When it is not really about the stick


30 Jul
30Jul

Yesterday we had a meltdown. 


We went to a playground and within seconds LJ had made a friend. For the first time in a long while I got to see him really playing with another kid. The 2 just seemed to “get” each other, they had many shared interests and played everything from Pokemon to zombie tag. It started getting late, we held out as long as we could. One more game. One more turn. One more thing. Both children looked visibly sad they had to part ways. Of course, LJ was ready to give him our address and invite him over. They said "goodbye" to each other at least a dozen times. It was lovely. Bittersweet, but lovely. 


The transition was easier than I expected. On our walk back to the car LJ found 2 small sticks to play with by shaking them in front of his eyes and pretending they were tiny dragons.


As I am loading Wallace into his car seat I overhear Harry tell LJ that he could not take the sticks home with him. While it wasn’t a battle I would have chosen to fight, I offered to step in. Harry and I excel at the dance of Good Cop/Bad Cop parenting. My strategy covered all the bases, tried to make it a game, gave him some choices of where or how to put it down, take a picture, etc. He didn’t budge and I held the limit.


 “No. I am sorry bud. We are going to leave the sticks in nature.” I repeated this mantra as LJ fumed. He pleaded, he yelled, he cried, and he hit me. 
At first his cries were about how badly he wanted the sticks. In my head I am feeling slightly annoyed that Harry didn’t just let it go. But then out of nowhere he yelled: 


“It’s all your fault! It’s all your fault I will never see my friend again.”
 
Oh. 
Maybe this meltdown had nothing to do with the sticks. The sticks were simply an attempt to hold on to the good feelings he had at the playground. After about 5 minutes he continued to cry as I helped him get in the car. 
“I can see you feel sad. You feel sad about leaving the sticks. You feel sad about leaving your new friend.” I empathized. He went quiet and remained silent for the drive home


When we got home he went to chill in his play tent as I cooked. At dinner he presented me with a drawing of himself making a silly face (his way of apologizing).


Not much later I realized that in the commotion I had lost my phone. It dawns on that I either left it on the roof of the car or on the ground in the parking lot. LJ helped me look through the car and the house. I never once blamed him and I assured him that I wasn’t mad at him. I made the mistake and it wasn’t his fault. But he was compelled to make it right. He offered me all the money in his wallet. He cleaned the windows. He suggested that he would invent a way to make me a new phone that still had all my apps and pictures. 


I reminded him that I wasn’t mad at him. That if my phone really was lost or broken forever I might feel sad and that would be okay. My sad feelings were mine and not his. He looked at me briefly and then slung his arm around my shoulders. 


“But sometimes we share feelings. I am sad when you are sad. I think that's a thing. Sharing feelings.” LJ said thoughtfully.  


    “Yes, we do share feelings. Especially when someone we love is sad or upset. We can feel that too. I see how hard you are working to help me feel better. It shows me how much you really care about me.” I replied. 


    “Yeah, sharing feelings happens.” He concluded. 


Like a knight in shining armor, Harry drove back to the park and he found my phone in the street! LJ was thrilled and bedtime passed without incident. Afterward, I was sitting on the couch processing, when LJ appeared.


    “Would you come cuddle? I am sorry for the rough night.”


    “I had a great night! I had so much fun on our walk, I loved watching you play with a new friend. The end was a little tough, but the beginning and middle were so great!”


    “Yeah leaving the park was the bad part. But that wasn’t really the end. Was there a happy ending?”


“Yes! I think you are right. The leaving the park part was just a tricky spot in the middle. When we got home we worked hard to help each other feel better. I think we are in the happy ending.”


He snuggled in close to me on the coach, the weight of his body sprawled across my lap. I could see he was deep in thought. I decided to test my theory from earlier. 


    “You felt really sad when we were leaving. I was wondering, were you more sad about having to say goodbye to the friend or leaving the sticks you found?”


    “I was sad about the friend.” Pause. “Why does the coronavirus make it so we can’t play and go places? I wish the stupid coronavirus would just get out of here.”


    “Me too. I feel sad that we can’t see more people and do more of the things we like doing. It probably felt so good to make a new friend. He liked all the same things as you! I bet it felt sad to leave.”


    “I wish I had friends that lived on our street that I could see every day.” 


    “That would be so nice if we had more friends to play with really close by.”


We sat in silence for a short time, I think we were both reflecting on what we just uncovered. 


    “Do you want to talk about some ideas I have?” I asked. 


    “Sure.”

    

“Okay, well there are a lot of kids in our neighborhood. I see them when I go on walks. We could try meeting new people and making new friends. It would mean being adventurous.”


“Maybe. Yeah.”


“We can also try finding more friends to talk to over the phone or video with. We might have to get creative to find ways to connect with other kids. It might mean playing in brand new ways.” 


“Okay, let’s do it. Would you turn on a story for me?” 


It was a night filled with hundreds of different parenting paths. I am grateful for the path I took, it was messy and definitely not easy, but it started the process of healing a hurt that he hides so well. LJ loves playing on his own and he loves playing with us. He often turns down my offers to go to parks and playgrounds and has even said that he likes playing at home the best. Add in the fact that he transitioned from the playground itself so well and on our walk back had been happily chatting about his plans for the evening. The issue with the sticks happened roughly 15 minutes later.


 How would our night have been different if I had assumed that it was about the sticks? How would it have been different if I would have laid down the law and punished the behavior of the meltdown? I could have sent him to his room, forced an apology, gave a consequence for screaming and hitting. Would we have had the opportunity to talk about the deeper issue? Probably not. Or I could have let him take the sticks home and the rest of the night might have been fine. We could have got through the night and escaped the meltdown. But those deeper feelings would have still been there, bubbling just under the surface waiting to erupt over a different “stick”.


If we isolate the behavior of kids from their very real, very big feelings we may miss out on the really important stuff. 

01Oct
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