Peter has an “arranging” OCD where he feels compelled to gather seemingly random objects and arrange them in certain places around the house. When our family room coffee table became unusable because of all the objects he had arranged upon it and his insistence that we keep the items exactly placed, we asked super-psychologist Dr. Gwen Palafox for advice. She told us that it was time to “compartmentalize” the OCD. You “compartmentalize” a negative behavior when it’s too strong to extinguish but benign enough to tolerate under limits. The “compartment” is the time and place limits you place on the behavior. So we placed all Peter’s items on the coffee table into a blue box, and let him have access to the box for 1/2 hr a day to use only in his room. After the 1/2 hour of indulging in his arranging compulsions, he was required to put everything back in the box till the next day. Any items left out of the box would be confiscated for 2 days, then returned to the box.

It was a struggle for quite a while for Peter to put everything away. When he would get super agitated about putting away a particular item, we would let him leave the item on his desk, but warn him about the confiscation consequence, which we carried out when he wasn’t looking or was asleep. Eventually, he learned we would figure out a way to follow through, and learned to put his OCD items away after his 1/2 hour (usually). However, he would ask for the box  incessantly. When we told him he could look forward to “box time” after dinner, it just seemed too long to wait. So we finally worked out a point system so he could  earn points throughout the day to acquire his 1/2 hour “box time.” With the points, he could see the progress he was making toward getting his box time, so it decreased his anxiety and also served as a great incentive to get work done.

Peter also started to add items he wanted to arrange. The box started spilling over with items, so we made a rule that for every new item, he would have to give up enough items to make space for it. It was tough to make choices, and sometimes we would have to hide the given up item for a while lest it prove too great a temptation to use for OCD arrangements.

For months we managed on this system. There were always tensions, as it was often really hard to clean up and disappointing when he discovered a favorite item had been confiscated, but overall we were functioning reasonably well. Unfortunately, yesterday we discovered that sneaky OCD had managed to think of another way to climb out of its box.

I caught Peter opening up the cabinet beneath his bathroom sink to look at a tin Pokemon box he had secreted there (appropriated from his little brother, unawares) filled with crayon tips and magnetic alphabet toys he had taken from his blue box. I told him we needed to put the items back in his blue box, but he grabbed my arm and insisted I leave the tin box in the cabinet. I told him that if he just wanted the items there for comfort, I would leave them, but if he took them out to arrange, I would need to return them to the blue box. Sadly, at 1:00 am that night, I discovered his bedroom light on, and Peter sitting up at his desk, arranging the items from the tin box on his desktop. I got him to clear off the desk, but he would not let me take the items. I warned him that if he did not hand them to me in 5 seconds, there would be consequences. I counted down the 5 seconds, but instead of handing me the items, he put them back in his bathroom cabinet. Naturally, after he fell back asleep, I quietly confiscated his secreted items. The next morning we had the following conversation.

Mom: So Peter, what is the purpose of having you put items that are part of your arranging compulsion into the blue box, and limiting your access to them for 1/2 an hour a day?

Peter: To strap my OCD

Mom: What happens when you hide items to indulge in your arranging OCD in secret, beyond the 1/2 hour compartment?

Peter: It breaks it. It unleashes the mastiff. Sorry, Mom, I feel most sorry, really am determined to do better.

Mom: I’m glad you are sorry, because hiding things undermines your ability to control the OCD. I would not want it to grow and control your life. But let’s see if we can figure out together how you might do better next time. Did you get any warning bells in your head that it was a bad idea to hide the items away?

Peter: Yes.

Mom: That’s good. That shows your upper brain was still alive and kicking, even though I gather the temptation was too great.

Peter: Yes.

Mom: Next time you get the warning bells, do you think you could just walk away and get me? Perhaps we could type together to figure out the problem.

Peter: (no answer, long pause)

Mom: Would that be too hard?

Peter: Yes.

Mom: Hmm, well if the urge is too strong to extinguish, how about doing a push back by turning it into a reward? Tell your OCD you will squirrel away the items, but only after you do something you should, like hanging up your clothes (that would be fighting your other OCD to dump your church clothes on the chair) or brushing your teeth? Then at least you get some use out of the OCD, harnessing the mad dog to turn it into a sled dog.

Peter: I like that idea. Mom, you have ingenious ideas.

Mom: Thank you, I hope it helps. As for tonight, what should we do with the secreted items?

Peter: Of course I will be okay.

Mom: Well, I think we need to stick to the rules we set before. Items not returned to the box are confiscated for the next box session and returned to the box for the session after that. So tonight, your box will be missing that tin Pokemon box, but if you clean up all your items tonight, I will return it to the blue box the following session. Dr. Gwen told us that firm rules helps contain the OCD. Otherwise, the OCD monster is encouraged to push the limits further, which indeed proved true when I allowed you to keep the secreted items in the cabinet when I first discovered you hid them.

That’s actually another issue we should address. I think because you hid those items, we also need to give you more support to control your OCD by watching you clean up and checking through your drawers and cabinets to make sure you have not hidden anything. Remember, the more self-control you demonstrate, the less monitoring we need to do. The more you can control this OCD, the less we need to support you to control it.

Later that evening, Peter and I read a poem by Maya Angelou entitled, “Women’s Work.” Peter wrote the following poem in the same style,

Quelling Obsessions

Tunes to hum,
Thoughts to drum.
Lights to shut,
Books to cut

Mom’s arm to grab,
Lips to dab.
Shirts to unhang,
Chin to bang.

Drinks to dump,
Paper to crump.
Fingers to crush,
Goggles to flush.

Ease my brain read a story,
Write a poem, sing a song.
Like a river running through me
Let the rhyme push out the wrong.

Come with me down this ski slope
As we fly down to the brink.
Dance the rumba with me, Anna[1],
Let your steps get mine in synch.

Let me sink into my cozy bed,
Fill my bath with water hot.
Mom, give to me your peaceful smile
And put to rest my thought.

[1] Anna is Peter’s ballroom dance teacher.

It’s hard to live with OCD, but you can help your child stay functional with a variety of strategies, including compartmentalization. As Peter points out in his poem, keeping the mind and body busy, and the soothing the senses and emotions also help a lot.











Most mornings, Peter and I start the day with devotionals. Last week on the morning of 5/16th, the readings were 1 Acts 20:28-38 and John 17:11-19. As Peter summarized them up, respectively,  “Paul says good-bye, and Jesus says good-bye.” Both have to say good-bye to loved ones they know they will never see again. Both pray fervently for their followers to remain strong in faith and “consecrated in the truth.” The morning Mass homilist said the readings reminded him of a story about an elderly man saying good-bye to his daughter at the airport. As she departed for her flight, the man said, “Daughter, I wish you enough.” Afterwards, when a bystander asked what he meant, he explained that it was a tradition in his family. He recited this unusual blessing in its entirety (kindspring.org):

“I wish you enough sun to keep your attitude bright. I wish you enough rain to appreciate the sun more. I wish you enough happiness to keep your spirit alive. I wish you enough pain so that the smallest joys in life appear much bigger. I wish you enough gain to satisfy your wanting. I wish you enough loss to appreciate all that you possess. I wish enough “Hello’s” to get you through the final “Good-bye.”

You don’t often see a blessing in which someone wishes you hardships, pain, and loss. Yet real life is full of these, and so the message represents, paradoxically, a powerful invitation. When Adam and Eve rebel against God, he “blesses” them with pain and suffering (Gen 3:16-19). When Jesus invites us to follow, he plainly warns us that the way to heaven is the way of the Cross (Matt 16:24, Luke 9:23, Matt 5:11, Matt 7:14, 2 Tim 3:12). Is the invitation to understand suffering a different way? Certainly there’s nothing like hardship and loss to make us appreciate the good things we have and the value of the effort. Nothing like feeling our limitations to make us humble and appreciate the people who help us. Sometimes only the bullhorn of experiencing the bad consequences of our actions is loud enough to motivate us to change. Could suffering be the way we draw near to Christ and are interiorly transformed and conformed to his image (Rom 12:2)? Could this be the way we turn from our rebellion of egoism to humble repentance and our need for God?

But what about the innocent who suffer? And even for  the “ordinary” sinner, sometimes the suffering seems out of proportion to or even unrelated to what we’ve done or seem to need to learn. In his papal document “Salvifici Doloris,” St. John Paul II addresses these questions by inviting us to go even further in our understanding of the mystery of suffering. In the first part of the document, he talks about how the Old Testament case of Job makes it clear that we are not to attribute someone’s suffering directly to that person’s sins; Job was innocent, and his suffering was presented more as a trial of his faith and love of God. But then our former Pope explains that what Jesus did on the Cross in the New Testament adds a whole new dimension to our understanding of the purpose of suffering. Just as Jesus came to earth to save us by suffering for our sins, we, as parts of his mystical body,  are invited to understand our suffering as an integral part of our redemption and the redemption of others. “It (suffering) is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: ‘Follow me!’. Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross, spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. He does not discover this meaning at his own human level, but at the level of the suffering of Christ. At the same time, however, from this level of Christ the salvific meaning of suffering descends to man’s level and becomes, in a sense, the individual’s personal response. It is then that man finds in his suffering interior peace and even spiritual joy…Faith in sharing in the suffering of Christ brings with it the interior certainty that the suffering person ‘completes what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions’ (Col 1:24); the certainty that in the spiritual dimension of the work of Redemption he is serving, like Christ, the salvation of his brothers and sisters. Therefore he is carrying out an irreplaceable service. In the Body of Christ, which is ceaselessly born of the Cross of the Redeemer, it is precisely suffering permeated by the spirit of Christ’s sacrifice that is the irreplaceable mediator and author of the good things which are indispensable for the world’s salvation. It is suffering, more than anything else, which clears the way for the grace which transforms human souls… ”

St. John Paul II therefore presents suffering as a way the sufferer can sanctify himself and others by offering it up to God as a spiritual sacrifice with the Spirit of Christ. He goes on to take the perspective of the one who encounters the sufferer. He too can sanctify himself in his response to the suffering of others. “(Moreover) (t)he world of human suffering unceasingly calls for, so to speak, another world: the world of human love; and in a certain sense man owes to suffering that unselfish love which stirs in his heart and actions… At one and the same time Christ has taught man to do good by his suffering and to do good to those who suffer.” (www.ewtn.com/library/papaldoc/jp2salvi.htm)

So St. John Paul II says that suffering calls us to love and help the sufferer. This latter point is something we can all readily understand. But the former point- that as His mystical body, Christ invites us to unite our own sufferings with His for the redemption of all; that because Christ had a vocation to suffer to save mankind, so do we- this is not something one immediately understands with the mind. Rather, for me, this is something I have found to be an immense consolation and source of strength and hope not in the abstract, but only through the experience of suffering. We moms see our children suffer as they struggle with the hardships and challenges of autism, and we suffer with them. How many times have I knelt before the Tabernacle looking up at our sweet Lord suffering upon the Cross, and thought about our blessed Mother standing broken-hearted beside him, and received grace to carry on. I can’t explain the joy of the Cross, but I can experience its consolation and feel the strength of Jesus as He carries my cross with me. As Peter puts it, “I guess I am consecrated for suffering.” We have to suffer anyway. Rebellion and bitterness do not make the suffering any more bearable, but add to it. Through embracing this suffering as a vocation, even as one continues to work for solutions and the remediation of the causes of suffering, one comes to understand and appreciate the great gift of Christ in empowering us through union with him to transform our suffering into a sacrifice of love.

“So what do you make of this unusual blessing, Peter?” I asked. “What does it mean?”

“May you have enough (including obstacles) to get you to heaven.  I am impressed and encouraged to see my obstacles as a means of sanctification.”

So to all of you, dear friends suffering from autism and those who suffer as they support them, may the words from Scripture and the Church inspire us all to pray to our Lord on the Cross for the hope and grace we need to endure and glorify God through every tribulation, and to see each challenge as an opportunity to do good and most of all to love more.

If it weren’t for Easter,

Hatred destroys, and life dies.

Beauty decays, the innocent suffer.

Without Easter,

My disabilities confine me,

My suffering is meaningless, and

Why should anyone care?

Without Easter,

We expend ourselves in pretense and illusion,

For we come from random nothing

And end in random nothing


But if Jesus rose from the dead,

Love is stronger than hate,

Life is stronger than death.

Earthly beauty, though evanescent,

Foreshadows Beauty Everlasting, and,

Like Love, has a presence outside time.

My disabilities can transform me for

Suffering borne with patience has great merit,[i]

It is the way of the Cross, and

God cares.

A man sees the outward appearance, but God looks into the heart.[ii]

A man is only what he is before God, nothing more,[iii]

But also nothing less.

I am beloved.

You are beloved.

Our origin is love, our destiny is love.[iv]


Only God is forever.

Better to take His side, and

Be an Easter people.


[i] St Francis of Assisi

[ii] 1 Sam 16:7

[iii] St Francis of Assisi

[iv] St. John of the Cross

Is your child difficult to motivate? Does your child have big emotions or difficulty communicating in the usual ways? I remember the long years when my Peter couldn’t talk, couldn’t hold a pencil, and didn’t want to play,  when his only sure motivator was food. To add to that, in his teen age years, as often happens, his emotions exploded with massive dysregulation due to OCD and anxiety. I used to think that the arts were only for other kids, less impacted with autism, or maybe savants. But I’m telling you, I was wrong. It turned out that the arts played and continue to play an important role in Peter’s development. The arts may actually be a part of the solution for your child as well.

How do you begin? How do you lay a foundation for creativity? I believe  that for our family, doing hours and hours of floortime laid the foundation. Now mind you, more often than not, Peter didn’t look like he enjoyed it; he looked like for all the world all he wanted to do was withdraw and be left alone. We doggedly proceeded as a matter of faith. During the long years Peter had almost no language, we did a lot of play centered around reenacting emotionally charged events that happened in Peter’s life with stuffed animals or an analogous theme, at first demonstrating a more adaptive reaction, then eventually as he got more and more into it, letting Peter create his own new endings. It wasn’t until years later that I asked Peter what he thought of those many hours of DIR, and he said he felt like “Cinderella at the ball.” (see Profectum.org for parent training resources, especially the new free “Parent Toolbox”)

Once Peter started using a Vantage, an icon- based augmentative communication device, we added the habit of journaling and reflecting. See this little icon?  I would carry it in my pocket. On walks or outings, I would pull it out, and ask Peter, “So what do you see? hear, touch, smell, taste? ” whatever made sense, depending on the experience.  Later in the day, I’d pull it out again or draw it in reflections, during bedtime prayers or in conversations with his dad, asking “so tell Dad what we did? or how did you feel about that?”, so he could enjoy the experience, savor it,  thoroughly all over again. We would reflect on negative experiences too to reprocess them. So Peter built his foundation of emotional self awareness, perspective-taking, and internal standards at the same time he built his language. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that he put in the hard work of learning language because it was so emotionally relevant to him to talk about both the bad and good times of his life.

If you want to see the steps laid out methodically for building this kind of foundation using floortime and reflections for a child with minimal language skills, they’re all in a book I wrote in 2012, entitled “Teaching Your Child with Love and Skill: a Guide for Parents and Other Educators of Children with Autism, including Moderate to Severe Autism,” published by JKP.

What has happened in the 5 years since then? I would say an explosion or revolution in development. What made that possible was Dr. Ricki, who introduced Peter and me to Darlene Hanson, a speech pathologist from REACH who introduced Peter to supported typing (http://www.reach.services). Supported typing is a topic for a future conference; for now let me just say it is a way to support the child in all areas, and as Peter recently put it, “Darlene snared my fleeting thoughts, enabling my thoughts to get out and stand on paper rather than scurry for cover.” Typing gave Peter the means to show what he knows, such that he was able to eventually transition to diploma tract. Even more importantly, typing allowed him to express himself and develop his creativity with the written word, with the efficiency, speed, and flexibility that icon-based AC could not provide.

His poetry today (see “My World as a Poemhttps://www.amazon.com/dp/1544634110/) is very much a development upon our old journaling habits- he writes about his daily experiences and inner life. It came providentially at the time his OCD and anxiety exploded, as often happens in the teen years. So Peter had an outlet for and a tool to handle his emotional dysregulation in writing. Creative writing has been critical for Peter to process and handle his big emotions, and conversely, because necessity is the mother of invention, the big emotions have been a  driving force behind the development of his creativity. The illustration shows how stress can trigger the amygdala (lower brain) to activate a fight or flight motor response, but the frontal lobes (upper brain) may learn, with nurturing and practice, to modulate that response, especially using creativity as a strategy.





Let me show you how this works in a real life example.

Two weeks ago, Peter developed a new OCD. He discovered an extra long rubberband, which he enjoyed stretching and plucking in the usual way. But then he started holding it between his teeth, letting the end dangle like a long string from his mouth. I didn’t want him to swallow it, nor look really odd to others. But first thing when he woke up in the morning, he started lunging for the drawer where he had placed the rubberband the night before.

I sat between Peter and the drawer.

“Peter, slow down! Is something driving you crazy?”

Peter tried to reach past me for the drawer, that crazy, driven OCD gleam in his eyes.

“Ok, calm down. Take a deep breath. That’s it. Come on, tell me what’s going on. How badly do you need to do this, on a scale of 1 to 5?”

Peter typed, “4+,” as he perseverated, “Rubber band! rubber band!”

“Remember Peter, if you feel that driven, this may be an OCD. If so, it’s probably telling you some false thought like, ‘If you don’t get that rubberband, you’ll explode.’ Right? Ok, how about we slow down a minute, and just talk about it first. So tell me, what’s so appealing about that rubberband? What would you do with it, if you could get to that drawer?” Peter started typing about all the great qualities of a rubberband. Always fun to think about a compulsion. After he got his thoughts down, I suggested we play around and divide the thoughts into short lines of verse. We picked out the most vivid vocabulary,   made lists of words that rhymed with them, then rewrote the corresponding lines to get the rhymes  in at the end. After one stanza, I asked another question,

“But what’s the down-side of holding that rubberband in your mouth?” We brought in a little perspective-taking and reasoning as Peter repeated the process of getting down his thoughts, then organized them into the structure of poetic form. At this point, he was already into the rhythm of the game, and willing to continue, thereby almost unconsciously beginning the process of resisting the OCD. By the time we finished the second stanza, Peter’s upper brain was now engaged, warmed up, and had come to the conclusion that cons outweighed the pros and that longing for the rubberband did not make sense and therefore must be a compulsion. So finally I asked, “So Peter, you have a choice. If this is really an OCD, what does Dr. Gwen say to do? That’s right, take a baby step away. What are your strategies? That’s it, put it away and distract, or if that’s too hard, turn the mad dog into a sled dog and use the compulsion as a reward. (We often picture OCD as a big dog companion that Peter has to learn to live with, so we use that image of harnessing the motivation of a compulsion to get work done a lot.) What do you think you can manage?”  We repeated the same process of writing, dividing thoughts into verse lines, creating rhyming lists, and editing.  Here’s Peter’s finished product:

Rubberband, rubberband, elastic and round,

Rubberband, rubberband, sing your song.

“Boing,” stretch, dangle, and pull,

I can’t seem to get enough “boing!” to the full.


But holding it between my teeth,

Is not a thing to really eat.

OCD, the very picture I look,

Dangling like a fish on the hook.


So instead of keeping you in my head,

I’ll use you to get out of bed.

Mom, put it in my bathroom cup.

I’ll chase it there, and thus get up.

“So, Peter, did you enjoy writing your poem?”  I could see it in his face, the relaxation of the muscles, the crazy, driven gleam diminished from his eyes.

“Yes,” he typed.

“How did your stress level fare?” We use an emotional thermometer, scaled 0-5.

“From 4+ to 3+.”

“So how powerful is your creative power?”


There’s an addendum to this story. Once Peter put his plan into action, and got out of bed, I lined up his soap, toothbrush, and mouthwash in a row, putting the cup with the rubberband in it at the very end, so he had to go through the sequence of his self-help tasks first to get it. By that time, so much time had passed, that he was at a different place in the compulsion wave. It was passing, not totally, but he was at a better point. So it was time for another negotiation.

“Peter, how long do you think you should get the rubberband? You don’t want to lose all the ground you’ve gained, so it probably shouldn’t be too long.”

“Ten minutes,” he replied.

“That seems a bit long to me. How about you keep it as long as you don’t put it in your mouth. If you do, I take it away.”

Peter thought a moment, then abruptly took the rubber band out of the cup and placed it back in his drawer and walked away to the kitchen for breakfast.

So rather than lose control of the rubberband, he decided to hide the visual trigger and not engage in the compulsion at all. It was the best possible outcome. Peter’s choice, to carry out his own initiative, a strategy he came up with himself, that did not carry out the compulsion and therefore not reinforce it or strengthen that OCD circuit in any way, all while exercising his frontal lobes and strengthening his brain connections top to bottom (point to first stanza, slowing down the reactivity), left to right (bringing in reason), so executive function could come online (point to third stanza). You could just watch those synapses grow, and watch the development of emotional regulation.

So my question to you is, could there possibly be anything more therapeutic than the arts? With the arts, the child has a positive means to channel and let go of all the anguish inside, to fully express, understand, and process his emotions, positive and negative. Those brain glitches may be companions our children have to live with the rest of their lives; how much healthier it would be to learn to accept, channel, and transform negative emotion, rather than simply try to squelch it all the time. This is by cartoonist Matthew Inman. Peter and I love this image, which has become our modus operandi for dealing with emotional dysregulation.

M. Inman




That’s one of the most important lessons Peter and I learned from DIR. Negative emotions are not all bad. We can learn not to be afraid of nor to  make an enemy of those big emotions. They can serve as powerful motivators for development.





I encourage all of you to explore the arts as the integrating and transforming channel that may turn emotional challenges into the development of emotional regulation, creativity, self-awareness, and self-esteem. And to make something potentially beautiful and enlightening for others in the process. With art, you can be yourself, at your own pace, and there are no restrictions or disabilities in the imagination. It can’t get much better than that.

Don’t take my word for it. Peter wrote this poem, revealing how the arts have transformed his life. (The poem is symmetrical, with the last four stanzas corresponding to the first four in reverse order.)

I am autistic,
Greedy eyes and ears,
Wet in the rain of sensory deluge.

I’ve been a prisoner,
Captured in silence,
Voiceless and unintelligible.

I’ve been a slave,
Strapped to my obsessions
Ordering me to do nonsense, perverse to my character.

I’ve been a paralytic,
Feet stuck to the street,
People swirling around me.

I’m a listener,
Watching and receiving
Like a peaceful tree. 

I’m a tiger tamer,
Harnessing  the energy of my compulsions
To write one more line.

I’m an escapee,
Flying my soul like a kite
On a string of words.

I’m a poet,
Exploring the world with keen senses,
Sharing with you a bite of fresh air.

1 Samuel 16:7

“Joyce, my daughter feels so dumb. She used to think she was ok, but after a year in this honors program at USC, she feels like she’s surrounded by geniuses. She cried and cried. She feels completely inadequate. I told her it was okay, but my heart was breaking to see her feeling that way.”

Wow, did that conversation ever bring back a flood of memories for me. I told my other-mom-friend that boy, could I relate to her daughter’s feeling, after 8 years at Harvard (4 in the college, 4 in the med school). I used to have nightmares about being in genetics seminar and not having the faintest idea what everyone was talking about, or making it all the way to the end of the semester with barely a shred of understanding to get through my advanced biochemical thermodynamics final exam. I recalled all the one-ups-man-ship going on during rounds as a medical resident, the constant tearing down and clawing up I observed on a regular basis.

By contrast I thought of a story St. John Paul II (Karol Wojtyla), one of the most popular popes in modern history, used to tell. During the terrible Nazi occupation of Poland, working as a delivery boy and quarry worker, he was greatly helped and guided by an unassuming man named Jan Leopold Tyranowski.  Tyranowski was a tailor who served as a spiritual mentor in a discipleship program called the Living Rosary, created to support Polish youth in their Catholic faith during the tumultuous war years.  Karol would always remember the humble tailor’s teaching on suffering and how it can draw us closer to God. After becoming pope, he wrote how Tyranowski was “one of those unknown saints, hidden like a marvelous light at the bottom of life, at a depth where night usually reigns.”

And I thought of Peter, the child of my heart who can’t talk, can’t get his body to move where he wants to go half the time, but wrote yesterday, “I fly my soul like a kite at the end of a string of words.” Peter has completely changed me. It’s as if he removed the blinds from my eyes to see what’s really important about a person and a person’s life. It’s not the externals, the wealth, popularity, looks, or even “accomplishment” that makes a person precious and sacred, that’s for sure. It’s the soul within. The one who cares, feels, values, decides, and tries. And that has little to do even with intelligence, social skills, or praxis. The inner seat lies even deeper than that.

“It’s ok, Myra, it really is. Tell her that she and her friends are all plenty smart enough to do a lot of good. How smart you are, how high you can jump, how fast you can run, are gifts from God, why should anyone boast about it? God cares about what you do with your gifts, because that shows what’s in here,” I said, pointing to her heart. “Just put your arms around her, and tell her with all you heart and mean it, “The rest really matters not at all.”

The refrigerator door stood open, as Peter hesitated. He handed me the chicken, then snatched it back and put it into the refrigerator, while handing me the fish. Then it was the leftover rice in the pot with an abrupt switch to the leftover rice in the tupperware box. He finally handed me something he wouldn’t even eat after I microwaved it, but instead ran into the family room. He turned on the TV, then quickly positioned a chair facing the corner, back to the TV. He ran down the hall to his little brother Luke’s room, and returned with one of the boxes Luke stores Pokemon cards in (cards emptied out), and started tapping and turning it. I firmly took the box out of Peter’s hands and hid it under the sofa.

“Peter, slow down! What’s going on?”

Peter’s eyes burned as he reached for the box and gasped, “Bok, bok!” (for “box, box”)

“Ok, calm down. Take a deep breath. That’s it. Come on, tell me what’s going on. So what happened there at the refrigerator? Can you write about it?” As Peter started squeezing my hands, I said, “You will get that box. But first let’s put some brakes on this. Remember, when you have an intense OCD, what does Dr. Gwen tell us we can do to delay it?”

Peter typed, “I can harness this sled dog. I can let myself have the box if I finish.”

I told him that was a great idea. If only he would write down his thoughts about what was going on at the refrigerator, then with the chair, then with the hand squeezing. Knowing he loves poetry, after he finished that, I gave him the challenge of putting it into verse, and adding rhymes. After he completed each stanza, I asked him to rate his OCD intensity as higher, same, or lower. I kept hoping he would say “lower” as writing bided time for us. Unfortunately, he kept saying “Same.” I tried to make the best of it, “Hey, you see, it’s not getting worse!” Here are Peter’s first three stanzas (English sonnet form abab, cdcd, efef).

Give me chicken, no let’s not.

Give me fish, no, another mistake.

First the rice in the box, not it’s the rice in the pot.

OCD picks the one thing I hate.


The chair in the corner is where I must sit,

Facing away so I can’t see the TV.

It doesn’t make sense, not even a bit.

No matter, OCD’s punishing me.


I’m squeezing your hand to wring out my pain.

Give me the box you put under.

I’m taking deep breaths but still going insane.

OCD rips and tears me asunder.


Finally after the third stanza,  I asked Peter to rate his OCD. He typed,

“The box compulsion is surprisingly better,

As I delayed it while writing this letter.”

(That couplet completed the 14 lines of an English sonnet.)

“Wow, Peter!” I exclaimed, look at that! See how strong your creativity is!

Peter typed, “Strong enough to resist a 5/5 compulsion.” All lit up, he said with a big smile and gesture, “Bok, peez!”

“At this point, you have definitely earned that box several times over. But I want to know what you, Peter Tran, upper brain, really want to do now. Because OCD has been bossing you around all night and made you pick something you didn’t like out of the refrigerator and sit in a punishing corner. Wouldn’t you just love to slug OCD back one more time? Why not eat a piece of delicious piece of pizza first for dinner, and then get the box?”

I held my breath. I truly was totally prepared to let Peter take the box from under the sofa. Instead, he did something remarkable. He stood up and slowly walked to the kitchen. At one point he stopped, and started to turn back, but I positioned myself between his body and the sofa. Smilingly I encouraged him, “You are doing great, Peter.”

Peter turned abruptly back to the kitchen and headed through the door.

I’m sharing this story because I want to encourage you kids suffering from OCD and you parents trying to help your children deal with it. It may not be possible to completely change the wiring glitch that causes OCD, but you can build up the attention shifting and compulsion inhibition skills required to achieve a long enough delay for the compulsion wave to wane, and the frontal lobe engagement to move that broken record on a different track. Use deep breathing and the hope of eventually getting to do the compulsion to create some relief from anxiety. Help your child to recognize that it’s the intrusive thoughts of OCD, not his own, that are making him feel he needs to do something that doesn’t make sense. Distract him, help him shift attention away by engaging the upper brain/frontal lobes into an exercise you know he likes (In this case, I know Peter loves to write). Support him to initiate a strategy like delay that you’ve talked about together beforehand, and to self-monitor his state of being so he can watch the intensity of the compulsion fall and be encouraged by his own success. Doing something creative is especially powerful and rewarding because the child can create his own ending to the story; if he pretends to be successful, chances are greater he will become successful by being able to process what’s happening and envision a positive ending. Be transparent in your coaching, and tell your child what you are doing and thinking so that he can understand, want to cooperate with, and imitate it. It’s a goal for him to learn how to talk to himself in the same way. Most importantly, signpost his accomplishment. Be the banner bearer of his success. As Dr. Gwen tells us, the one thing that equips your child best to combat intrusive thoughts is the realization that “I can do this. I do have a choice.” That self concept and self esteem is built through accomplishment. So whatever progress your child makes, whatever small step in the right direction he is able to accomplish, even a baby step, proclaim it and rejoice! Developing emotional regulation is a slow process, but with each victory, another inhibitory or attention shifting synapse is born.

Admonition by Dr. Gwen Palafox, illustrated by Clarissa Kano

A very cool thing happened this weekend.


My youngest, Luke, was in tears, disappointed because he couldn’t talk Dad into taking him to a Pokemon tournament. He was supposed to have earned the privilege by working on his science project, but had displayed, shall we say, a less-than-optimal attitude about it. So Dad said no. Here’s the conversation that ensued between  Peter and Luke.


Peter: Hi luke, sporry about the tournament. You had yyour hopes up. Perhaps next time you can use a point system. It really helps. Just don’t give up.
Luke: It doesn’t matter anymore.
Peter: It does matter. But you vcan’t give up.
Luke: Too late. Nothing to work for anymore.  I’ve already given up.
Peter: That’s blackmail.
Luke: How is that blackmail?
Peter: You are telljng everyone if you can’tg have your way, you won’t try.

Luke: But that was the last big city tournament. I don’t have anything to work for.

Peter: Then keep trying to be better for God.
Luke : What does that mean?
Peter: You live for yourself or for God. Just open your heart. Live abundantly. It is more to live for others.
Luke: What does that mean?
Peter: Like studying to be useful.  you are so smart.
Luke: I still don’t get it.
Mom: I think he means that you should continue to try hard to study well so you can gain the skills to become useful to society and others someday. Is that it, Peter?
Peter: yes.
Luke: Mom, are you on my side?
Mom: I’m always on your side.
Luke: That’s good.
Mom: In this case, I believe being on your side is agreeing with your brother. He’s your big brother and is giving you good advice.


Well, Luke went off to walk to church, and Peter and I prayed for him. When he came back, he was genuinely okay. He approached Dad and actually asked to talk about why Dad had thought he had a bad attitude, and what he could do differently next time (believe me, these were simple things, like staying for the whole experiment). Luke actually listened  instead of constantly interrupting and protesting, and then he nodded and was all right. For impatient, explosive Luke, this was a remarkable milestone.

But a milestone for both boys. Luke was always the sheepdog for Peter as they grew up, buzzing and circling ’round, and coming back to report to me when Peter needed help. And now look! As big brothers do and sometimes as only big brothers can do, he challenged Luke to be better, and Luke rose up to it!

I stood by observing all this in joy and amazement. How many times have I despaired of making headway to help Luke improve on his temper and tolerance for frustration? And who would have guessed in all those years of silence before Peter could type, that he would one day be the one to provide the words of encouragement Luke needed to hear at this critical moment.

There’s a terrific app called “Saint A Day.” Wouldn’t you know it, but the saint for that day was St. Andrew Corsini, a 14th century Italian. Before he was born, his mother dreamt that she gave birth to a wolf, who went into a church, and changed into a lamb. Later, when Andrew grew into an out-of-control young man, his mother told him he was the wolf she dreamt about. Andrew went into a Carmelite church to pray, and felt inspired to change his life. He became a famous Carmelite priest and peacemaker. The mini-homily at the end of the story went like this, “We can be peacemakers just like St. Andrew. When we treat people with love and respect, we are spreading peace. When we forgive those who have hurt us, we are spreading peace. When we try to cheer up people who are sad, we are spreading peace.”

To me that day Luke was the wolf who changed into a lamb, and Peter was the peacemaker. Thank you, Lord, for you find a way where there is no way, and your solutions are the best, most unexpected, and most beautiful.

Wishing you all also a most blessed and happy New Year!