Children’s drawings as a message to the parents

People often think that kids don’t understand, or don’t realize, what’s going on in their homes. Generally, a lot of problems would be a lot easier to solve if we accepted that they do understand and know full well what is happening in their family.

A couple of years ago, a woman wrote me an e-mail asking if I could do something for her son.

She told me that, after having two unsuccessful therapeutic processes, both with a child psychologist and with a psychiatrist, she had decided to try with me. In her e-mail she referred to the future therapy saying, “the third time is the charm.”

Mary explained briefly in her e-mail that her six year old son Luke was still not able to control his bladder. In her words, the problem was that her son “peed himself every night.”

As I explain in my bookpsychotherapeutic interventions rarely fall directly on the problem itself but try to target the cause of it to stop it at its root. When we work with children, their problems often reflect a pathological environment, usually in the family system.

I decided to call the mother for a first interview so she could explain to me in more detail what was going on with Luke, while also offering me possible insight into the environment in which he lived, both at home and at school. I hoped that asking her to come alone would help to make her feel free to speak without having to withhold anything out of fear of the child hearing about certain topics.

The first thing Mary said was that, “Luke is a normal kid,” then she extensively described all the areas where her son was an average child, from his marks in school to his place in the pediatric growth curve. Everything was absolutely normal. “But he keeps peeing himself,” Mary said again, repeating the statement five times during the session.

When I asked her about her relationship with John, her husband and Luke’ father, Mary explained that she was a housewife and her husband an important manager in a telecommunications company. They had been married for eight years, and after Luke was born they decided not to have more children because of ongoing marital problems.

We must not forget that we are trying to find a cause for Luke’s problem, the subjective position from which his behavior emerged. It is because of this goal that, without any hesitation I could keep asking about the relationship of his parents even though they were not technically seeking my help as patients themselves.

Mary told me then that besides the typical problems of a married couple, the main issue they had was that she was very jealous, “almost pathological,” she said. When I tried to ask her to expand on this statement, she started crying and, after letting me know that what would follow didn’t have anything to do with Luke, she told me that some months before she got married she tried to take her own life with pills. The reason? She had the feeling that John was cheating on her.

By the end of the session Mary returned her focus to Luke again saying,“Fortunately, he is just a kid and doesn’t realize anything.” I found this statement particularly notable in light of everything else she had disclosed about her past with Luke’s father.

After letting her talk about her fears until she was feeling a bit of relief, I told her that I’d like to see her along with Luke the following week. My primary goal of seeing the child was to see if the cause of the urination issues could be that he was affected by the strained relationship between his parents, but I would also open myself up to other hypotheses if that one didn’t match what I encountered.

Mary asked if I wanted her to be in the session. If not, she wanted to go to the mall while Luke was with me. When I told her that the idea was to speak with both of them, she mentioned that it seemed odd to her since the other psychologist used to be alone with Luke in their previous sessions. I just smiled at her and told her that I would see both of them the following week.

In the second session Mary came with Luke, who didn’t want to talk, something not unusual in small children. I asked Mary to tell me her son’s daily routine with as much detail as she could and I told him not to worry about speaking, that it was not needed for the time being. I offered him a notebook and some colored pencils and crayons, and when he asked me what to draw, I said he could draw whatever wanted.

Why did I ask to hear about his routine? To be sure that Mary would not say anything that worried or hurt her son so that he could focus as much as possible on his drawings, since his mother would be telling me things he already knew.

When I saw him more relaxed and with some drawings already in the notebook, I asked him if he could draw his parents now. I kept talking to Mary until he finished his drawing. I asked him to show it to me: there were two human figures in it, typical simple and childish ones, very colorful, with big smiles and a huge sun with dark sunglassesMary smiled at him.

Then I asked Luke to draw his parents again, but this time at night. I chose the night as the setting because the mother assumed he didn’t know she was fighting with her husband, and I was guessing that it was happening at night when he was thought to be asleep

Luke then grabbed a black crayon and furiously drew over the two figures, covering them with dark stains and clouds. There was very little left of the previous drawing. It seemed that Luke was aware of more than Mary believed, or wanted to believe.

I suggested that Mary put the drawing on the refrigerator in their kitchen and I told her to leave it there until the next session. I also asked her to tell her husband to talk to me if he wanted to take it off.

This intervention was intended to question the mother’s notion that her child did not realize anything about what was going on between her and her husband. If I was right, at an unconscious level, wetting the bed was a call for attention by Luke, a way to say “I do realize what’s going on between you two”. And if that was true, making sure the drawing was visible to everyone could keep the message intact while changing the way it was delivered, conveying the same information in a way that was less costly for everyone.

I sent that message to be relayed to her husband because in the first session Mary told me that he was not going to come to my office, as he believed psychologists were frauds and that they only “wanted to rob people of their hard-earned money.” With this intervention, I respected his unwillingness to come to therapy but communicated to him what his son was telling us in the session in an indirect way.

A week later, Mary came with Luke to my office. “Instead of peeing himself every night, now he does it every other night… we couldn’t be happier” Mary said to me. I told Luke to draw his parents again and he replied by giving me a smirk. While he drew I asked Mary if she or her husband had any ideas about what could be done to help Luke be more relaxed in his daily life.

The boy once again drew two human figures, happy and with the same sun. When I told him to draw them at night, he carefully grabbed the black crayon and drew some lines between and above them, with very little pressure on the paper. The result was a drawing very similar to the previous one, but with less black on it. I smiled at him, and told Mary to take the other drawing off the refrigerator and put on the new one instead.

Their son was clearly telling them that they were doing something right, but that a bit more effort was still needed. The same child that, according to his mother, didn’t realize anything was disrupting the peace at night, was in fact understanding perfectly well the relation between his previous drawing and what I assumed, because of the change in his behavior, was a fewer number of quarrels between his parents.

In the fourth session, one month after seeing Mary for the first time, she came to my office alone with John, who said “I came because this week Luke didn’t pee himself at all… I’m here to understand what happened.”

Is there a better way to get the father that doesn’t believe in psychotherapists to attend to a session? He came with an open mind, already questioning what he believed, asking me if he could come to my office. Without a doubt, this way was much better than asking him to come under pressure from his wife.

After speaking for a while about the family and their relationship with each other, I asked Luke’s father: “When does a person pee themselves?”

John answered right away. “When someone gets a terrible fright” and, after a pause, he understood what was going on. “Luke doesn’t go to bed scared anymore.”

I kept seeing Mary and John for a couple more sessions, working on their relationship as a couple, in order to create more harmony at home. A month later, Luke still hadn’t wet himself again.

People often think that kids don’t understand, or don’t realize, what’s going on in their homes. Generally, a lot of problems would be a lot easier to solve if we accepted that they do understand and know full well what is happening in their family.

Children are subjects as adults are, both have their own subjective positions that determine their reality. Once we grasp what they are experiencing according to that position, then we can produce a change at a faster pace than with adults most of the time.

A couple of months later, John and Mary wrote me again, telling me that Luke had made a new drawing and he had put it on the refrigerator by himself.

He had drawn a videogame console.