Parenting is a job that offers very few “magic” answers, and fewer still that last for any amount of time. Kids seem to like to change the rules, so that by the time you’ve finally figured out how to get them to brush their teeth or eat their vegetables, they tip over the playing board and you find yourself starting from scratch.
Parents tend to remember those precious moments of lasting magic. Here’s one that I discovered early on.
I’ve seen lots of different responses on the part of parents to their kids’ falls and bumps and scrapes. Some parents panic and convey this exaggerated sense of concern to their kids immediately, so a child that might have been perfectly fine will look at their parent and begin wailing inconsolably.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen parents whose response to any “boo-boo” is to immediately insist, “You’re okay, you’re okay”, attempting to circumvent the above strategy and response. The effect on the child, though, may sometimes be the conveyance of a dismissive affect toward their experience.
A middle ground between these two strategies is to simply wait and let the child use their own innate body awareness to self-assess. A parent can use their own external assessment as well: if the accident looks clearly injurious, a speedy response is essential. If it is clearly benign, a wait-and-see attitude is appropriate.
By not imposing the parent’s judgment of the event’s gravity, the message to the child is that (s)he is trusted to be capable of self-assessment. In the end, we want our children to develop this ability, but in reality the ability is innate, it is the trust that we must develop- or, perhaps more appropriately, not inhibit.
Once it has been established that the event has caused some sort of trauma (usually indicated by crying), again the different strategies emerge. Some parents go to the extreme of dismissal (“Oh, you’re all right!”); or smothering the child with excessive coddling and pampering.
In the middle ground is a nifty little trick that you may want to try. It’s called, “Telling the Story”.
When a child has clearly hurt themselves (either emotionally or physically), it’s first important to be accessible physically. Young children are highly kinesthetic, and communicate by touch as much as with other cues. Then get down to their level and ask them what happened. The key here is to get them to tell the entire story of what happened, in detail, including showing the objects that may have been involved and touching the specific areas on the body that may hurt.
It’s not necessary to emote a massive amount of sympathy, just show interest that you want to hear this amazing fascinating story. Show that you want to hear about how it felt. Mirror back the child’s responses: “You scraped your knee on the rug right over there and it hurts!” Often, no other palliative measure is necessary, other than perhaps a hug. No need for ice, or ice cream, or a band-aid. It’s incredible to watch how quickly a crisis dissipates when a child is given the opportunity to be deeply heard in the moment.
This dynamic speaks to a need that children desperately have: to be heard, to be seen, to be known, to be understood. This need is far more important than the easing of pain or the development of independence.
These “middle” strategies are focused on nurturing a child’s inner compass, self-confidence, and feeling of belonging in the world. They are neither smothering nor dismissive, but seek to meet elemental human needs and establish the building blocks of self-referral and communication. Try the Story Telling Game on the next boo-boo and let me know how it goes!