One of the guiding principles of social work is to meet the client “where they are.” For example, when I worked with a child who was into music and the arts, I didn’t suggest parents enroll the child in a summer basketball camp. For the child who comes into my office with a somber face, I do not greet them with a chipper pat on the back “it’s great to see you.” This all seems like common sense, but sometimes ignoring a child’s lead can be detrimental. Recognizing and embracing where the child is at socially, educationally, likes, dislikes, mood at the moment, strengths, and interests helps your child feel understood and valued, which is key to having a strong attachment with them. This greatly benefits their mental health and behavior.
As parents, we often offload our own values, preferences, and traumas on our children and fail to meet their needs and interest first. Still, knowing how much to push and how much to step back is a hard. Do we be “tiger moms,” teaching grit and perseverance or do you listen to the child when they say they want to step back or quit something. Do you enroll in them in math enrichment classes to give them a step head or let them learn with the rest?
A classic example was the father who wanted to become a professional jazz musician but never made it for a variety of reasons. The father introduced music to his son who excelled. The child ended up having great talent but not the desire the father had, but the father insisted. Eventually, the child gave up music all together, creating distance in their relationship and the son most likely experienced feelings of shame and guilt.
I was pushed into piano lessons and competitions from the age 5-10. I learned discipline and hard work, practicing nightly with my mom and a piano teacher weekly. This may have helped my development, but it certainly was not my interest. I liked the praises when I played songs and my mom’s approval, though I also remember entering competitions and never winning. I remember getting an award for “hardest working” student. What effect did this level of competition and scrutiny have on me at such an early age? Finally at age 10, I mustered up the courage after months of deliberation and feelings of guilt to quit.
Later in life, my parents exactly met me where I was when they tapped into my interest in Spanish and travel. At 17, they found a program in Costa Rica where I studied, traveled, and lived with a family for a summer. I had a great time, and the trip greatly influenced the trajectory of my life for the positive.
In another instance, one of my clients hides from her mom when she has depressive symptoms. Their relationship has improved greatly during therapy, with mom realizing her daughter will not flat out tell her when she is not well. Mom now meets her daughter where she is at by being more observant of her body language and behavior and asking about her mood when red flags (e.g. staying in her room a lot, sleeping too much) arise. When mom expresses her concern non-judgmentally, the daughter speaks candidly.
I work with a fourteen old who wanted a Nintendo Switch, but his parents could not afford it. His mom always encouraged him to work, herself a hard-working immigrant service worker. Here his mom tapped into his interest in getting a console and having his own money. We helped him enroll in a summer job program where he is excelling and learning a lot of life skills. He is also ready to get his first paycheck and spend it on the Switch.
Another memory that sticks happened several years back seeing what I thought was a toddler boy playing with my son at a playground. Biologically, the child was a girl, the father said, but liked dressing as a boy, having a boy’s haircut, and playing with boys. The father explained to me how they were following his daughter’s lead. I thought how much of a relief this must have been for his daughter who can be who she really is.