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Saturday, October 2, 2010

Should little kids be tough when they hurt themselves? At what price?

Today I was at a public event in a square.  We were enjoying the festivities, until my attention was suddenly pulled to my right as a little toddler, about two maybe, stumbled and fell down flat on the concrete, "ouch!" I thought and flinched waiting for the wail.  He clearly scratched his hands and got a bit of a shock.  Just as instantly as the little boy started to wail, he stopped silent, he visibly pulled his breath in, pushed his little head forcefully down onto his body and tightened his whole body.  I couldn't help imagining how much force and will power it must take for a little one to shut down his natural instincts to wail and cry and then seek comfort.  The father reached down to attempt to pick his little boy up (assuming that is, that he was the father).  The boy resisted.  I continued to walk past, but couldn't quite resist looking back to further witness what was happening.  The little boy was fully attacking his father/caregiver, punching his legs with his little fists, the father attempting to reason with him and the mother looking on with a torn anguished embarrassed and powerless look on her face.

I thought about what a classic situation this is, what a familiar scenario it is, a scenario that I've witnesses or listened to parents describe time and again.

What's happening in a situation like this?  Why did the little boy not cry?  Was he being brave or was there something else going on?  Why did he not let his parents comfort him?  Why the outburst of anger?  Why attack his parents?

Who knows what was going on in the life of that little boy and his family/caregivers, who knows what the myriad of complex factors might have been that influenced him and his behaviour.  I'm not pretending to know, but just taking this experience as an example of a common scenario between little (and big) kids and their parents and caregivers.

To me it seemed clear that when the little boy became silent and pushed his face into his hands that he was acting from a very strong impulse that contradicted and acted against the very natural healthy and instinctive impulse to cry when the body, mind or emotions experience a shock.  The child was thrown out of balance and the body has a natural drive to regain balance by releasing emotional shock and the even physical pain through crying or screaming (depending on severity of shock or pain).

The impulse to cry or scream is a natural mechanism to bring relief.  But the little boy overpowered this instinct by shutting down his cries, silencing himself probably because he has a different association with crying and screaming.

The aggressive response:  How has he been responded to in the past when he has cried or screamed?  Does he carry a body memory of being ignored, refused comfort?  Has he been reasoned with in a way that has made him feel unaccepted in his feelings "it wasn't that bad, you'll live this time, she didn't mean to hurt you, it was an accident, etc"? Has he been scolded, punished (e.g. sent to his room), been shouted at or scowled at for crying or screaming?

The anxious response:  Other parents feel sympathetic when their child becomes upset, but their child's cries cause them to feel overwhelmed, anxious, embarrassed, perhaps it brings to the surface their fears of not being a good enough parent.  These parents are likely to try and comfort their child with an anxious energy and likely to either try and distract their child away from their feelings... "let's buy a treat/ play a game/ watch a film" or offering their child milk, bottle or breast or food in an overly insistent manner.

When children feel their parent's acceptance, they will generally let out their big cries, then choose some milk, rest, fun or food afterwards.  If there's more stress still inside, they'll come back to their upset and have another cry or talk about what happened or otherwise try to resolve it, perhaps they'll make fun of what happened allowing release through laughter.  I've witnessed that when children are pushed to take milk for comfort (bottle/breast), they are often still unsettled afterwards and likely to have another mishap.

If the child has experienced some of these reactions to their cries and screams and the anguish of these reactions have not been resolved by the parent (by showing remorse and repairing these conflicts), then the child will have recorded in his brain these associations.  I cry/scream, my parent reacts aggressively/anxiously it hurts, it's confusing, I loose my sense of warmth, connection, safety and security, I feel alone, I feel bad, I can't cope.

The physiological impulse to cry is an impulse to bring relief and regain balance.  The parent's negative reactions to their child's cries and screams brings anguish, frustration and more pain in a moment where the child is already emotionally raw.  When a child cries, they are always in a more emotionally raw and vulnerable state than when they're feeling settled and calm.  Negative reactions from parents at these times hurt more for this reason. 

Back to the little boy, if some of the above is true for him (perhaps by the same parent/caregiver, perhaps by a different parent/caregiver), then the impulse to repress and silence his cries would have been a self-protective mechanism.  Because the impulse to cry when shocked or hurt is strong, it would have taken huge energy to shut down that natural impulse.  This would have created an internal conflict.  This would have led to big internal anger and frustration.

The child would have experienced rejection from the moment he fell based on his expectation of rejection based on previous experience.  When a child feels rejected they show us by rejecting.  When children act out, they are showing us how they feel, how they've been made feel.  The child was rejecting and attacking.  The child felt rejected and attacked (in previous similar situations, but not necessarily by the same person!).  Although his feelings are historical, because they haven't yet been resolved, the child experiences them in the present tense just as strong as if the same thing were happening now.

The adult has the opportunity to bring acceptance, presence, connection, love, validation and emotional holding to the child when this situation arises.  The really good news is that the parent's loving acceptance and listening will lead to not just the soothing of the child's current experience, but when experienced repeatedly will bring soothing to the effects of past experiences as well.

The child needs to make their way back to feel emotionally safe enough to get back to their natural innate healing mechanism of releasing their stresses, shocks, fears, pain, disappointments, all big feelings.  When a child receives the warm connection and acceptance that they need they will start to release.  Often, before the child can release their more vulnerable feelings of rejection, fear, aloneness and sadness, the first layer of healing will be an expression of their anger "you're stupid! I hate you! Go away!".  The child is saying "I need you to accept my anger before I let myself become vulnerable with you."  In a way they're testing you, but not out of manipulation, it's a natural way that we human's negotiate emotional safety.

The other day in expressing why she really appreciates me, my daughter said "because when I'm angry and I tell you to go away, you stay with me and keep looking after me".

I knew she was particularly referring to an experience we'd just had of this a couple of days earlier where she suddenly lost her temper with me and her big brother over something that was clearly just the trigger and stormed out of the room banging the door.  I went down to her room where she'd buried herself under the covers in her bed and shouted "go away!".  I told her I was just going to sit on the floor beside her and look after her, she again shouted "go away!", one of the things I said was "you seem really angry at me", to which she blurted out "no I'm angry with daddy!" and then she burst into big tears (the tears always herald the healing), it all came out that she was really angry about dad going down to Auckland (3 hours away) that morning, especially because he'd been away for 2 days unexpectedly during the week, he went on an emergency rescue mission to help save some beached whales.  The separation with this trip affected her more because it was sudden, she didn't have time to get used to the idea and her dad was rushing about getting ready and then the good by was a hurried one.  Another stressor was that she was fighting a cold and another stressor was that we had a visitor staying with us, although a lovely woman who she got on really well with, the routine was all a bit different and she's a girl who really likes her routines.  In the bigger scheme of things none of these things were a big problem and her upset wasn't a problem either, it just was what it was and now she needed help getting back to a calm, balanced and settled feeling.

Once she'd had big cries and some big hugs from me, I asked if she wanted to ring dad, which she did and she shared her feelings with him.  He listened and validated her feelings "you're really missing me, you didn't want me to go did you, you wish I was there with you now, you really wish mum could drive you to Auckland to see me right now" etc.  Once she'd felt heard and accepted by me and by dad, she was happy again and there wasn't any more talk about missing dad over the weekend.  If there had been more and more talk about missing dad, that would have been fine too.

It's easy to think that we need to help our children feel better or have a more positive outlook by suggesting positive thoughts, feelings and actions "but mum and big brother are going to spend lots of lovely time with you this weekend ..." or "most other weekends I'm at home and we have lots of fun, try thinking about all the good times we've had in the past".  Children (and adults if we're honest usually!) experience attempts to help us look on the bright side as a criticism, it feels like their parent is telling them, you shouldn't be sad, you shouldn't be angry, you should be more positive, you should be brave.

When we can be with our child where they are, they will wrap our acceptance and warmth around them like a blanket and make their way back to balance. 

Again going back to the little boy, if he's your little boy or girl, what they need mostly is for you to cope with their big feelings.  Come down to their level.  The father remained standing in this example.  Something immediately changes when we bring ourselves down to our child's level.  Imagine looking up at somebody a couple of feet taller than you when you're feeling overwhelmed.  Your child needs to see in your face that you're accepting and coping with their feelings.  You may not be, in which case, you need to bring your attention inwards to your own reaction first and begin to calm and sooth yourself, positive self talk is good "ok, this is ok, I can cope, wow, I'm angry, big heat at the back of my neck".  If you can start to accept your own feelings, you will start to accept your child's feelings.

Touch your child with a warm affectionate touch, this gives them a physiological experience of warmth, connection and acceptance, even if they're not ready to receive it, you're probably reducing their fear of threat (aggression/ rejection / anxiousness).  Soothing comforting words, "it's ok, I'm right here, I'm keeping you safe, you're safe, what a big upset", reflecting what happened "you fell over, you got a big shock, you wanted to run over to that swing and you fell", perhaps "I can see this is really hard for you".  The words don't matter as much as how you're saying them, your tone of voice, the look of acceptance and connection.  When the big cries open up and you see those healing tears, those sacred waters that wash away the fears, just be with them and settle in to letting your child lead the pace and timing on when they're ready to move on.  If you decide that's enough and express it while they're still getting it all out, it'll probably really well up and they'll either cry louder or clam up and tense their body.

When your child's body is overall tense, you can be sure that there's a backlog of feelings to be listened to.  When you're child is unsettled, you can be sure that there's a backlog of feelings to be listened to.  Listening heals, comforts and strengthens.

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