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Stop Trying To Fix It

Maddie’s worrying has gotten worse,
and it has us, well, worried. Right now, several weeks spent on
Fire Safety combined with nearly daily fire drills has gotten
Maddie rather freaked out about the possibility of fire, both at
school and at home, to the point that she worries when she hears
the house heater come on, and frets the entire day if we’ve
got a fire in the fireplace.

I was talking about this recently with someone I know who is a
children’s therapist, and she asked me what we do in these
situations. “Well, Maddie will usually ask question after
question about the situation – how do you start a fire in the
fireplace? How do you know it will stay in the fireplace? What
happens if it doesn’t stay in the fireplace? How can you be
sure? – and we try to answer each one, calmly dissipate her
fears, and de-mystify the worry by breaking it down
logically,” I said a bit smugly.

Apparently, that was the wrong answer.

My friend explained that at Maddie’s
age, logical discussions won’t do a thing except make her
more anxious; she simply isn’t developmentally advanced
enough to process this and let it comfort her. Instead, she
can’t quite grasp it, and her anxiety spirals up and up,
until we get frustrated with repeating ourselves – AGAIN
– and snap at her. Which is sort of how it goes in our house,
to be honest.

Instead, my friend suggested good old-fashioned sympathy. “I
hear that you are very worried about the fire, Maddie,” she
suggested as a response. Brian stared helplessly at her and said,
“And then what’s the next sentence?”

She smiled. “Why don’t you listen and see what Maddie
needs from there?”

These answers, though seemingly very frustrating in their lack of
solid game-planning-ness, actually make sense. When Brian walks
through the door and asks me how my day was and I unload an earful
on him, I’m not asking – or even wanting – him to
fix it for me. I just want him to listen. And apparently our kids
do, too. Now, my friend’s not saying that’ll always be
the end of the conversation; but if Maddie says, “Well, what
if . . .?” instead of trying to answer her, we should say,
“What do you think would happen?” and allow her
imagination to be her own problem-solver. A lot of times, though,
to be heard, to have feelings acknowledged, just might be enough
more often than I think.

I had a chance to try it out last night, with Cora no less. We
started our yearly Advent calendar, and it was Maddie’s turn
to open the door and remove a piece of the nativity scene. Cora
burst into tears, wanting to do a door herself that night, and ran
from the room, distraught. She removed herself to her bedroom and
cried for a long time, until I finally went to snuggle her. She
curled up on my lap in her rocking chair, hiccupping and sniffling.

“I just wanted to open a door myself tonight,” Cora
said through her tears.

I took a breath, and said, “I hear how sad that made
you.” And shut my mouth, whereas only a few days ago I
would’ve continued with something like, “ . . . but you
know it’s Maddie’s night tonight and tomorrow will be
your night, so you shouldn’t be sad.”

Cora sat in silence for a moment, sighed, and then said,
“Yeah.” And I felt the air whoosh out of her as she
deflated a bit and moved to a calmer place.

Whattya know? It works.


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