the little battlefields…
A good friend of mine who is a Marriage and Family counselor in California once told me that we can never underestimate the impacts made by negative experiences on the playgrounds, the classrooms, and in the backyards. She opined that it’s the little battlefields in childhood that can leave some of the worst scars. The context of our conversation was in relation to a concern for my own children, but the content of the message proves valuable over and over again.
About eight weeks ago, a beautiful 7 year old girl came into our office to begin Vision Therapy. Shy and reserved at first, she slowly has come out of her shell and engages a bit more with every visit. Her diagnosis seems rather straightforward, Convergence Insufficiency and Accommodative Infacility, and her visual progress has been slow and steady in therapy. Even now, 8 weeks in, her mom has noted her academics showing signs of life and her interest in reading seems to be improving. Mechanically, her vision is destined to be a great success story. Along with visual mechanics we work visual perception, or understanding what we see, as most VT offices do. This requires asking a lot of open ended questions, and at times, can lead to the opening of the proverbial can of worms. Such was the case with T.
In completing a parquetry activity, there were three answers that caught my attention:
Robert Asks – T, it seems like the red square makes you upset. Is something wrong?
T Answers – The red block reminds me of meat, and I love animals, so I don’t eat meat. My mom and dad eat meat, but I decided to only eat salad and vegetables.
Robert Asks – T, I like the way you attempted that. Can you tell me what you liked about how your shapes look?
T Answers – Mine is horrible. Mistakes are for stupid people! (Tears flowing)
Robert Asks – It’s really ok to make mistakes because that is how we learn. Just like when I drive somewhere new and get lost, that is a mistake, but it teaches me which way not to turn the next time. Does that make sense?
T Answers – That’s different. No one is watching you telling you that you are not as good as the rest of the drivers! (More tears)
My mind was spinning. What in the world is this girl going through at school? We changed gears to one of T’s favorite activities to try to lighten the mood and finish on a positive note. She cheered up and her session ended. Since I had a break after seeing T, I asked her mom to come back to chat with me. I shared my concerns about T’s comments; some obvious red flags for a 7 year old child. My initial comment was:
“It’s not uncommon for kids to feel they are stupid when they come here, but it seems like someone is tormenting her with this ‘you’re stupid’ idea. Can you help me understand?”
Mom started crying.
Her mom shared that T’s first grade teacher was very strict and quite unforgiving. Through her body language she would “acknowledge the successful kids, and ignore the struggling kids”. Mom explained that the teacher let the struggling kids know, in no uncertain terms, that she did not have time for the kids that struggled. Apparently, even suggesting at one point that some kids in her class “should have stayed in Kindergarten.”
“My daughter was crushed. It makes me so sad because I didn’t find out any of this was going on until a week before school ended. T refused to get out of bed, refused to go to school, and refused to tell me what was going on. Her teacher had scared her so badly, all T could do was hide within herself.”
Once T’s mom composed herself she shared that the teacher in question has been fired and is no longer in education, and T has been in Psychological Counselling since last October. She is very hard on herself, has a pervasive sense of unworthiness, does not eat much, and still somewhat believes that her first grade teacher was correct in her assessment of T’s abilities.
The road is getting easier, and although T has bad days, her sense of self defeat and “not being good enough” is slowly dissipating. T’s mom thanked me for caring and remaining positive with T because “she needs all the support she can get”. I gave mom a hug, thanked her for sharing, and wished them well.
As T has shown me, the impact of what we say and how we say it reaches far beyond the time we spend with our patients. Vision Therapy offers all of us an opportunity to make a positive impact in the lives of so many children, and that is an opportunity that should never be taken for granted or underestimated.
We need to be on our game. Always.