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The need to connect
Excerpt from a talk by Larry Cohen in Needham, Massachusetts,
Emma, my thirteen-year-old daughter, told me about a father and
daughter she observed at the park the other day. The girl,
around five years old, was curled up in a corner, crying and
fussing. The dad came over and asked her what was wrong. She
told him to go away and leave her alone. So he left, but the
girl immediately whined for him to come back. Frustrated, he
came back, and asked her again what was the matter, more
forcefully this time. She pushed him away again, he left, and
once more she wailed for him to come back. This went on for some
time. Emma told me she wasn't sure what the dad should have done
instead, but she said she wished she had a copy of Playful
Parenting in her backpack to give him!
That story reminds me that we always need to reconnect when
there is a disconnection--like when that little girl was so
upset at the park. But we can't force children to restore that
connection exactly the way we'd like. This dad wanted to talk to
his daughter and help her with her upset feelings. So far so
good. Why then did she push him away? Because he came over with
an agenda, a specific idea for how to interact with her. He
insisted that she tell him, in words, exactly what was the
matter. She had a different idea.
It would have been lovely if she had said, "I don't want to talk
about it in words quite yet, could you just hold me or sit
nearby while I cry about it, then I'll tell you what happened
when I am ready to?" But alas, this was a real kid, not a wild
fantasy. So instead, his questioning agitated her, and her
agitation frustrated him.
Why did she wail for him to come back? Because she still wanted
a connection, but her way, not his way. That might not be fair,
but after all, she was the one upset, and she is the young
child, so I think it's important for us adults to bend a bit and
let children decide how these reconnections ought to go.
What did she want? Probably just for him to sit quietly nearby
and stop asking all those nosy questions, while she let out all
her upset feelings. Quite often, children express these feelings
first through tears, and only later, after the tears are done,
can they tell the story of what happened. They may hear our
"helpful" questions as an interruption, and just want us nearby,
listening. They might also worry that if their story isn't "good
enough," then they will be told to quit crying and get over it.
(Adults often do say silly things like that).
laughed when Emma suggested that what this dad needed was a copy
of Playful Parenting, because I can remember countless times
when I made the same mistake--with her and with other kids. I
would rush over to comfort a distressed child, but my idea of
comfort would not be what they had in mind. Instead of pausing
to see what they needed from me, I would get all huffy, like
this dad, about being rejected. I'd feel, like he seemed to,
that nothing I did was right, since I got pushed away for coming
close and screamed at for leaving.
Eventually, I learned a few rules that have helped me in
situations like this. First, I try to keep my mouth shut as much
as I can, to listen more than I talk when a child is upset.
Second, if they tell me to go away, I take a few steps back and
ask, "Is this far enough?" It sounds like a joke but I say this
in all seriousness--I really want to know how close they want me
to be in order for them to feel comforted but not intruded on.
Third, I try to remember that tears and tantrums follow their
own timetable, not mine. Kids are relieved and rejuvenated when
they get to release a big pile of feelings, even if they are
crying about "nothing."
Finally, I try to take a broad view of what counts as a
connection--it isn't always a deep conversation. It might be a
handshake, a hug, a long look in each other's eyes, a high-five.
It might be, as with a young boy named Pete, having his action
figure shake hands with my action figure. After Pete did this, I
pointed out to his mom, who had described him as "unable to
connect," how creative he actually was in making contact. He
couldn't handle too much emotional intensity, but he found a way
to shake hands with me his way--a playful way. She said
wistfully, "You mean he isn't going to sit and tell me every
detail of his day and every nuance of his feelings, like my
girlfriends and I do?" Sorry. Happily, she was able to start
recognizing that Pete's ways of interacting--like pillow fights
and bumping his head into her side--are just as meaningful and
full of connection as a deep conversation.