Child psychotherapy – competition

This is one of those articles where you begin writing something and end up writing about something completely different. I was going to write about children and black and white thinking but ended up writing about a recent sessions I did with two children and their mother. In the parentheses are the thoughts that are going through my mind as I work with them.






Brother (6 yo) and sister (7yo) in my office doing the usual stuff. Playing and drawing various things, some at my instruction and some of their own volition. At one point they are both drawing pictures of anger and the daughter says, “Mummy, which drawing is best?”. Yikes! Mother is immediately placed in a dilemma. How does she respond to such a request? I sit back and watch what is going to happen.

Mother knows the ‘right’ thing to do. She looks at the drawings and highlights the positives in both of them.

(Tick for mother’s parenting. She knows at least some of the basics in this area. Can begin to rule that out, at least a little bit, as a cause of children’s difficulties. Confirmation of my thoughts about her parenting when I previously asked her about her child management. In responding to the girl’s question she did focus more on the son. Random variation or a pattern in her parenting? She has told me that her primary concern is the boy rather than the girl. I have not seen the girl display any insecurity in her relationship with mother yet, but it may still be yet to come out)

Both of them protest. They are black and white thinkers, they want to know which one is the best. She resists their pressure. They remain frustrated but such is life.

As is often the case, sooner or later one of them starts going through the drawers of my desk, in this case the boy. (Mother looks a little horrified at his impertinence but says nothing). There are six drawers, three on each side. The boy has a look in the top drawer and there is some mildly interesting stuff in there. Pens, a calculator, sticky tape, eraser and so forth. He even finds a protractor and a compass and has no idea what they are. Indeed there maybe a number of readers here who don’t know either since the advent of computers. This is a protractor that I used to use at school.


I ask him to bring it over and I show him how it works. Angles, degrees and so forth. He catches on quickly.

(Intellectually OK?)

But he is reportedly a poor reader and writer, according to mother.

(Dyslexia, or mother’s expectations too high?)

We draw lines and start to make squares, triangles, pentagons, cubes, trapezoids and so forth. (All those years of doing geometry at school has finally become useful! Mind you I used to love doing geometry but one did wonder what use may come of it and now I know).

(Good connection building between him and me and again this child is a quick learner. Physically close to the boy so I keep a bit of distance which is a drag, but a necessary thing in this day).

Eventually he finds the stop watch, “What’s this?”, he says, as many children do. I tell him and show him how it works by pushing the various buttons. I seize the moment. “Let’s see who can hold their breath the longest”, I say. Instantly I get their attention and they both jump at the idea as children always do. I am going to really highlight this one this time. So I draw their names up on the board and will write their times underneath. The winner and loser will be there in clear view for all to see.


We do the various timing and the sister wins. The times are written up. I sit back and watch what happens. How does she handle winning and how does he handle loosing. Their black and white thinking is satisfied.

(Sibling dynamics in full display and I also see if mother interjects)

Mother stays quiet. No bad relationship dynamics from the sister, she states with a smile, “I won” but that is all.

(Normal? No sign in her to need to make him feel extra bad but she did highlight that she was the winner. Need to watch for possible I+U- life position, but it probably is OK. She is a confident, bright girl which could develop into a superiority complex)

The younger brother looks a bit disgruntled but not in a very big way and no injunctions are displayed such as “I’m no good”, or “She’s no good”. Boy moves towards mother for a short time.

(Within the normal range of responses to loosing by the boy. Good sign of a developed object constancy in boy with his move to mother. Mother seen by him as a secure base in response to his distress)

I now change the rules. “As he is younger we add on 10 seconds to his time and see who wins”, I say.

(How will they handle this. Will the sister object?)

No objection this time from the sister and mother is still quiet, watching intently as this unfolds.  We do a few more timings and again I see how they each handle winning and loosing. I am getting basically the same results from both of them. They are cooperating reasonably well in this competitive situation.

(The sibling relationship seems to have evolved OK at least based on these first initial observations. Mother’s parenting must have allowed this to happen.)

kid smoke

I then decide to introduce the concept of cheating. When the girl is having her next attempt at holding her breath I accuse her of breathing through her nose. She immediately protests loudly at my false accusations. The boy chimes in and follows my lead and accuses her as well. The boy goes next and he tries to cheat with secretive nose breathing and the girl puts her finger under his nose to check if he is. I could do a set of therapeutic interventions about cheating but this is descending into too much FC for such interventions to be worthwhile. I decide to follow with the FC transactions to build self esteem.

Mother does not interject and seems to be enjoying the goings on.

(Children are capable of having FC transactions and mother is OK allowing that to happen. Her parenting is not promoting injunctions like, “Don’t enjoy” and “Don’t be a child”.)

After I short while I put a stop to the FC and we move onto something else.

(They respond relatively easily to this and allows them to develop a bit more Parent and Adult ego state control of the FC through introjection of me).

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