In yoga, a pose referred to by my teacher as “how wonderful” involves a lifting of the head and chest, and opening of the arms out to the side, with a bend in the elbows.
In her introductory words of wisdom to a class in which that pose was to be the theme of the day, she asked us, “Do you ever make up stories?” She shared that she may in response to a distracted expression from a friend think, “She’s mad at me,” or from her 3-year-old child who refuses to put on his shoes, “He’s trying to drive me crazy!” She identified how this ability to try to make sense of other’s behavior has evolutionary significance. It helps us navigate a complex social world- otherwise, she said, we would have no idea what was going on. But sometimes this kind of assuming of meaning, this making up stories, can get us in to trouble.
What if instead, we employ the open stance of “I don’t know?”-words she demonstrated fit perfectly with the pose of “how wonderful.”
In my behavioral pediatric practice, I find parents often driven by a need to know. “Is there something wrong with him?” they ask. There are tremendous pressures -from teachers, from family, from insurance companies, to name the problem. There is a kind of certainty in this approach, a kind of professional declaring of “I know whats wrong with you.”
What if, rather than being guided by diagnostic instruments, that ask questions with the aim of getting an answer, we approach the situation with a stance of curiosity, of inquiry, of “not knowing.”
I find if, in a way not dissimilar to the hour-long yoga class, I offer space and time to let the story unfold, we uncover complex meaning in “problem” behavior. There may be a number of relatives with similar traits, suggesting a genetic component. There may have been significant stresses in a family that, even with parents’ best efforts to shield a child from the effects, have been noticed and absorbed. A child may have a range of sensory sensitivities that he can manage, but under the stress of separation, often at bedtime or in the process of getting out the door, these sensitivities are magnified. “Problem” behavior may be both cause of and result of family conflict between parents, among siblings, between generations.
There is courage in a stance of not knowing. In yoga, we trust our teacher to guide us in the backbends that evolve out of the “how wonderful/I don’t know” pose. The work is hard. She challenges us while taking care to protect us from harm.
Perhaps professionals who care for children with “behavior problems” -pediatricians, psychiatrists, teachers- could learn a lesson from my yoga teacher (support from the health care system that decided what is and is not “covered” would be essential to this kind of approach.) Rather than being guided by a need to make a “diagnosis,” we would support parents in a safe, holding environment through a time of not knowing, on a journey to find the true meaning of behavior.
This kind of journey might not only serve to decrease the number of children receiving psychiatric diagnoses, but also help us to discover creative solutions. We would have the opportunity to uncover both weaknesses and strengths, and to support development of resilience. In the words of pediatrician turned psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, we would be promoting development of a child’s “true self.”