A couple of weeks ago my son, who’s 5, needed to have dental work done for the first time in his life. It wasn’t extensive and there wasn’t any drilling, but just the process of having to go to a scary place and have someone put their hands and tools in his mouth was hard enough. We went to a lovely dentist who went out of his way to help make him comfortable in every way possible, but it was still just an inherently uncomfortable process.
It’s about a 30 minute drive home from the dentist and about halfway home he started to reach for the diaper bag and try to unzip it to get snacks out. My husband and I had to tell him that he needed to wait until we got home to eat snacks, because the dentist had said the filling needed to set for about a half hour. I know for my son, eating and snacking makes him feel very safe, it provides a lot of security. So I suspected that he probably wasn’t really hungry, he was just reflecting on how everything had felt at the dentist and trying to do something that would make him feel a little bit safe, and here we were taking that away from him too.
He started crying, which I expected, and then he started threatening, “I want to unbuckle my seat.” This has been within the last 3 months or so, he’s learned to unbuckle himself in the car and it’s been a whole thing we’ve had to go through to talk about car safety and make sure he’s staying buckled. There have been various reasons for it: curiosity about the buckle, experimenting with boundaries, physical comfort of the seat, etc.
But this time I heard it super clearly for what he was saying. “I have just had so much done to me. I had to lay down which made me vulnerable, I had to open my mouth wide which was uncomfortable, people stood in my personal space and put things in my mouth which was weird and sensory overwhelm and I felt all the control snatched away from me, I felt powerless. And now, I’m in the car and it’s supposed to be a safe place but my safety tool of eating food is apparently affected by this dentist visit too. I want my power back! I hate feeling powerless. I want my power back and if I have to fight you and take it then I guess that’s what I have to do!”
In my mind I scanned the options available to us and I thought of the easiest one. The easiest one happened to work, that day. I realized we were listening to my music and I very quickly said “hey buddy, do you want to tell me what music we should listen to?” And he thought about it, and then he told me what music he wanted to hear and that’s what we did. He made it the rest of the 15 minutes home, still generally upset but he stayed buckled.
And I think an important part of this story is also that he melted down at home, and we worked through those feelings, so I’m not telling this story as if it’s some magic “gotcha” that “solves” his emotions. I think too often people will tell me, “I tried being empathetic but it didn’t work,” or, “I tried being respectful of the child but it didn’t fix things,” or things like that. They might not say it in those obvious of terms but it’s what they mean. And when they say it didn’t work or it didn’t fix it they just mean that the child didn’t stop doing whatever it was the child was doing that the adult didn’t like, or they didn’t start doing whatever it is the adult wished they would do. Funnily enough, the adult often means, “I was trying to manipulate the child into following my agenda, but they weren’t successfully manipulated.” Well, for one, kids can often tell when they’re being manipulated a mile away, and for two, that’s not my metric for success or whether something worked.
I had empathy for my son’s feelings of powerlessness and I looked for a way to give him some feeling of control back because I know how it feels to have things be done to you that you wish weren’t happening and to hate it and I know that it’s an awful feeling and I can understand trying desperately to regain some control over the situation. I had empathy for him because I was feeling and practicing empathy for him. It wasn’t a means to an end, push button receive obedient child. If he had kept trying to unbuckle himself then my husband would’ve kept blocking him or we would’ve stopped the car or whatever we needed to do.
But trying to give him a little bit of power back was an important step in addition to setting the safety boundary, because I was trying to remind him: we are on your team. We are looking for ways to help you. You aren’t alone in your uncomfortable feelings. We’re here too.