Seven-year-old “Adam” (not his real name) concentrates on the project in front of him. He is coloring on a piece of paper on the floor in my therapy room, and I am sitting close beside him. Crayons litter the floor, and I can see him thinking carefully as he selects each color. He leans back against my arm like a baby bird snuggling beneath its mother’s wing. This simple behavior says, “I trust you,” and it is a very good sign.
As he bends forward to color, he exposes his neck beneath the curls of his hair. I can see the fading remnants of bruises in the shape of fingers. Similar bruises are visible on the exposed skin of his arms. I know there are still more bruises in places I can’t see. I also know that he would never lean back against his stepfather like he is doing with me. It wouldn’t be safe for him. The touches he has received at home have not been gentle ones.
Adam’s world is very small. He lives in a small trailer and attends a small elementary school. He doesn’t play sports, take piano lessons or engage in any other activities outside of his home. He has never had a party or been to a sleepover at a friend’s house. Chances are good that he never will.
Adam’s world is small, but it is also very crowded. Siblings, stepsiblings, mother, father, stepparents, teachers, social workers, counselors, doctors, lawyers, judges — these are the people who inhabit Adam’s world.
Adam looks forward to coming to see me each week. When his world and mine overlap, it is just the two of us. We play in the sandbox, draw pictures or play with puppets. I learn a lot about his world from the way he plays, his choices of toys and the emotion he puts into the activities of our sessions together. Sometimes he talks of yelling and hitting. Other times he tells stories of policemen and social services workers. Still other times, he just plays quietly.
There is little I can do to make Adam’s home life easier. The law has done little to protect him and, as well-intentioned as they have been, social agencies have in many ways made his life harder. He is a powerless child at the mercy of a world of adults who like to think they care. But in reality, they care more about their own interests and personal agendas than they do about children like Adam.
To most of the people in his life, Adam is just the troubled kid whom nobody would miss if he disappeared. He is a child who makes teaching harder. He is the disruptive child whom parents don’t want their kids playing with. They can’t understand him, and many of them don’t even try. Even his caseworker is too busy and too jaded to connect emotionally with Adam. I can only help him develop skills to cope in his crowded and noisy world. It breaks my heart, but I’ve seen it many times.
In some ways, Adam is an enigma to me. He giggles as he tells me about something funny his sister did at home. How does he find happiness in this life he lives?
It always surprises me how the things of the world that otherwise would be important to me seem to fade in their significance when I am working with a child such as Adam. No matter what is happening in my life, when I close my office door and I have this quiet hour with a client, I don’t think about politics, war, terrorism, money or even my family. I concentrate fully on Adam. I am his for one hour. He knows he is safe with me and that I will always honor and respect him, his thoughts and his dreams. He knows I will not betray his secrets or laugh at his fears.
When our time is up, Adam rises to leave. He doesn’t look back as he exits my office. One way he copes is by living from moment to moment, investing only in that moment — no future and no past.
People often wonder how I work with children such as Adam. “How can you sleep at night?” they ask, shaking their heads.
I can sleep because I know that even if it is only for one hour, I can make a child’s world a little more tolerable. I know I am helping create a better world for children like Adam because for one hour, they can know they are safe and secure and that I really do care about them. I have no hidden agenda.
I can sleep because working with children like Adam helps me to put life in perspective. It makes me a better father and a better human being. This is my calling, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. This is why I became a counselor.
Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu.
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.