VSOF Newsletter – Winter 2008


Brazilian Warmth
by Claire Mercurio, Ph.D.

Brazil MeetingA vital mission of the Violet Solomon Oaklander Foundation is to expand and solidify international connections between professionals utilizing, or wishing to utilize, Violet’s therapeutic model with children. On a rainy Friday in January a group of VSOF founding members met with the Ribas family from Rio de Janeiro for a delightful afternoon sharing pizza, salad, and an appreciation of Violet’s work.

Rodolfo and Adriana Ribas, husband and wife psychologists, work in both clinical and academic settings. They planned to vacation in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara with their 12-year-old daughter, Camila, and contacted the Foundation to see if any trainings were scheduled during their stay. None were, so instead the idea of a “conversation hour” was proposed.

At the gathering, Adriana graciously shared about the impact Violet’s work has had on her, and explained that in Brazil “Windows to Our Children” is the preeminent child therapy text. Rodolfo and Adriana brought a photo album of their workshops, which looked surprisingly similar to scenes from Violet’s two-week summer training.

The Ribas family showered Violet and the Foundation with a number of thoughtful gifts. Adriana handed out her story about a little girl who gets red spots when she cannot express her feelings. Rodolfo did the desktop publishing and Adriana’s mother sewed handmade book covers. A beautiful photography book depicting the plight of young children in Brazil hit home the need for effective therapeutic treatment. On a lighter note, the Ribas family brought CDs of lively Brazilian music, which were raffled off, as everyone wanted one!

The lunch and conversation hour (or two!) spent with the Ribas family was yet another example of how Violet’s work touches people’s lives, and connects them. Across two hemispheres and two native languages, the feeling that we had all known each other a long time was evident. A warm Brazilian breeze was blowing through Santa Barbara on that cold, rainy, January day.

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What’s Happening in Switzerland?
Q & A with André and Fabienne Kuenzli
by Lynn Stadler

Andre KuenzliQ. After many years in California, you’ve been back in Switzerland for almost two years now. What kind of work are you doing with children and adolescents?

A. Our landing in Switzerland has been so fortunate, and so easy (so much easier than we anticipated). André’s work at the Pestalozzi School is difficult and challenging, yet I marvel at his ability to manage large human systems almost fearlessly, challenging gently, yet firmly and lovingly bringing out the best in most of his co-workers. He refuses the invitation of pathology, demolition and saturated stories about “his” (his own words) 54 children on the campus. He encourages stories of hope and courage. After two years, André tells me that he can already notice the changes. For example, a social worker shared never loving the work so much by engaging differently with the children and trying to highlight what is best in them. André’s challenge is difficult and sometimes he looses hope for a few seconds… but it seems his moments of doubt then deepen his faith in people, and take him to further depth. Of course I am looking at André with a heart that loves but I also hear so often people reflecting on his work. André is humble, quiet and passionate. I have a hard time believing him when he tells me he does not really know how he affects the school, yet I can tell how, it is like a diapason that offers for a while a musical pitch inviting all sounds to create together their own harmony using the best of who they are and learning to listen to the best of the other sounds. His leadership style provides an underlying mood of enthusiasm, hope, courage, invitation to change and respect. He believes each human system needs to find its own regulation and has an organismic self-regulation as well in constant movement. That is so hard to do and he does it so masterfully.

I have opened a private practice and have two locations where I consult children, teens, families, couples and individuals. I teach at several different locations and also in our “Institute of Reflexive Practices”. I supervise an individual psychologist. I have several group supervisions in institutions — for example with nurses in a school setting and teachers. I also supervise a group that assists women in prostitution in the city and offer supervision for them. André also does a few group supervisions with professionals. I try to make space for writing and being a full-time mom. Often the clock time is lacking, but it reminds us of our limitations and the essence of the present moment. My professional life is exciting; I should say extraordinary, challenging and developing. I feel grateful for it. André is facing sometimes some real tough challenges because the political system is large and powerful and it is not easy. We enjoy so much the opportunity to co-teach. We still have a dream (actually many dreams) but this one is that one day we will be working on both continents. After 12 years in the States, we were so excited to be fully a part of it; the boundaries of Switzerland at times seem a little too tight.

Q. What is the history and philosophy of the Pestalozzi school system?

A. Henri Pestalozzi was a famous Swiss educator. In 1820 his nephew, the pastor Siegmund Scheler, founded the Ecole Pestalozzi near Geneva where we live and work. This site has welcomed children (age 6 to 16) for more than 180 years. The pastor taught the children, mostly orphans who at that time were sold to farmers to be exploited, how to farm. The hope was that after living at the Ecole Pestalozzi and building some competence in farming, the children would be able to live a “regular” life upon leaving the school. Nowadays, the school is welcoming children who were expelled from the regular education schools due mainly to severe behavioral problems. The essence of this school is to help children regain confidence via many different activities (i.e. music, theater, sports, sculpting..), access to different psychotherapies (i.e. art therapy, music therapy, family therapy, individual therapy.), professional activities (i.e. gardening, kitchen..), day to day living (48 children live on the campus during the week) so that each child can discover or rediscover the joy of learning. Eight classrooms can welcome the kids ready to learn again scholastic material. It is a privilege to be the Director of the oldest special school in the State of Vaud and to see each day the smile of a child when ready to learn again.

Q. What courses have you been teaching at the University in Lausanne?

A. Several classes indeed. I have been very fortunate with all of the teaching opportunities upon my return. The teaching at the university had a dramatic impact. Out of the 10 to 15 regular attendees, all practicing psychologists part of a post/graduate training program, we had the first year 82 inscriptions. The title of the 28-hour seminar was ” Interventions créatives dans une ère postmoderne — approaching children and teens in a different manner”. Maybe our previous publications have created an effect we would never have imagined. Clearly, these clinicians were craving the exploration of real practice and learning rather than more elaboration on assessment, distancing from the clients, and creating theories without the client’s presence. The university asked us if we could respond to such a massive request by creating two groups of 40 participants and still offer this seminar. There was a challenge… we suffered and sweated and prepared with some angst. Finally the end result was a marvelous success. This class was indeed a powerful blessing and it opened so many doors for us. This was a difficult job to invite clinicians that had learned such different models and positions to such a paradigm shift and teach them things at the same time so simple and so difficult as:

a) learn the importance of a respectful positioning
b) refuse to think we know the child or the teen and we understand them, rather than inviting them into a process of co-constructing different realities that are more tolerable, less saturated
c) learn a respectful presence with the child — the tremendous importance of building conditions for a dialogical contact to emerge
d) meet the child or the teenager where they are using their preferred way of communicating rather than ours. Learn creativity with our evolving methods
e) learn the important difference between observing and interpreting and know how to utilize this difference in our clinical practice
f) learn or re-learn the art of questioning and the possibility to ask real questions, questions to which we do not have answers already, questions that generate movement, possibilities, reflexive possibilities
g) start to understand that the possibilities of narratives are so much richer and a door opening than the one of a structural diagnosis
h) re-invite the questions around our intentions and seek goodwill (benevolence) always as a starting place to build upon our practices
i) create teaching and professional environments where we can talk about and think about our clients as if they could be present as observer and proud of what they are hearing
j) create a constant dialectic between theories and practice, and learn the art of reflexive practices, that is building growing repertoire of theories of practice (as they emerge from the practice and talk about the evolving alliance)
k) the themes of therapists’ positioning, ethics in practice and reflexivity are the fil rouge of the seminar

The work of Violet took a very large place in this training, as the work of Violet over the years did not seem to age. The utilization of marionette, medicine cards, creative drawing, sand tray, and learning to connect with children in their preferred channel are such powerful tools. Violet always taught us, invited us to discover the child as a whole with so much delicacy, so much respect, yet such a powerful contact.

Q. Are you doing any other trainings or workshops?

A. After this class at the university many asked if we could continue to train them and in a total “coup de tête”. We decided to offer the first year in our institute called Institute of Reflexive Practices. Also in 2007 I have done many trainings with the University of Geneva, practicing psychologists, and teaching therapeutic letter writing to clients (a project for a second book), as well as Ericksonian techniques and application of hypnosis. I have also offered smaller workshops on subjects such as violence, incivility, conflicts in families, novices vs. expert therapists.

Q. How do you see the Oaklander Model fitting in with your work there?

A. Violet has been so instrumental in our work and we feel so immensely grateful for having the privilege of knowing her and her work. One of the marvelous things about Dr. Oaklander is that Violet’s work also is Violet’s person. She teaches and applies with such brio the tremendous precision of inviting a dialogical work with a child and at that same time a world of possibilities in terms of her creativity with material used and channels of communication. The way I think I have integrated her work in my practices with children, teens and families is that she is so often part of the reflecting team of the few masters that influence my work. I wonder so often and carry her voice, wondering what Violet would have done if she were in my shoes and hoping she would be proud and happy with the many ways her work is expanding beyond the boundaries of the US.

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The Many Faces of Anger
by Violet Oaklander

Anger is the most misunderstood of all the human emotions. We tend to think of anger as basically distasteful and abhorrent — something that we would rather not experience. Actually, I believe that anger is an expression of the self. It is a protection of one’s boundaries. When a young child says, “NO!” in a loud voice, mobilizing all of the energy she has to express a dislike for something that offends her in some way, she is not angry as we have come to know it, she is expressing her very self. She must use a loud voice because she desperately wants to be heard. Her “no” comes from the core of her being. Since the child does not have the cognitive ability, the language, nor the diplomacy to express profound, basic feelings in pleasing ways she is perceived as angry.

The child soon learns that this kind of expression is unacceptable-that he may,
if he continues to express the self in this vein, be in danger of abandonment. Since his survival depends on the adults in his life, he will make determinations about how to be in the world to insure that his needs are met. The child’s self becomes diminished due to lack of expression, and his deep-felt feelings become buried somewhere inside of him.

Since the child’s major developmental task is to grow up, a paradox takes form. As the child strives to flourish and thrive in her confusing world by calculating how to avoid her parents’ disapproval and wrath, her organism struggles to achieve equilibrium and health. And so the expression of anger, this expression of self that has been frustrated and thwarted, pushes on to become something else-something beyond the child’s awareness and control. One child may retroflect the anger energy by giving herself headaches, stomachaches, generally withdrawing, not speaking, or manifesting other self-inflicting symptoms. Another child will deflect the true feelings by hitting, kicking, striking out. Some children become hyperactive as a way to avoid feeling anything. Others anesthetize themselves and “space out.” These are only a few of the behaviors and symptoms that mask fearful authentic expressions. These behaviors and symptoms are actually the child’s fierce attempts to cope and survive in this stressful world. These inappropriate and unsatisfactory behaviors and symptoms are the many faces of anger.

1/13/08 VSOF Board Meeting Highlights 

  • VSOF has been officially granted 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt status from the IRS.
  • The VSOF Archive & Library plan is progressing. The materials used at Violet’s summer training will be stored in Agoura Hills, California.  A library system will be instituted so that these materials can be used for workshops and trainings.  
  • Martha Oaklander is now Assistant Newsletter Editor, and will assist Lynn Stadler, VSOF’s Director of Media Relations.
  • Stay tuned for the launch of VSOF’s new online store.
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