When a child feels fear and lashes out, they can’t make sense of what’s going on. We can communicate our love and safety with very few words and lots of attention.
To release feelings of fear a child will choose a pretext that is ordinary, commonplace and requires a limit. This Mom set a limit. Then offered warmth, acceptance, and confidence so her son could feel his fears in order to shed them.
My husband and I had a friend visiting us and toward the end of the visit, my son started to play with the TV remote control, increasing the volume while we tried to talk, again and again. All of our requests to stop were ignored. Then he went to his little sister who was sitting on the floor, and stepped on her. It was not an accident, and I realized he was signaling me. I said goodbye to our friend and told my husband that I need some time with our son. I told my son softly that he could not hurt his sister, I took him in my arms, and went with him into the garage.
My son started to struggle in my arms and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again!” When I continued to gently hold him on my lap, he started shouting, “Let me go! I don’t want to be here, I want to go back! You are hurting me!”
By now, I was sitting with him on my lap, looking at him and saying very softly, “I know you don’t want to be here, but we need to be here. I’m with you now and I’ll keep you safe.” The more I talked the more he started to fight me and shouted while crying, “Let me go, you are hurting me!” I held him really gently with my hand on his back. My fingertips were barely touching him. He shouted, “You are hurting my back, don’t touch me!” It was obvious to me that it was not my physical holding that was hurting him, but old hurts and fears which were under the surface.
He tried several tactics to avoid having to feel these feelings. He asked me to hold him with his face looking away from me. It was clear that my eye contact brought up more painful feelings. He asked to open the garage door so he could “see more things,” and it was clear he was looking for a distraction. He asked for water. He said he was hot and needed a shower. His requests went on. I couldn’t blame him. Feeling difficult feelings isn’t easy for adults either.
The whole time I kept holding him gently, once in a while telling him, “It’s safe now and I’m with you.” Then, my son started coughing and holding his neck. He complained he had pain in his throat. This reminded me that he had had a surgery when he was 3 years old. His adenoids had been removed. I was wondering if this was part of the hurt he was offloading now.
He cried more and coughed more and I held him in my arms and wiped his tears. I was talked to him softly on and off. After about 20 or 30 minutes, he asked to go to the bathroom. I agreed and we went together and this ended the episode.
I knew he was not completely finished, but I knew he had cried away a big chunk of what had been sitting inside him for so long. I felt we both had had enough for that day, and that new triggers would come and allow him to work again on his fears. I saw how relaxed he was afterwards and how different his behavior was. He was much more connected.
I had had a Listening Partnership a few days before this happened. I had worked on my own deep fears of setting limits with him. My partner’s warm attention gave me the ability to stay calm and loving and not let my own fears take over and interfere. It gave me back my confidence in the process which I needed very much.
Two weeks after all this happened, I had another opportunity to Staylisten with my son. The amazing thing for me was that he actually invited me to Staylisten the way we did it before. It started when he came back from his preschool and was restless. He tried slapping his brother’s back when he walked by, then immediately moved into slapping my back. He was clearly signaling me again.
I turned around to face him, sat down next to him and said, “You can not hit your brother or me.” Before I could complete my sentence my son asked me, “Are you going to take me again to the garage like last time? Is it going to take a long time?” I said, “Yes, I am going to take you to the garage and I will be there with you.”
He insisted that we sit in the same place; he sat on my lap in the same position like before. At the same time, he didn’t want me putting my hand on his back. It was like he knew he needed this, but still resisted the feelings that came.
This time he easily started crying and cried in my arms for about 10 minutes. When he was done we went to his room and he wanted to play with me. He was very connected and happy. That evening we had dinner at our friend’s house. My son played with their children the whole evening. In the past, if he didn’t know children well, he would sit next to me and my husband the whole time. This time he was flexible and very friendly, and we could see the difference. I’m sure that having the opportunity to offload some of his fears left him free to engage in play with the other kids.