I was just a reed of a thing when I was a kid, all sinew and strength, lean muscle, no fat. I moved and climbed and ran all the time. At a backyard party when I was five, I climbed a tree fort about six feet up, and promptly jumped off. I wanted to feel what it was like to fly. I still remember the cruel ground rushing up to meet me, and the angry expulsion of every bit of air from my lungs as the soles of my feet crashed into it. I remember the backyard growing immediately silent, all eyes on me. I was embarrassed and proud at the same time.
I always wore a belt back then, cinching it up as tight as it would go, like luggage on top of a station wagon. I remember asking my mom to make extra holes in my belts so they could be even tighter. This worried her so much that she took me to the doctor to see if I could cause any permanent damage by wearing my belt so tight. When he assured my mom that I wasn’t going to rupture my spleen, I kept right on wearing that belt as tight as possible.
I wonder what I was trying to keep in? I wonder what I was trying to secure? I wonder what I was afraid would float away if I didn’t? And I wonder if my mom ever stopped worrying?
I stuttered as a kid, unable to put two words together, groping for words that got stuck deep down inside of me. I remember feeling very shy around adults, and having a very short fuse around certain kids. One time, my third grade friend Jimmy decided to steal the basketball I was using to practice foul shots alone at recess. The rage that exploded out of me was volcanic; I tackled him and cried embarrassed tears. The next thing I knew, we were in the principal’s office, and I couldn’t stop crying, while he grinned at me.
I suppose I might have cinched my belt a little tighter after that. I don’t remember telling my parents about it; I didn’t know how. I just remember feeling so very stupid for crying in front of Jimmy.
And now I have a reed of a child of my own; all muscle and strength. He doesn’t stutter, and he doesn’t wear a belt, but he’s cinching things in already. When his own raging storms rain down on us, they seem to come out of nowhere, and he doesn’t know what to do with them. And as a parent, it’s even harder to watch him go through it than I remember it feeling when I went through it.
What do you do when your child is afraid?
We hate to see our children sad, hurt, upset, not make the team, not get first chair, or experience their first betrayal from another friend. When we see them bravely walking in from the bus, having held it together all day, only to fall apart when they’re around you, our hearts can break at the same time that we feel overwhelmed and exhausted by all the drama. Their trauma becomes traumatic to us; we love them so much that we experience their pain uniquely. The membrane that separates us from our kids is very thin. Sometimes, this is good, and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it causes us to be a champion for them in ways that are helpful and healing; other times we step in to protect far too soon, squashing an opportunity for them to grow and become because of their pain.
I don’t know what to do when my child is afraid. I’m not always sure when I’m supposed to step in and relieve the pain and when I’m supposed to walk alongside them and help them work it out on their own. I’m trying to learn, but it’s so hard.
Last night, after a particularly hard emotional storm, I was helping my reed of a son do his homework. One of the assignments was to list some character traits of family members, and examples of why they picked those traits. He picked me and one of his brothers. For me, he picked loving and helpful. Under loving, the examples he picked were: He tells me he loves me; He hugs me; He listens to me.
So, parents, when you’re not sure what to do, let’s start here: Tell your child you love them. Hug them as much as you can. And listen to them.
In it together.