Jack's moment of truth

One morning eight-year-old Jack suddenly announced: "Mummy, sometimes I get a bit confused. It's like I've got two wires in my head: the green one is Mike and the red one is my real father." The teacher-therapists at the Marlborough were stunned. It was the clue they had been seeking to help them discover why Jack's family were unable to control his behaviour at home or at school.

Jack's mother, Jane, explained to them that he often said things like that when he was about to be told off, and it made her feel guilty that she ended up cuddling him rather than reprimanding him. It also became clear that Mike, Jack's stepfather, did not stand up to Jack, for fear of adding to Jane's anxiety.

On the therapists' advice, Jane and Mike told Jack that they understood and wanted to discuss his feelings about his two fathers, but not when he was refusing to do something or being told off. Arrangements were made for him to see his real father more regularly.

Later, reassured that Jane's divorce had not emotionally damaged Jack, Jane and Mike decided to challenge their son's intransigence. With a teacher-therapist there to support and encourage him, Mike made his stand. Jack was refusing to continue reading a book and demanding to paint instead. The dialogue went roughly as follows: Jack (shouting): "You're so cruel, too cruel for words. You know that, Dad, you're so cruel. I bet you're cruel to other children as well."

Mike: "I know that but you've come here to learn. Now come on, I want you to read this page. Look. You've already read three lines. You've only got eight more to read."

Jack: "Eight! God! This book's too easy. I want to read the other page. You're too horrible, just disgusting."

Mike carried on insisting that Jack finish the page, telling him that his mother would do the same, and warning that he would get no more pocket money or trips to Brighton.

Jack (shouting, slowly and deliberately, ending with his face inches from Mike's): "I want to read the other page! Are you deaf?" Mike: "I've had enough of this. Turn round and sit up straight. Now read this page."

Jack (shouting again): "Okay, I'll read it, but only if you take your whole hand off the book."

Mike: "There are no deals here. This is what you do all the time. I'm asking you to read this page, something you can do very easily, and you're choosing not to do it."

After 20 minutes more of this, Jack started to calm down and asked Mike for a cuddle. Mike said he could have one after he had read the rest of the page. Slowly Jack started to read, finishing the page in about 30 seconds. He got his cuddle.

Jack's behaviour changed dramatically, and soon his teacher was asking to have him back in school.

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