VSOF Newsletter – Summer 2007


Hidden Treasure: A Map to the Child’s Inner Self
Book Review by Michael Petracca, MFT

If you have ever attended a Violet Oaklander training, you have had this experience.  At some point in the proceeding – either at the beginning, when we are going around the circle and introducing ourselves, or during a break for herbal tea, or at the post-training pizza feast – one or several participants will describe the evolution of their psychotherapeutic practice.  They will describe their early interest in therapy, their undergraduate major course sequence, their internships and practicums, and eventually will narrate in detail the time they first read Violet’s first book.  The latter event has taken on for many – myself included – the significance of a major life passage:  a happy wedding, the birth of one’s child, the end of armed conflict.  In virtually all of Violet’s workshops – at least the ones I’ve attended or helped conduct – somebody will utter this phrase:  “Windows to Our Children is my Bible.”  They say this not with the fervency of the idologue, but more with the clear, calm radiance of one who has found a meaningful life path:  one they would not impose on others, but would share willingly with those who might benefit.  We therapists who practice Violet Oaklander’s work with gratitude and rigor share this feeling about Windows to Our Children, because reading Violet’s first book changed our professional and personal lives forever. 

Now, after almost three decades, Dr. Oaklander has come out with a book of revelations (to stretch the Biblical metaphor to near-snapping) about certain aspects of the Oaklander method that Windows did not cover in great detail.  Violet has made it clear that she intends the current work not to be taken as a direct sequential follow-up to the material presented in Windows.  Rather, Hidden Treasure presents detailed information about a range of psychotherapeutic areas of particular interest to professionals working with children and adolescents.  The first two chapters set out the central trope of the book:  the child’s inner essence as a wonderfully rich buried realm to be carefully, lovingly and mindfully approached and revealed through systematic process work.  In a recent discussion with Violet, she elaborated on this point.  “The child keeps a lot of things to him/herself,” she told me, “and in our work, kids present a range of unique problems.  The way we work forms a bridge to the child’s inner self, and that’s what I mean by treasure.  Each chapter presents a kind of map to accessing that self … but keep in mind that there’s not one static hidden self, because the child is always changing and growing.”  Violet’s point here is a subtle but important one:  in our work as Gestalt therapists we move always toward a deeper understanding of “what makes children do what they do,” to use Violet’s phrase … but we never completely arrive at “the” answer, because the child is always changing.  There are always deeper truths – treasures, as the book articulates – to be uncovered. 

The second chapter continues to pave a theoretical ground for the entire work.  Violet poses a rhetorical question – “What brings children to therapy?” – and replies with a twofold answer that forms a central thesis, both for this section of the book and for the strategies she presents in subsequent chapters.  First, she observes that troubled children, the ones who visit us in our offices, have a hard time making contact with significant others around them:  “teachers, parents, peers,” and even the authors/narrators of the books with which they come in contact.  Second, she observes that these young persons “generally have a poor sense of self,” meaning that children who are “emotionally disturbed due to some trauma or other reason … will anesthetize their senses, restrict the body, block their emotions, close down their minds.”  These conditions that arise spontaneously in response to a variety of traumatic events can be addressed by methods outlined in the rest of Hidden Treasure.  Of the latter, Violet comments that these “techniques are powerful projections and provide a bridge to the inner life of the child … They can provide experiences to help the child become familiar with these lost parts of self and provide opportunities for new, healthy ways of being…”  Furthermore – and not least importantly – she adds … “They are fun.”

The chapters following these initial theoretical chapters set out a broad palette of therapeutic concepts and tools that Gestalt therapists can employ with working with young people.  Areas covered in succeeding chapters include methodologies for enhancing the sense of self in the youthful population; dealing with anger in children; approaches to making contact with adolescents; helping children cope with issues of loss and grief; fostering a sense of self-nurturing in this population; doing therapy with very young children; conducting therapy groups for children and adolescents; working with kids diagnosed with ADD/ADHD; and the use of music throughout a range of age groups.  Each of these sections is developed through some theoretical discussion connecting the subtopic at hand with the two central theses as outlined in the first chapters, and illustrated with a wealth of compelling examples taken from Violet’s years of working with children.  In a recent discussion with Violet, she explained her goals in organizing the latter chapters of the book in this way:  “I want to stress to potential readers that this is not a book you have to read starting from beginning and going through to the end.”  Violet thinks of Hidden Treasure more as a therapeutic reference, a compendium of observations, examples, suggestions, and methodological modelings upon which therapists can draw as they encounter situational questions and challenges with their clients. 

When I talked with Violet about Hidden Treasure immediately after the book had been published, she told me that – despite the exhaustive list of modalities covered in this book – there are still more topics she was not able to cover in this volume.  “There’s a lot of stuff I didn’t put in, because I had to stop somewhere,” she said.  “No matter where I stop, I’ll never feel totally finished.”  Certainly, Violet’s far-ranging and synthetic intellect and deep well of memory contain enough material to write a third volume on the Oaklander Model, and perhaps many more beyond that.  However, Violet has other plans:  to write a book containing a stringing-together of individual autobiographical narrative pieces that will add up to a compelling and engaging memoir.  As one who has had the privilege recently to read some of her memoir, I look forward to the creation and eventual publication of this work … which may, in time, come to supersede the original Oaklander Bible, at least for this humble reader.

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Therapy Rocks: Part 1 – The Large Contexts of Therapy
by Douglas Honeyman, Psy.D

[“Therapy Rocks: Part 2 – A Case Presentation” will be in the next issue.]

In pre-modern times and even currently in indigenous cultures around the world, before shiny toys and action figures seized societies’ imagination by the materialistic throat, children’s irrepressible expression through play and representation of their inner lives and surrounding worlds still entertained, satisfied, and fulfilled developing human needs. Art did not require acrylic paints, rainbow-colored play dough, and silicon screens. Play will out. The inner will dance with the outer; images will dance with expression. This is how human minds, hearts, bodies, and our multiple human tendencies have been for a very, very long time. If modern and post modern technology fell off of the edge of the metaphorical planet, play and art, projection and expression would continue. It is a human, and to some extent, animal and larger natural force.

Death ValleyI am suggesting, and it’s not a big stretch, that natural materials exercise imagination and dexterity and learning wonderfully well in the absence of commercially manufactured toys, figures, and art media. Lately, I have been using rocks collected from Death Valley, California, USA to exercise the developmental and integrative tendencies of children and adolescents, and the occasional adult. I have been using them for play and projection.

Desert RockAs Violet Oaklander, Gestalt oriented child therapist of world renown, points out, the health and strength of “sense of self” of a person is a fruitful and focusing way of addressing feelings, needs, and the human condition. Since a child is gestated, carried, and born into the world through intimate interactive contact with mother and inevitably larger surrounds, it’s clear that the human condition is not one of isolation or pure individuality. A child naturally develops and expresses herself in relationship with the larger holding environments of family, social groups, and the natural world – even cosmos. The rocks I use obviously come from the cosmos. I’m told that every atom in those rocks, in fact in all of earth’s material manifestation, and in each cell of our bodies, is made up of star material. It is our nature to be inter-connected.

To strengthen a child’s “contact functions” is to strengthen a sense of self. These provide and nourish the basic human faculties for living a rich, satisfying, appropriately inter-dependent and productive life. In Hidden Treasure: A Map to the Child’s Inner Self, Violet attributes one good way of stating this reality to the Polsters: “In order to make good contact with the world, one needs to have good use of those contact functions we label as looking, listening, touching, tasting, smelling, moving, expressing feelings, ideas, thoughts, curiosities and so forth (Polster and Polster, 1973).”

I find multi-colored and patterned, multi-textured and contoured, variously weighted, sized, and shaped rocks to be delightful and grounding objects for anyone’s subjective reaching out to the firmness and mysteries of life. The natural artistic, expressive, and projective inclinations of children can play out poignantly in a box or space of stones. Certainly, there are some advantages to playing with man-made figures and toys. They can have specificity, a highly accurate representation of life’s objects and cultures, an immediately fantastic stimulatory impact, and in many stores there is an extraordinary array of choices. Also, there are advantages to the ordinary natural materials and forms of the earth that are so open-ended for world-integrative contact and for imaginative projection.

I want to bring in our familiar delimiting word “frame”, used often in therapy as “reframe”. Frame is one metaphor for another of our psychological and philosophical words, “context”. All therapy, all facilitative attention, well, all of human activity is inevitably nested within multiple encompassing dynamic situational contexts. Play and therapy-work with pieces of life’s immediate fabric strengthen a sense of self through the usual ways with which we are familiar. In addition, I find it poignant to consider that with hands on the earth’s stones, in a similar way to hands tucked into trays of sand, we also have the opportunity for, conscious or not, explicit or unspoken, an integrative, a synthesizing  contact with the world’s nature, stars, and cosmos. The potential frame includes, well, everything. To a young child, an experience with a found rock or stick might appear to arise seamlessly from the whole of life’s background. Perhaps, through contact with natural objects it’s easier to feel that the contexts in which we live and play are not just family, school and neighborhood, but are global and cosmic.

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