for a follow up conversation, stressing the importance of a closing session and a chance to acknowledge all of Callum’s hard work, without trying to sound too emotionally attached which was proving to be quite difficult considering how devastated I was to have lost my prodigy client in such an undignified manner. Nothing, I couldn’t justify a fourth message as the father was most likely avoiding my calls at this point. As I said at the beginning of this story, I cringe when I think of this outcome. I try not replay it over and over and I try not to think of the damaging effect that not being allowed to say goodbye and ‘oh by the way, there is something wrong with you….’ most likely had on this vulnerable young man.
I never want this to happen again and I am now so invested in a healthy ending to your child’s therapeutic relationship with me, that I pay for half of it and I ask you to pay the other half before we even start. This way, it’s never a financial reason for no last session, because it’s already been paid for.
I like to give at least three sessions of notice to my child clients that we won’t be playing together anymore; sometimes we even see a regression in behavior as the child processes this information. Modelling healthy closure is all part of the service and my hope is that by the last session, your child is in the acceptance stage and happy to enjoy the celebration party that we have to honor the amazing changes and all the hard work they have put in during their time in therapy. I want to see before me, a confident, transformed individual that feels ready and excited for what life has to offer them next!
Thanks for reading and I hope this was helpful!
Vicky Wallace, Play and Expressive Arts Therapist