Peter Mortola, PhD, was recently granted full professorship at Lewis and Clark College in Portland OR where he lives with his wife Liz and their young sons, Noah & Riley. He is a founding member of VSOF and the author of Windowframes (a book about how Dr. Oaklander trains therapists to work with children, available from our VSOF online store) and co-author of Bam! (a book about boys’ difficulties).
Moscow Workshop, June 3-5, 2011 Sue Ellen Talley, M.A., LMFT
I met Dr. Natalia Kirilina while I was sitting at the VSOF booth during the Evolution of Psychotherapy Conference in December 2009. After we spoke for a few minutes, she invited me to teach a workshop in Moscow at her psychoanalytic clinic that treats children and their families. I told her I would be happy to, thinking that it would never actually happen. Who goes to Moscow to teach a workshop? Having grown up in the cold war era, Moscow seemed to me like a scary place to visit. I didn’t realize at the time that Violet had actually volunteered me, after she had spoken at length in the booth with Natalia, who had unsuccessfully tried to convince Violet to come to Russia. (Violet told her she was retired, but that I would love to go!)
Originally, I planned to visit Moscow in November, 2010, with my son, Blake, but the visa process did not go as expected, and we did not get our visas in time. It was very disappointing for both of us, but my other son’s (Sam) wedding became the focus for the rest of the year, and Moscow receded into the background.
In early 2011, Natalia and I began to make plans again to go forward with the workshop, and scheduled it for early June, 2011. Blake was not able to come with me at that time because of school and work conflicts, so I traveled by myself on Aeroflot Airlines to Moscow. With the visa in hand, I left on Monday, May 30, and arrived on Tuesday, May 31. Natalia picked me up at Sherementovo airport which was brand new and beautiful. The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane was that it was really hot and the air looked pretty smoggy. During the week I was in Moscow, the daily temperature was always around 85 degrees. Fortunately my hotel had good air conditioning. Before the workshop began on Friday, I went on two tours that I had booked before leaving for Russia. My tour guide was wonderful, and the driver was amazing; the traffic in Moscow is hard to describe other than it’s really “every man for himself”! I knew about the concept of double parking, but in Moscow, people were triple and quadruple parking and no one did anything about it, other than leaving a note where to reach them if you happened to get stuck on the inside. Moscow is a very beautiful and interesting city with amazing churches from the 12th century, buildings built by Stalin and more modern architecture. I saw the original “MacDonald’s Restaurant” built in 1992, where people waited in line for four hours to have a “Big Mac” when it first opened. I had a latte at a Starbucks. I walked around the Kremlin and the GUM department store, and went on a tour of the most beautiful metro stops I have ever seen with amazing bronze statues, marble floors and ceilings, stained glass and chandeliers. Everyone I encountered was very polite and helpful, and many people had a sardonic sense of humor. One night, Natalia took me to the opera to see a very traditional Russian performance.
The workshop was wonderful; people came from all over Russia, including Siberia and Belarus. The participants were psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, therapists and interns. In all, thirty-eight participants met with me for three days, seven hours a day. Everyone was gracious, engaged with the process, and very supportive. My translator sat right next to me for the three days and the experience was very fluid and easy. I learned that she had also been a legal secretary at the Moscow office of my son’s law firm, Latham & Watkins, which is based in Los Angeles.
We covered many of the topics in Violet’s summer training such as the therapeutic relationship and contact, aggressive energy, the use of projection and Violet’s theoretical model. The group participated in many experiential activities including various drawings, sandtray, musical instruments, using clay and the medicine cards. There was much discussion and feedback. The three days of the workshop went too fast, and I felt sad to leave everyone. The next day, Natalia took me on a tour of a clinic that works with at risk children and their local schools. It looked like many of the agencies I have seen in Los Angeles that deal with similar populations. My flight on Aeroflot back to Los Angeles was uneventful, and it took about a week to get over the jet lag (didn’t have any problems going there).
I have been invited back to work with Natalia and her colleagues, and will be in Moscow again in June 2012. I look forward to seeing her, working with such interesting and enthusiastic therapists, and exploring more of the beautiful city.
Musings on Training Courses with Violet Oaklander, PhD By Lillian Freeman, LCSW
This quarter as I teach at Antioch University Los Angeles, I think of Violet and the training I had with her. I am teaching “The Treatment of Children and Adolescents”. As I am planning my lessons for these Master of Arts students who will become future therapists, I think back to the days in Hermosa Beach where I spent two weeks training with Violet. Later I followed Violet to Santa Barbara for advanced training and supervision.
My work as a child psychotherapist and as a college professor teaching and training new therapists has been deeply influenced by Violet. In the first class with the students we are discussing contact and how to make contact with a child or adolescent. We are also going to discuss how to assess the client’s ability to make contact with the therapist. I will be showing a portion of one of the videos Violet created and using that as a point of discussion on how to begin therapy with children and adolescents. Violet emphasized the ability to make contact with the client and to observe the client’s ability to make contact in both of her books.
The video I am showing is also an illustration of that. By the time children have come to therapy with their myriad of different issues they often have lost the ability to make direct contact and sustain that in a relationship. Their parents, because of stress, trauma, or frustration, have also lost that ability in varying degrees. Reuniting children with their parents and the ability to connect and make contact is one of my central goals, in the therapeutic process.
The students will be writing book reports. They have a choice of books to read, but I usually emphasize reading either Windows to Our Children or Hidden Treasures. Most often those who plan to become child psychotherapists choose one of these for their report. Violet and her approach is very active and alive in
my classes. Sometimes I feel Violet is standing there next to me speaking as I introduce her books, concepts, and videos.
This is especially true as the course progresses. I feel Violet’s presence as I talk about interviewing the child and assessing where they are and introduce the three essential drawings I have children do: The Family, One’s Self, and the House-Tree-Person. I have the students do an experiential session where they draw all three drawings, share them with a partner and then later share with the entire class.
For most students, it is the first time they have used crayons, markers, or colored pencils in a very long time. They are usually apprehensive and self-critical. Often they feel embarrassed. It opens a discussion regarding their comfort and its relationship to psychotherapy. It also helps them understand the experience children have in treatment, as well as the experience of parents who join them for sessions.
My recent students were very moved by the impact of these drawings and the myriad of ways they might use drawing as a psychotherapist with clients. Several students felt a very deep shift in themselves as they drew and explored these drawings. By simply drawing the three previously mentioned examples and sharing them with a colleague, they felt a new connection to their inner child and their early family experiences.
The students took their personal work even deeper as we did a section on puppets. Puppets are a powerful means of expression and creation. Whether a client uses puppets in the office or makes their own they create, integrate, and restore balance in their lives through the telling of a story or the enactment of their own life.
In class we broke up into small groups and each person made a family of puppets using popsicle sticks. They delved thoroughly into the experience and their creations were wonderful and highly individual. In our next meeting they did a puppet show for one another in their small groups. Afterwards they processed their understandings, deepening’s, and the use of puppets with clients. This section became a highlight for the class. Not only did they enjoy creating, but they also gained much insight about their own personal lives. The whole class further processed what had gone on in the groups and their integration of the use of puppets. The students were exhilarated after this section and so was I. I have included a sample of the puppets.
In the final portion of the class we are will discuss adolescents and how to work with them. I like to do active imagination early in my treatment of adolescents. I will guide my students through the “Safe space” guided imagery that I learned from my training with Violet. Most of my students have never experienced guided imagery. By leading one I hope to give them an internal and vocal experience of such a journey. Afterwards I will have them translate their inner imagery to drawing with crayons, markers, or oil pastels. We will then go on to discuss the power, use, containment, and safety that this technique provides. They will be sharing their drawings with one another in small groups as well as the whole class.
Teenagers who have experienced multiple traumas or crises in their lives have greatly benefitted from this experience of guided imagery. Foster children have also found this technique useful for healing, relaxation, and sense of well-being. I have often encouraged my clients to take these “Safe space” drawings home
and to continue to look at them for furthering their experiences or for journal writing later at home.
Violet touches the lives and training of endless numbers of future psychotherapists through the wonderful work she handed down to me and countless others. After teaching such a course I feel like I have once again walked with Violet and the gift she has given me and it is now being passed on to yet another group of newly trained therapists. The Violet Oaklander Method of Psychotherapy will continue to be touching the lives of endless numbers of children and adolescents through her books, tapes, videos and trainers like myself.
Question: How do you ground children after they have been having a really good time, or perhaps a particularly emotional time?
This is very important. I feel that children must make closure since have they to go out and be in the world after a session. Here are several methods that have worked for me: Ask
specific, present centered questions, such as
“What do you hope you’ll have for dinner?”
“Are those new sneakers?
“Where are you going from here?
Or I might suggest that we both take some deep breaths.
Or I might say, “Wow! Look at the way the leaves are moving. It must be windy.”
“Oh, wait. Before you go I want to show you this new sand tray figure I got.”
Generally bring the child back to the present moment, using as many senses as possible.
Question: What is your position on cleaning up after a session?
For me cleaning up is part of the session. I try to leave time for this. Children help me clean up unless we are totally out of time. Cleaning up is one of the ways I help children make closure after a session. This does not mean that the work we have been doing is resolved. I trust that it will emerge again, perhaps in a different way, in a subsequent session.
Example: a 14 year-old girl discovered a toy cash register on the shelf. She decided that we should play store and set up various toys and items from my office on our art table. She made little notes of prices for each. I was instructed to be various customers. I did so, enjoying the opportunity to play different kinds of characters. (I must say this was a lot of fun for both of us.) As we cleaned up she said, “Don’t tell anybody we did this!” At the next session she wanted to play store again. I could see that her heart wasn’t in it. I said, “I have a feeling that you didn’t have much chance to play when you were a little girl. This opened up many feelings about her childhood. (She had already been in seven foster homes when I saw her.)
Often the clean-up is therapeutic in itself. An 11 year-old boy insisted on washing all the clay tools even though I usually don’t. As I watched him using the basin, pitcher of water, and sponge I realized he may have never had this kind of experience when he was small. Playing with water is an important part of development for young children. He reminded me of my daughter when she was three years old, standing on a stool, singing as she “washed” her toy dishes. I realized then that he was humming!
Some children are resistant to putting things away at first. But since this must be done before they leave, I begin to do this myself while instructing them to put this or that in the basket or on the shelf. They may ignore me at first, but soon they are helping, perhaps not in this session, but in subsequent ones. These children, who never put anything away at home, become my best “cleaner uppers.”
NOTE: We don’t clean up sand tray scenes. I tell the child I need to look at it for awhile, and then I will put the miniatures away myself. Of course, I take a photo of the scene. They appear very grateful not to have to destroy what they have so carefully constructed. (This is totally a projection. I certainly feel that way.)