In human services, there is an adage that directs us to work with the individual in an effort to “maximize his strengths and minimize his weaknesses.” In crisis situations, anger, fear, confusion, apprehension, depression, despair, and so forth are interpreted as temporary weaknesses. They have welled up in the individual, temporarily overpowering his reasoning, thinking, and planning strengths. Our faith in people leads us to the belief that no matter how upset and overwhelmed the individual feels he has more than enough strength within him to cope with his situation. Understanding and using “communication color” leads to reducing and minimizing the temporarily disabling effect of crisis color. Understanding and focusing on “communication content” directly enhances the individual’s capacity to deal with his world.
Mrs. M, age twenty-nine has eight children. The oldest child is fourteen, and the youngest is seven months. Six of the children are normal and have no particular physical, emotional, social, or adjustment difficulties. Her twelve-year old, however, has a chronic kidney disease, requires regular medical treatment, and has to have her activities carefully supervised and regulated. The seven-year-old is in the second grade, is mildly retarded, and has been diagnosed as a hyperactive child. Mrs. M deals quite well with the mild retardation, but to her, the hyperactivity roughly translates into “a walking disaster.” The little boy has an extremely short attention span, cannot sit still, is always into everything, seems unable to follow directions or accept limits, still wets the bed and occasionally “messes” himself during the day, and seems to require more time and attention than all of the other children put together.
Mrs. M has been married, this time, for a little over a year. Her first marriage, when she was fourteen, lasted only a few months. Her second marriage lasted a little over four years, and her third marriage lasted about a year. She and the children live with her present husband in an older, three-bedroom house that has inadequate plumbing and heating. The girls use one bedroom, the boys another, and the baby has a crib in with her and her husband. She and her children have received welfare help in the past but presently live on the income her husband earns working in a factory. He also has to pay thirty dollars a week child support to his first wife for the care of their two children. Mr. M’s two boys from his first marriage spend every weekend at the M’s house, plus six weeks in the summer.
As we look at several messages from Mrs. M, two responses are suggested to each message. The messages communicate a certain content and express Mrs. M’s thoughts and ideas about several things. The two responses following each message also communicate certain content. In addition, the responses tell Mrs. M something about your assumptions about and attitudes toward her. Looking at each response, does it convey a “faith in Mrs. M?” Does it support and encourage her inner strength and capacity? Does it tend to increase or decrease Mrs. M’s ability to cope with her situation?
Message: Sometimes I just can’t cope with all those kids. There are so many of them. There is always one of them getting into something or wanting something or fighting or screaming or something.
Response 1: Did you think about the kind of hassle it was going to be before you had that many kids?
Response 2: I don’t see how you do it. I would be “up the wall” if I were you.
Message: I’m not very smart. I’ve only got a seventh-grade education. I’m no psychologist or nothing, but I think there’s really something wrong with my seven-year-old.
Response 1: The doctors have told you that he is a little retarded and that he is hyperactive. He would probably be easier to deal with if there weren’t so many other children.
Response 2: You seem to know quite a lot about kids and being a mother. The seven-year-old has some special problems, but the rest of the kids get along real well. You have a lot of firsthand experience with little kids and should be a pretty good judge of a child with special problems.
Message: My husband doesn’t want to accept responsibility for the kids and won’t help me with them. I don’t know why I put up with him. He just wants me for someone to sleep with. I don’t know—I shouldn’t say that. He works hard and does try to pay the bills, and I guess he is entitled to a little freedom and happiness. He goes out and has a good time, and I’m always left home with those kids. I need a little fun too.
Response 1: You should put your foot down and insist that he help you. He took on the responsibility for you and the kids when he married you, and you should make him do what is right.
Response 2: It’s a lot of responsibility for him and for you. You take care of everyone, but who takes care of you? There ought to be some way you could get some time to yourself and get away from the kids, the house, and all the hassle. Is your husband ever willing to watch the kids so you can get out by yourself for a little while?
Message: We never have any money to do anything. There’s the heat for the house and all those doctor bills. It seems like I never have ten cents extra to do anything. Sometimes I think it would be easier to get welfare again.
Response 1: What would that do to your self-respect to go back on welfare? Maybe you can think up some way to cut corners or to buy less expensive foods.
Response 2: I can see how there wouldn’t be any extra money. You must be a magician, taking care of your house and family on your husband’s income. I think you could probably give me a lesson in money management. Your kids are always so clean and neat looking and seem so healthy and well fed, and your house always looks like you really make an effort to take care of it. How do you do it?
Message: I think part of my trouble with my husband is our personal relationship. There’s all those kids, and I think if I got that way again I’d just die.
Response 1: Why don’t you get your tubes tied or tell your husband to have a vasectomy?
Response 2: I can see how you might worry about that and might feel a little uncomfortable with your husband. Have you talked with him about your worries of getting pregnant?
Message: I’ve kinda gotten away from church these past few years, and I miss it. The kids need that; I just can’t get them all there.
Response 1: You should bring them up in the church. That is your responsibility. You live close enough to the church that you could walk from your house. Just get the kids up and over there on Sunday.
Response 2: Have you talked with anyone at church about the problem? Maybe someone there would be able to help you round up the kids and get them over there. I see your minister once in a while. Would you mind if I mentioned your problem to him?