Other kids read from journals or e-mails at the beginning of every session. And almost every child or adolescent snacks with me. Food rituals have become a staple of my therapy with kids. There's something about sharing a "meal" that seems to calm and soothe. And it can't be just any old food, either; no, they want the exact same goody every single session. Regardless of what's happening in their lives, none veers from a particular choice. Once I asked Lydia, a 13-year-old girl who'd taken a shine to the saltine crackers that came with my take-out soup, why she always wanted the same food--wasn't it boring? "Different is boring," she said, munching away contentedly, "the same is good." In fact, it's the sameness of a ritual that makes it reassuring, and an opening for conversation.
Fifteen-year-old Mary says, "I went to the guidance counselor because there are these kids who keep saying horrible things about me and threatening me. I can't avoid them; they're on the school bus, they're in my class, they're online sending me gross messages. I wanted to know what I should do. So what does the guidance counselor say? She says, 'Tell me what you think you ought to do.' Do you believe that? Why the fuck does she think I asked her in the first place? Is this supposed to be helpful? What is it with you people, anyway?"
Mary's complaint is well-founded. Unfortunately, counselors and parents are often terrified of offering advice to kids and giving good reasons for not engaging in bad activities. But there's never been a time when kids needed more unapologetic adult direction. The fear factor is everywhere. Whether it's elementary-school ostracism or middle-school taunting or high-school revenge, binge drinking, drug use and shoplifting, or Internet threats for anyone old enough to sign on, kids face scary issues every single day.
What in the world is this child to do, and why in the world don't we tell her? Well, many clinicians and parents have long bought into the theory that telling kids what to do will somehow stunt their emotional development. But kids' anxiety is, in part, a reaction to being left virtually on their own. The children of ineffective parents, stymied by a youth culture that often seems to dominate our entire social landscape, need a therapist who isn't afraid to give advice that supplies reasons, creates dialogue, and ultimately strengthens kids' thinking. In fact, behaving like an adult with kids, drawing on adult authority and knowledge, challenging them on their often screwy assumptions, dangerous desires, and unwise choices engages them at a visceral level. They feel they're in touch with a force that's real--authentic, strong, trustworthy, and dependable--utterly unlike the will-o'-the-wisp ethos of their own world. Straightforward advice based on experience relieves anxiety. And most therapists have a lot of solid advice to offer.