VSOF Newsletter – Spring 2008


Thanks to Peter Mortola, Ph.D. for sharing an excerpt from BAM! (published by Routledge and available at www.bamgroups.com)

Peter is Associate Professor of Counseling Psychology for the Graduate School of Education and Counseling at Lewis and Clark College.

Chapter 2
Making Contact

Underlying many of the problems boys face, such as alienation from school, their persona of indifference, low levels of empathy, and difficulties managing social interactions, is the more fundamental problem of their disconnection from their own emotional experience and
the social environment that surrounds them. The Gestalt notion of contact offers a useful model to understand how boys become disconnected and provides a theoretical basis for remedying their disconnection. This chapter defines contact from a Gestalt perspective and describes how this theory influences what we do in BAM! groups. We will discuss the importance of relationship in BAM! groups and how the ability to make good contact is at the heart of establishing therapeutic relationships. We then highlight communication styles that help draw boys into good contact. We conclude this chapter by illustrating how we create an environment of rich contact using strategic storytelling and physical challenges.

Relationship and Contact
From a Gestalt perspective, healthy contact takes place at the boundary where the individual meets the world (Oaklander, 1978; Perls, et al, 1951; Wheeler, 1991). We make good contact with the world using all of the aspects of our organism: our senses, our emotions, and our minds. Good contact is necessary for us to engage with the environment and get our needs met.

For example, when Ramon, a boy in our group, lost a valued pet, he reached out to us emotionally. He made eye contact with us and he spoke eloquently about his loss. He conveyed this loss in a way that allowed us to empathize with him. He used an appropriate tone of voice, a congruent facial expression, and the telling movement of his hands. By using his body, his senses, his emotions, and his thoughts in such a “contactful” way, he strengthened our relationship to him. We felt close to him and we were, therefore, able to respond to him in ways that were helpful to him. Another boy told him how he also cried when his pet bird died. The whole group gave Ramon the time and attention he needed to feel supported, and he left the group feeling a little less alone and a little less sad.

So, as Ramon demonstrated, good contact is the ability to be fully engaged with our world. Good contact with the self, however, is a necessary prerequisite for us to make good contact with the world. Ramon couldn’t ask for understanding about his pet dying if he wasn’t first aware of and in good contact with his feelings of being sad and lonely. Ramon demonstrated contact with himself through his ability to first be aware of his own needs, his own feelings, his own thoughts, and his internal process of grief. Ramon provides an example of what we mean when we say that the boys in our groups need to have good contact with themselves as much as they need to have good contact with us as leaders and with the other boys in the group.

Simply put, we know contact when we see it: contact looks like presence and may reflect a multitude of feelings, it is animated, and it is an honest representation of a person’s inner world. In contrast, the inability to make good contact looks frozen, insensitive, guarded, stoic, and aloof. Not surprisingly, these are the very words we use to describe the stance of traditional masculinity. Contact is knowing who you are inside and bringing that knowing to interact with others. It is showing up fully, being present, allowing others in and letting yourself out. Contact is possible when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.

In contrast to this authenticity, boys often censor aspects of themselves that they fear do not meet social expectations for men. Guarding against hurt and shame, many boys develop a coat of armor to protect themselves. The armor boys wear to defend against what they see as a threatening world separates them from healthy contact with others. Over time this chasm between boys and other people causes an internal splitting for boys as well. In other words, boys may feel something, perceive danger in expressing it, and then repress it. This process
teaches boys to deny their own feelings and results in boys losing contact with themselves, leaving them susceptible to peer pressure and unwise influences.

Further, as boys deny their feelings and experiences, they lose opportunities to practice identifying and expressing them. This loss cuts boys off from their inner experience and access to their emotional world. Unable to navigate their own emotional landscape, boys lose their potential to empathize with others as well as their ability to know what they need and how to care for themselves in healthy ways. For example, if a boy is feeling lonely but cannot identify and “own” that feeling, he may push it away as something only “sissies” feel. Lacking access to his feelings, he cannot muster what is necessary to make real contact with another child on the playground, to ask if he can join a game, or to simply start a conversation.

To address these problems related to contact, BAM! groups offer many opportunities for boys to relearn to make good contact with themselves and their environment. The remainder of this chapter describes the methods we use to draw boys into healthy contact.


The Germany Connection by Felicia Carroll, LMFT
Felicia CarrollI have just returned from a small village in Germany called, Aurach. It is located in the Bavarian region of Germany known to travelers as the “Road of Romance”. Towns and villages dating back to over a thousand years with cobbled roads, empty moats, towered town walls, and restored castles of all sorts attract thousands of tourists each year. This summer marks my seventeenth year of having the best fortune to teach in Europe Gestalt therapy with children as developed by Violet Oaklander. The location of this year’s seminars was at one of these restored country castle estates, “Wahrberg”. The settings are always so beautiful and the teaching is very demanding.

Prior to my taking on this challenging work of training, Violet had already been presenting her work for eleven years at the Institut fur Integrativ Gestalttherapie of Wurzburg (IGW). In 1991 she was not able to meet all of the demands for her to teach, so she recommended me to IGW to take on the responsibilities for the summer seminar on the Oaklander approach. I have been invited back for these past years, and I feel that Wurzburg has become my adopted native city. Then almost five years later, another institute, Symbolon, invited me to teach their basic and advanced seminars in child psychotherapy. I was favored again when a new institute, Koln Institute fur Kindertherapie (KIKT) began their training programs and made the Oaklander approach an integral part of their curriculum. Over the years of teaching for these institutes, I have traveled throughout Germany from Berlin to Munich, as well as to cities in Greece, Italy, and Switzerland. Each year I look forward to catching up with so many people who have become friends. Some of them I now consider part of my extended family.

I began teaching in Germany the year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. And so, I have had the opportunity to observe the many social, political, and physical changes in Germany with Unification. I have heard many stories about life during the Cold War and with the problems of bringing the people of the two Germanys together. The unification of Germany reflected many of the major changes throughout the continent including the European Union and the euro. Today therapists from both regions attend the seminars and there is a more relaxed feeling in working together. One of the major developments these past seventeen years has been the slow progress toward laws that protect children from abuse and the reporting of such abuse. I believe that in some small way, the discussion during seminar presentations may have contributed to this change.

The basic concepts and process of the Oaklander Model provide the structure of all my teaching. In addition to the basic workshop, which is similar to the training format used by Violet, I have taught seminars on trauma (children stricken emotionally by war and abuse), therapeutic storytelling (integrating the work of Joyce Mills and Erv Polster), shame and anger, and the relational perspective in Gestalt therapy. I incorporate the ideas and writing of various Gestalt authors, including those written in German. I am always interested to hear about what is being talked and written about in Gestalt therapy with children in Germany and other countries. A few years ago, I provided a wonderful ten-day training in Lucca in northern Italy. I was using the Italian classic, Pinocchio, as a metaphoric expression of the child’s journey toward integration and wholeness. I was thrilled when the Italian participants wholeheartedly approved my interpretation of their icon! On another occasion, a small villa just outside of Florence was the setting for therapists from Eastern Europe to learn together how to assist children in recovery from regional wars. This was one of the most difficult seminars for me. I was deeply affected to hear the reports of so many children, maimed, orphaned, and deeply traumatized by the assault of human warfare. As a group, the therapists lifted my spirits up, however, as they said many times, how helpful the resources provided through Violet’s work was for them. Teaching in Zurich was a thrill. In this seminar we combined our languages (German, French, Italian, and English) and found the struggle to communicate only enlivened our interactions.

Much has changed with this traveling and teaching in these past seventeen years, especially since 2001. Travel is no longer an enjoyable experience; jet lag seems more difficult to recover from as I get older. However, the training groups are getting larger (80 people this summer in two seminars). As the theory and practice of Gestalt therapy evolves, child clinicians want to know more about how this applies to our work with children. I’ve now published three articles in German psychotherapy books on Gestalt therapy with children. Other articles have been published in Italian and Spanish. Violet’s book, Gestalt Therapy with Children and Adolescents, (German title) is well-read among Gestalt therapists and the Oaklander Model is of great interest to many therapists in Germany. In fact, there is now an active consortium of child therapists within the German Gestalt Association. I am looking forward to returning to Berlin this October to teach two seminars based on the Oaklander approach to Gestalt Therapy with children and adolescents.

It has been my honor and my joy to have been a part of Violet’s work flourishing in Germany. Thank you, Violet, for allowing me this privilege. Danke, Violet, danke.
To everyone else, best wishes for all your teaching! I can only hope that they will be as rewarding as my experiences.


ON BEDWETTING by Violet Oaklander, PH. D
Did you know that children who wet the bed are actually trying to take care of themselves? When they were very young something was happening that made them anxious and they had no way of expressing themselves or finding some way to relieve the anxiety, so they wet the bed as a release. Notice the next time you go to the bathroom, how relaxed you feel after you urinate. When these children feel tense and anxious, bedwetting is a way to relieve the tension in the body. Unfortunately, the bedwetting becomes the body’s way of handling tension, anxiety, fear, anger and other feelings, as the child grows, even against the child’s will.

There are several steps I follow when I work with bedwetters. For one, I want the parents—and sometimes the whole family—to share their feelings about the situation with each other. Sharing feelings is important. Everyone has lots of feelings about the bedwetter that may or may not have anything to do with the bedwetting itself. It is necessary that these feelings come out and be shared. Most parents have run the gamut in trying to solve the bedwetting dilemma, from being kind and understanding to yelling and screaming, from making the child wash his or her own sheets to ignoring the whole thing. There are many, many feelings churning around in everyone—worry, shame, guilt, anxiety, resentment, fear, anger, sadness. Many of these feelings are not shared directly; they come out in many other ways. It is no wonder that the child who generally cannot express feelings directly anyway, has to keep on wetting the bed. Sometimes parents actually imagine that the child purposely wants to wake up in a wet, cold, smelly uncomfortable bed to get back at them.

The next step in the therapeutic process is to attempt to give the responsibility of bedwetting back to its owner: the child is responsible for the bedwetting. This is an important pre-requisite to stopping. I tell the child that he is doing this to take care of himself: HE is doing it, not anyone else. It can then become openly clear that he does not want to continue, even if he has yelled defiantly, “I don’t care!” or has taken on a casually unconcerned stance. Furthermore, it is important for the parents to understand that it is the child who is responsible, not they. He wakes up in the wet bed; they do not. He can learn to change his own bed, wash his own sheets. If they want to do this for him, they must take responsibility for that choice. The parents must learn that bedwetting is not an area for reward or punishment, approval or disapproval. Praise is not helpful if he does not wet his bed; nor are recriminations if he does. We don’t praise a headache-prone child for not having a headache, nor do we call him a stupid idiot if he does.

I want to help the child connect once more to her body, for as the bedwetting continues through the years, she seems to become more and more disconnected from her own body. First I work toward helping the child EXPERIENCE her body and her bedwetting. I give the child a notebook to record her bedwetting. This helps the child to become more conscious and aware of what she is doing. If she is adept at writing, I may ask her to record in her notebook words and phrases that describe the feeling of waking up in her wet bed. I often ask children to paint the feeling of being in a wet bed. Helping the child become more aware of her body is an important part of the therapeutic procedure. We do many kinds of body exercises including breathing and relaxation exercises, movement games, creative dramatics (pantomime is an excellent tool for becoming aware of one’s senses, body and feelings.) Knowing the body and learning mastery and control of the body, is satisfying, exciting, and essential.

An important step in this therapeutic journey is to help the child express his feelings about the bedwetting as well as about all the other aspects of his life. It is interesting to note that the child often continues the bedwetting behavior even if the original event or events, real or imagined, that led to bedwetting are no longer present. The body once received a message to wet the bed, and since then the right circuits have not been located for receiving a new message. The child’s bedwetting will stop as he begins to feel more self-support, that is, feel more strength and power within himself, and as he begins to find new ways of expressing his feelings.

The final most important step is to help the child love and accept the very young child inside her who originally began to wet the bed. If she continues to be self-critical, she will continue to wet the bed. I ask the child to bring in a favorite toy animal from home to represent herself as her bedwetting part. In my office she practices taking to this part of herself, giving herself permission to wet the bed. (that’s right!) Then each night she is instructed to tell the animal-self, “It’s O.K. if you wet the bed tonight. I love you even if you do.” This helps the child release some of the anxiety about bedwetting that only serves to further it. If the child tries to use will power and says to herself, “I WON”T wet the bed tonight,” she will immediately become anxious and probably wet the bed.
Patience, acceptance and nurturing of the child to HERSELF or HIMSELF is the key.

VSOF Board Meeting Highlights – April 13, 2008

  • Budding filmmaker Paul Mercurio is starting to gather footage for a documentary film about Violet. The working title is “Making Lemonade: the Life & Work of Violet Oaklander”.
  • VSOF’s online store is up and running via the www.VSOF.org website. Merchandise available and plans for to promote Hidden Treasure and Window Frames.
  • Archives Update: Violet reviewed and approved the list of her professional library and training materials that will be in the Violet Solomon Oaklander Foundation archive. Archive cataloging plans were developed.
  • Violet is being sponsored to receive honorary lifetime membership in the APT (Association for Play Therapy)
  • Chris Orpen presented progress on her project to get links to the VSOF website on the websites of academic institutions and child therapy centers and associations.

Next Meeting of the VSOF Board of Directors: September 14, 2008, 12 to 4 PM at Violet Oaklander’s new home in Los Angeles.

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