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Dibs In Search of Self

Play therapy is a method in which therapists use a form of psychotherapy to better understand and communicate with a child through the child’s fantasies and the symbolic meanings of his or her play. Play therapy is used to treat problems that are hindering a child’s normal development such as, but not limited to; temper tantrums, aggressive behaviour, non-medical problems related to bed-wetting and bowel control and a child’s strong expression of worries or fears. It is also used to treat children who have experienced sexual or physical abuse or neglect. The intendment of play therapy is to diminish these behavioural and emotional asperities and guide the child towards a level of normal functioning. Immanent in this design is improved communication and understanding between the child and his parents.

An additional intention is to improve the child’s abilities in regards to verbal expression and self-observation. Through play therapy, the child also learns impulse control and coping mechanisms to help the child with anxiety and frustration. Most remunerating is possibly the child’s improved capabilities to trust and relate to others. When treating the child, the therapist uses an understanding of cognitive development, recognition of the different stages of emotional development and the conflicts common to these stages. “We know that research is a fascinating combination of hunches, speculation, subjectivity, imagination, hopes, and dreams, blended precisely with objectively gathered facts tied down to the reality of mathematical science. One without the other is incomplete. Together, the inch along the road in search of truth, wherever it may be found” (pg. 21)

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A pioneer of play therapy and a gifted therapist, Virginia Axline, takes you on an incredible journey through the malleable mind of a child. Dibs in Search of Self is the story of the dauntless struggle of a young boy to establish his own identity, enabling him to become the person he is meant to be. His nursery school teachers strive to include Dibs in the classroom activities he is very uncommunicative and withdrawn and will sometimes attack other children if they try to approach him. His teachers along with his parents had all but disregarded him as mentally retarded. He comes across as mute and indocile, and when he does respond to anything, it is typically in monosyllables; “No Go! Dibs Stay.” His parents are well-educated, professional and wealthy. However, he is frequently locked in his room because his behaviour is often contentious and perverse, which is the cause of much frustration and at times is an embarrassment for his parents.

They reach a stage of at-a-loss and disappointment that they begin to subject him to rejection that no child should ever feel from their parents. At school, Dibs spent the majority if not all of his time disengaging him from the other children; crawling around the edge of the room and hiding under tables. The rest of his time in class was spent hiding behind the piano, looking at books for hours on end. His behaviour and outburst at times were that of a child that could easily be characterized as extremely mentally retarded. However, there were times he would quietly do something that would illustrate that he might even have superior intelligence. It was the inconsistencies between the two behaviours that made his teachers hesitant to give up on him. After two years at the school, he had made little progress and some of his tantrums had become even more fervid; scratching and biting other children.

His teachers and other administrators finally made the decision that something had to be done and this is how Dibs became introduced to Virginia Axline or Ms. A as Dibs called her, and was given a second chance at life. It is through Ms. A’s laborious efforts to create a world where Dibs could feel safe and encouraged. He Dibs begins to break out of the world he had imprisoned himself in and is given the space and comforting freedom, allowing him to truly begin to grasp a “self-understanding” of his own self-awareness. This new freedom and discovery of his own identity allow him to evolve triumphantly from the debilitations of his parent’s rejection. Through one-hour weekly play therapy sessions, Dibs develops confidence and finds his voice, given him the equipoise to both manage and express his feelings. At the beginning of his journey, Dibs lacked the ability to verbalize neither his feelings nor the capacity to understand them.

By the time Dibs reaches the end of his pilgrimage into his own psyche he emerges with such an innate understanding of his world and himself, leaving the people that once doubted him for being mentally retarded, in complete admiration. “How could a child have concealed so well this wealth of intellectual substance that was so close beneath the surface of his resistive external behaviour?” (pg 61) Abnormal psychology is defined as the branch of psychology that deals with modes of behaviour, mental phenomena, etc., that deviate markedly from the standards believed to characterize a well-adjusted personality. The case of Dibs is an eminent example of Childhood Abnormal Psychology. Defining and classifying what is abnormal in children can be difficult. Childhood is a crucial time for the development of positive and negative competency beliefs about the self that protect against or induce many childhood disorders.

Perceived losses during childhood play a key role in the development of negative patterns, which in turn aid with the storage and processing of information in a dysfunctional manner. Dubious parenting and negative life events during childhood are two important factors that may foment the development of cognitive pathology for many abnormal childhood disorders. The information passed on through the “parenting” of the child’s caregivers is incorporated by the child during “self-concept” cognitive development. Children who develop positive views of themselves are parented by feelings of warmth, acceptance and high levels of positive reinforcement. Parenting characterized by criticism, rejection, and low levels of warmth and positive reinforcement convey negative self-relevant information, thereby formulating more detrimental views of themselves and of their caretakers. Dibs is an unfortunate example of just how much of an effect parental rejection can have on a child’s cognitive development.

Child abuse comes in many ugly forms, not just physical or sexual. Dibs is an extreme case of child neglect and emotional abuse. Emotional abuse comes in several different forms; rejection, degrading, isolation, and Denying Emotional Responsiveness are examples. Dibs experienced all of these at the hands of his parents. Parental rejection is when the parent refuses to acknowledge the child’s value or worth by communicating to them that they are useless or inferior; devaluing their thoughts and feelings. In Dibs’s case, an example of this is the differential treatment of his sister, suggesting his parents dislike him in comparison. Degrading, such as name-calling and ridiculing is behaviour that can diminish the child’s identity and self-worth; such as being called stupid or retarded in Dibs’s case.

His repetitive isolation of being locked in his room his parent’s continuous denial of emotional responsiveness are also samples of the heinous emotional abuse he endured. Dibs In Search of Self is a textbook study on the cognitive-developmental effects of negative emotional parenting. “The child must first learn self-respect and a sense of dignity that grows out of his increasing self-understanding before he can learn to respect eh personalities and right and differences of others” (pg 67). “Now, it is not a matter of all black and white. It is not a matter of “this is it” because there is no glaring light of unequivocal evidence in which one sees a thing as it is and one knows the answers” (pg 20).  Things are never as they seem and it is almost reckless sometimes when a person makes a haste judgment based on what may seem like the obvious.

Dibs In Search of Self is a perfect example of how imperative it is to not practice haste when it comes to formulating a quick diagnosis. From the beginning I found myself contriving my own hypotheses. I found myself asking; “Could this be a case of autism or Asperger’s or Rett’s disorder?” Or extreme physical abuse? What I did not predict was his amazing capacity for intellect in spite of his lugubrious beginning. Dibs’s awareness of the world around him is remarkable for a child that young, especially for a child that experienced such emotional abuse at the hands of his parents. It is astonishing that he was developing intellectually beyond his age in spite of his inability to communicate or express himself. If a child grows up in an abused home, whether it is emotional or physical, until they are exposed to the outside world and the kindness of someone else, they will think that their world is what is real and just.

Dibs’s journey gives me insight into just how painful of an experience it can be when the child comes to a point of realization that begins to understand that the world they had been reared in is not “how it should have been.” Dibs’s story also enhanced my understanding of just how painful of a revelation it can be for the parents when they come to terms with what they have done and just how much they are to blame. “I don’t know how I could have done this, she cried. I couldn’t bear to admit to myself that I had done anything that had caused his problems” (pg 165). I cannot imagine how I would feel if I realized that I was actually the blame for my own child’s inefficiencies. Virginia Axline writes a textbook “step-by-step” on the effective use of child play therapy and how it can be used to treat the even most emotionally disturbed child.

I can easily assume that it would also be effective in treating other childhood disorders that derive from communication issues, like possible autism? Dibs’s high IQ did leave me wondering about what exactly did contribute to it in spite of the uncompassionate home life he endured? There have to be some efficacious conclusions from the teachings of his mother and could they possibly be used as a staple in the intellectual development of other children? Combine the intellectual stimuli he experienced with positive emotional stimulation, leaves one asking if this could be a formula for other parents to properly follow to insure the advanced intellectual development of their own children? If children that are born with a known predisposed developmental issue are given the same advanced intellectual stimuli could they also possibly develop beyond typical expectations?

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