A friend of mine once told me about a visit she made to a new mom for a family event. During the visit, the baby (aged between two and three months) was crying inconsolably. The new mom was aggravated, stressed, and on the verge of tears herself, as she jiggled, jostled, bounced, and patted the baby in efforts to shush him. “I’m so sorry,” she wailed to my friend, “He’s ruining everything!” My friend told her, “He’s a member of the family and he’s upset. If you were upset and crying, we wouldn’t tell you that you were ruining things. I would give you a hug.”
So often we treat babies with unconscious disrespect and we invalidate the very real feelings they have, while squelching their instinct to communicate with us. The old adage, “Children should be seen and not heard,” has fallen out of favor, but it seems to me that the complicated systems and emotions behind such words are much more difficult for us to put behind us as a society. These days, most of us believe children should be heard and respected and valued as individuals. Who would argue against this? And yet we shush them, ignore them, and long for them to really communicate most only when it’s convenient for us.
There is a phrase that is often repeated to children in distress, that hits my ears like nails on a chalkboard: “You’re okay!” We say this to children who have fallen down and scraped a knee, as they wail. We say this to babies who cry when their parents drop them off at childcare. I must hear it spoken by caregivers, teachers, and parents at least a dozen times in an average day. I would like to ask that we all take a moment to consider how we would feel if someone said this to us, when we were in a moment of distress. How invalidated we would be. How dismissed. How shut down we would begin to feel. We would, in fact, not be “okay” at all!
As adults, when we see a child in distress, we tend to look for the cause and evaluate the severity of the situation. What we forget, I think, is to slow right down and evaluate the situation from the unique perspective of that child. As an adult, with my life experience under my belt, I can look at a preschoolers scraped knee and know that they’re not going to need stitches, surgery, or serious medical attention. I can think to myself, as I wash the wound with soap and water, that they’re really going to be “okay”. But does the child know that, like I do? Maybe the child feels pretty scared by falling down. Maybe they’re feeling embarrassed. Maybe they’re wishing to have their knee tended to a bit more gently or lovingly or to see the face of their mom or dad in this moment of pain. Chances are good that their knee really does hurt, along with their feelings. They’re not feeling that they’re completely “okay”. So what is fair to say? I think we could agree that, while they’re not “okay” in this moment, they’re going to be okay. Say that. “Your knee really hurts, doesn’t it? You’re going to be okay. It will feel better soon and you’ll be able to go back to playing. Would you like to sit with me until you’re ready?”
Let’s think of life from the perspective of an infant. There is one child in my group at work who has formed a deep attachment with me. I am his mom-away-from-mom. He feels reassured by my presence, as he slowly begins to navigate his world as an individual. When we’re separated, he feels distressed. He expresses a little bit of panic, some anger, and some sadness. Sometimes it’s necessary for me to work with other infants or to take a break in my workday, and he feels the pang of this separation. He is not shy about expressing his mix of emotions at top volume. His passion is not always comfortable for other caregivers. One in particular has a difficult time offering comfort to him. The other day I heard her saying, “You’re okay. You can’t always have your teacher. You can’t always get what you want. You are okay.” Now, who among us, in the midst of a fit of tears (panic, anger, sadness, perhaps even tiredness and hunger mixed in), would react positively to hearing these things? Who among would think, “Oh! I’m okay! What was I thinking?” and turn off our tears like a faucet? I just don’t think this is possible, but it seems to often be our expectation for infants and young children.
What can we say to infants when they’re expressing a mix of emotions at top volume? First, we can be present. “I’m here with you,” we might tell them. Some will want to be held, some won’t. It doesn’t comfort every infant every time to be held, carried, or rocked. Take time to read the situation and the communication of that infant. Take time to set aside your own discomfort. When infants wail, we’re biologically programmed to feel discomfort. That’s good! Something is wrong and you’re there to help. But it’s important to work on slowing down and calming your own responses because the infant will be able to read that in an instant. That’s calming and reassuring to them right away. We can tell them, “You’re upset. I see that you’re upset because you want so-and-so or such-and-such.” We can tell them, “I’m sorry you’re feeling so upset.” We can even tell them, “I’m not sure how to help you. I’m going to take you outside for a little while because I think it might help us to have some fresh air.”
It’s not our job or responsibility to distract children from their upset. It ought to be our hope and goal that one day they will grow to be adults who are able to recognize, name, and feel their strong emotions with the ability to cope and self-regulate in a healthy way. That starts right now, today, as they scream and wriggle in your arms.
The strong emotions of young children can be overwhelming for adults. Anyone who has spent time with toddlers can recognize that pit-of-the-stomach dread at the start of a temper tantrum. I have been fortunate enough to observe many skilled teachers and caregivers and I have been even more fortunate to observe even these “experts” having to take a deep breath and regroup from time to time in the face of such passion from children. This is not a comfortable area for most people. It’s our instinct to just make it stop as quickly as possible. Threats, bribes, distraction… I’ve seen moms and dad try them all in quick succession when their child is melting down in public. It may be helpful to reflect on how these things grow out of the panic, fear, anger, frustration, and embarrassment that we are feeling. How were our own tantrums handled, once upon a time? It all comes back out one day.
In my experience, there is no perfect recipe and no magic word for handling children’s distress. It’s not easy. However, I feel it would make quite a difference if we could begin with recognizing that the crying child is decidedly not “okay” and is certainly not going to get to be “okay” by being told so. Let’s begin by just being there with them, in the way that perhaps we would like for someone to be there with us, in our distress.