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I spent a lot of time yesterday afternoon with a completely new student—nearly two hours, doing everything I could to get to know him. His mother hired me because she feels completely left in the dark: she’s from another country and never went to college. Her son—we’ll call him Teddy—is scraping by with mostly Cs in school despite possessing a lot of natural intelligence. He plays lots of video games and doesn’t turn in homework. “We just need help for my son!”What I turned up from the meeting is that he plays soccer, loves anime and (yes) massive online multiplayer gaming (and can speak passionately and endlessly about both subjects and the cultures that have formed around them); that he is apparently very good at standardized testing (high PSAT scores with purportedly no preparation in 10th grade); that he’s already set aside dreams of becoming an aeronautical engineer despite his love for outer space; and that Teddy is also interested in taking a gap year, which his mom thinks is a terrible idea because she’s afraid he’ll wind up completely lost. He is fluent in a second language (his mother’s first) and is semi-conversational in a third, but is struggling to pass Spanish II in school—because it’s “pointless” that he actually has to go through language training. He also has an excuse for every sagging grade, mostly having to do with “unfair” treatment on the part of his teachers.But then there was the big revelation: that he lost his father just a couple of years ago. Suddenly, unexpectedly.

We moved pretty quickly off of that point because it clearly wasn’t something open for discussion with this as-of-yet stranger. But I felt as if the picture snapped into much clearer focus in that moment. I don’t know whether or not this is a family open to psychotherapy, and I have a lot of questions now about how the grieving process unfolded in the household. The mother has a new partner living in the house, who presented himself to me as having embraced the role of surrogate father to Teddy.

The word getting thrown around mostly by the mother (but which Teddy at one point acknowledged as true) was “laziness.” But it does not feel to me to be anywhere near the full picture. There’s a lot happening below that surface picture.

And this is where I perceive most acutely to be the constraints on my role. I’m not a psychotherapist, nor am I some sort of life coach. My work with this family will be directly linked to at least one likely unresolved traumatic event in the recent past, and it seems like the mother is really looking for some magic bullet that will turn Teddy’s motivation around immediately and ultimately get him into a college that reflects his true potential.

There’s tricky terrain ahead in need of some very honest conversations. But how open will this family be?

By Nick Soper