“Where can I possibly find a spider without buying it forever? I know I’m not going around digging under rocks during my lunch break.” These are the things you think about when you are a child therapist and it’s the end of your day and your mind is drifting from one client to another.
So, spoiler alert, I have a client who is afraid of spiders. He’s not super afraid of spiders, he’s more afraid of other things, so that’s why I really needed to find a spider. If I could train him to calm his mind and body in order to confront his fear of spiders, I could build him up to handle a more daunting task. If you are interested in some psycho-babble, I’m talking about working up my client’s “fear hierarchy,” one step at a time.
Part of being a community psychologist means working within many systems like community, school, and family in order to produce meaningful change in the lives of clients that aren’t isolated to a therapy space. My trip to JTK Reptiles is an example of the way therapists at community mental health agencies, such as The Guidance Center, are constantly connecting with their surroundings in search of the support a client needs.
So, after a day of teaching children all about anxiety; after saying things repeatedly like “Anxiety is a typical everyday emotion that all humans experience and use to get things done such as finish an assignment and stay away from danger;” I found myself outside JTK Reptiles on PCH and MLK telling myself, “Take a deep breath and act calm or all these snakes will know you are afraid and you won’t be able to help your buddy.”
What my client, his mother, and I found inside was pretty awesome. We met lots of cool animals and an even cooler shop owner, Brian, who helped us all to relax. I was focused on getting my client to face his fears, but Brian was intent on us having a positive experience with his animals. He suggested, “Your client is interested, so just let him explore, and don’t focus his attention on his fear.” My client pointed out all the snakes and lizards to his mother, and I coached her to stay calm and to praise her son for being so brave.
After a lot of carrying on and special treatment (Brian even showed us newborn baby chameleons), we made it to the spiders. My client asked, “Lift me up, so I can see them better.” Since that first trip, we visited again and have gotten accustomed to hanging out in the store. To use psycho-babble again that would be called “systematic desensitization,” which is like purposely building tolerance for things that bother you.
Eventually I learned that Brian was a professional in “exposure” or helping children confront anxiety, because he visits schools and introduces children to his exotic pets as a part of his profession. He seeks to educate people how to handle animals and how to interact with them calmly. I remember him saying “You wouldn’t like it if they showed up at your house and screamed at you, so let’s not scream when we see them.” (I swear I didn’t scream). Next time you are strolling down PCH you should check out his shop, it’s definitely worth your time.
For myself and my client, our trip was a valuable first step into exposure treatment that left us feeling ready to conquer his fears.
Max Tokarsky is a Predoctoral Psychology Intern from Dayton, Ohio. He came to The Guidance Center to finish his internship year as part of his degree requirement for a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the Wright State School of Professional Psychology. He sought an opportunity far away from his hometown for the opportunity to work with immigrant families and to build his competence in bilingual practice. He has extended his contract at The Guidance Center to work a second year as a Postdoctoral Fellow. He is also participating in the city’s Neighborhood Leadership Program, which is focused on empowering grassroots community advocates in Long Beach.