The Exquisite Pain of a Child’s Sadness: Finding Confidence to Bear It

Recently I met on Zoom with Toni, mother to 4-year-old Chelsea who was having some trouble adjusting to her new daycare where she had a very long day with unfamiliar staff. Her mother, an essential worker, could not stay home when Chelsea’s school became all remote and so enrolled her in the full day program. Toni shared a story she had heard of an interaction between Chelsea and a young teacher, Ellen. At the end of the day Chelsea was having a hard time gathering herself together for pick up. “What’s going on,” Ellen had asked. “I’m crying” Chelsea had told her . Ellen might have tried to stop the sadness with either reassurance or distraction. Instead she sat by Chelsea and asked, “Can you draw me a picture of how you’re feeling?”

Now Toni held the drawing up to the Zoom camera for me to see.  A stick figure stood in the middle: big blue tears the size of her head lined the page reaching from her eyes to the ground below at her feet. Even through the screen I could feel the heart wrenching pain portrayed in the picture. Toni surprised me by then saying, “I want her to be able to feel sad.” I asked if she would tell me more. She vividly recalled experiences from her own childhood when she sensed that her parents could not accept her feelings. Sadness transformed to anger and then uncontrolled rage. The frustration of not being seen felt alive in her now. When Chelsea entered the screen from another room where she had been playing, Toni held her daughter close.

The story brought to mind another case from pre-COVID times. I met with Nicole and Pat, parents of five-year- old Mateo, who was referred to my behavioral pediatrics practice for increasingly inflexible and explosive behavior. They wanted to know “what to do” so he would stop getting upset about “little things.” They described him as challenging since birth, a picky eater who had difficulty with loud noises. He could take hours to put on his socks because he hated the bumps.

They shared an example. They were at the playground when Mateo’s younger sister fell and hurt herself. It wasn’t anything major, but they had to leave suddenly without giving Mateo the usual warnings that made transitions less difficult for him. He was inconsolable for hours- unable to stop repeating, “It’s not fair! I didn’t get to go down the slide!” They tried to be patient and understanding with Mateo, while simultaneously tending to their other child. But eventually Nicole lost her cool. She yelled at Mateo and sent him to his room.

What prompted them to see me, after months of increasing frequency of similar scenes, was what happened next. Mateo kicked the wall and threw his toys. Then he began to call out, “I’m so sad!! I’m a bad person. I’m so sorry.” It was his words that most frightened them. Nicole shared her own longstanding struggle with depression.  Like Toni, her sadness had led to explosive rage. Nicole described being “sent to the psychiatrist” where she was prescribed medication. She now refused to bring her son to my office for fear that he would get the sense that “there was something wrong with him.”

Typically I find great value in bringing a child into the work. I explain to parents that it is not an ‘evaluation” but rather an opportunity to make sense of behavior through direct observation. But I felt the passion in Nicole’s resistance, rooted in her childhood experience. I agreed to work with Nicole and Pat to see if we could shift the dynamics in relationships without including Mateo. I could always bring him in later, when they felt more comfortable.

We discussed how Mateo’s inflexibility and sensory sensitivities contributed to his behavior and his experience of the world. We came up with some strategies to help him manage himself in these moments of overwhelming frustration. We agreed that they would try this new way of being with Mateo, and come back in a couple of weeks to talk about what happened. At that visit Nicole and Pat both said that Mateo seemed more calm simply because they were thinking differently about him. They found it easier to listen to Mateo without getting overwhelmed by their own fears. They felt more relaxed and sure of themselves.

I recently spoke with a mother of twins who described the wide variety of people, from professionals to family members, who undermined her sense of confidence in the days and weeks following their birth. The passion and intensity with which she spoke belied the fact that her twins are now 26 years old. The memory was that fresh and alive in her. More than anything, she told me, she would have wanted the people with whom she surrounded herself to have confidence in her as a mother.

A young child’s sadness provokes an exquisite kind of pain. Chelsea’s remarkable teacher Ellen seemingly understood the need to offer space for these feelings. But for a parent, things are much more complicated, Witnessing such sadness can provoke not only pain, but also feelings of helplessness and self-doubt. Both of these mothers still held raw memories of the silencing of their own intense feelings as children. Perhaps their parents struggled, just as they were now. My office simply provided a space for them to hold on to their confidence in themselves, allowing them to break this generational cycle. Each mother owned her unique ability to understand what her child needed. In doing so they could be present to bear the full power of the emotion.

By moving through rather than avoiding the sadness, these mothers offered their young children a way to make meaning of themselves in the world. If their children could describe that meaning, they might say, “I can have big overwhelming feelings. But I know people who love me will stay with me till I get through them. Then I will feel better.” They would describe a sense of hope.

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