Jennifer West

Jennifer West, Counselor, Harmony's Attachment Resource Team (HART)

Harmony’s Attachment Resource Team (HART) works to secure the highest degree of legal and emotional permanency for Tennessee’s children in custody/guardianship of the state and to help these children develop healthy attachment and life-long relationships.

The Davis family was referred to HART to assess the advisability of separating 11 year old Mindy from her 10 year old brother, Jason, primarily due to the fact that his serious acting out issues were jeopardizing this pre-adopt placement. In the first Child and Family Team Meeting (CFTM) HART attended, the family was given one weekend to decide to adopt both children, or they both would be removed. HART proposed a different approach. Jennifer West shares this story.


How did it go this week?
It went good, but we did have to call peanuts a few times.
And it worked?

So much power in one little word taught me that peanuts are nothing to sniff at. Maybe it is the sheer silliness of the word or maybe it is because everyone agreed to the experiment that it worked. But perhaps the whys are not so important.

In working with Mindy’s and Jason’s pre-adoptive family, I quickly discovered that many of the problems I saw were due to miscues and misunderstandings, followed by intense emotional escalations. I tentatively offered a family experiment that involved a code word. What ten year old boy doesn’t love a code word, after all? I proposed that when anyone in the family felt confused, upset, or conflicted about the messages (both verbal and nonverbal) they were receiving that they call out the family code word. This word would be a signal for a time-out, a cool down, or a check-in about the messages being sent and received, depending on what the person who called it needed. I asked the family to come up with their code word, and it did not take them long to settle on peanuts.

Then I suggested that we role play. I started off the acting so that it would not degenerate into an actual argument. (I learned about modeling role play the hard way, but that’s a story for another day!) Everyone took turns acting out scenarios that typically resulted in tears, yelling, swearing, getting grounded, or some combination thereof. Walking through the process together made abstract principles concrete and allowed the family to practice the experiment without anxiety and heightened emotions. I coached them on when and how they might slow down the communication process, how to avoid jumping to conclusions, how to offer the benefit of the doubt, and how to ask for clarification. Within a week’s time, those complex, nebulous, meta-communications got boiled down to, well, peanuts.

The family was soon calling to tell me that they were ready to go ahead with the adoption. However, when I arrived for my most recent home visit, the mother warned me that there was lots of jumping up and down and shouting going on! With fear and trepidation, I asked what was happening. I was greeted with Jason’s report card, on which he had gotten all B’s, two C’s, and S (for satisfactory behavior)! Never before had he been able to rise above a D. As the family recounted how much everything had improved, I asked them what they thought had made the difference. Their answer: peanuts! (Here’s what the family doesn’t know yet: on the day the children are adopted, I’m going to bring them the biggest sack of peanuts I can find!)

Published on April 19, 2012 by .
Posted in Adoption