A common theme that I remember Erickson discussing during our time together was his fascination with how the unconscious was able to use current events and experiences to conjure past learnings.
I experienced this first hand during my second session with Matt, a ten-year-old boy, and his parents. Matt, an only child was going to have to redo the fourth grade because of poor grades. Matt had felt like an outsider in the fourth grade and had no motivation to do school work. The thought of repeating the fourth grade again after “flunking” made him feel even less motivated. His parent tried “everything.” Unfortunately, each parent felt that his or her strategy-of-choice had been good enough to motivate each of him or her as a child, so it should motivate Matt. Their unyielding assumption was that if their strategy did not work, the problem was in Matt, not the appropriateness of the strategy.
To adapt a key concept from Ellyn Bader’s work with couples: “A lot of times, [parents] are so invested in the other person changing that they don’t want to look at themselves.” I had to take it easy since both parents had a history of taking their son out of therapy if the therapist demanded that the parents change.
It was during the second session that I remembered how Erickson would talk to us as a group when he wanted to avoid triggering a specific person’s self-protections. In that memory, I heard Erickson tell us his classic story about the parents who could not stop their seven-year-old daughter from sucking her thumb.
In that story Erickson told the daughter that she was about to reach a milestone in her life, her eighth birthday. Erickson instructed the daughter to enjoy sucking her thumb and to memorize it because after her eighth birthday, she will have passed the age of thumb-sucking and move onto more interesting things that are more appropriate for an eight year old. By giving the instructions in the presence of the parents, Erickson was indirectly challenging the parents’ assumptions that they had to change the daughter.
Change was a natural part of life. If you let it, the mind moves forward by itself. And at the same time, the communication to the daughter affirmed that the parents were not the targets of change. (For a verbatim account of this story, see Zeig, J., A Teaching Seminar With Milton H. Erickson, Brunner/Mazel, NY, 1980.)
With echoes of Erickson’s words in my head, I addressed Matt, “I am so very glad that your parents brought you in to see me at this time. If they had waited until your eleventh birthday in six weeks, you would have taken care of the problem yourself and I would not have been able to get any of the credit.”
I told Matt about the significant brain changes that naturally occur as we grow. “One of the most significant changes occurs at the age of eleven when the nerve connections between the right and left sides of your brain become insulated. Nerve signals move quicker and more effectively. At that time, we are better able to see old things with new eyes. And along with this wonderful gift comes a terrible burden. [Long dramatic pause].”
I remembered that Matt had said that he had longed for a younger brother so he could “show him how it was done.” With that in mind, I continued, “Matthew, in returning to the fourth grade, you will be going through this change before others in your class do. This means that your classmates will naturally want to look up to you as a role model. It will be as though you are the older brother that leads the way, showing the younger brothers how to do it right. While you will have the advantage of being familiar with what your teacher is presenting, your mind will be different and you will have to learn it ‘brand new’ as an eleven-year-old who has had the brain-change.”
“Before you turn eleven, I want you to memorize how it feels to not want to do homework and to not be particularly interested in learning. You need to remember how this felt so you can let your classmates know that you understand how some of them might feel. You used to feel that way yourself before you had the brain-change.”
I continued for twenty-five minutes, repeating the same message in many different permutations. Within the first ten minutes, Matt and his parents were in a comfortable trance state, hearing future-pictures described of Matt moving forward on his own.
That was the last session I had with Matt. His father called to cancel the next session because Matt “discovered” that he got his “brain-change” early, and started taking an interest in schoolwork. They no longer needed my services.
I met the parents two years later for some couple counseling. They reported that Matt had been successful academically and socially in both the fourth and now in the fifth grade. The parents said that they wished that they had known about the brain-change earlier so they would not have had to work so hard to get him to do his work.