The Power of Waiting

It was inevitable. The accident we’ve worked so hard to prevent came to life this afternoon. My daughter’s myoclonic jerking knocked her to the floor. I was trying to dress her while she stood, my hands were busy, and I just couldn’t catch her in time as a jolt of myoclonus sent her lurching against a cupboard door and down onto the linoleum. She was crying, obviously shaken. There were no obvious signs of injury—thank goodness!

Now, a mother’s instinct is to want to know right now what is hurting or bothering their child. I am as much driven by that same instinct as the next mother.
However, I have found that when our daughter is upset, trying to get her to express why she is upset pushes her into overload. It seems to work much better to reassure her that we will talk about the problem later, after she has calmed down. This accomplishes several things:
  • it lets her relax, knowing that she will have an opportunity to discuss the problem. She wants to be heard. But immediately is not necessarily the best time. What may be best is soon after the child is calm (just never, ever forget to hold that promised discussion if you want your child’s trust).
  • it lets her deal with the problem at hand, avoiding the added stress of communicating. Dealing with pain or frustrating emotions is hard work. Communication can also be hard work for our kids, even though it may come easily for you and me. We need to remember that. In an already-overwhelming situation, having to communicate about the issue may just push them over the top.
  • it lets me have some time to organize my questions and her possible responses. This (usually!) reduces frustration in the long run. If I’m not tuned in to my daughter’s feelings or don’t have the right choices ready for her, both of which are likely faux pas in the heat of the moment, that adds stress upon stress. Stress does not tend to smooth communication. Better to come back to the issue later.
This policy of coming-back-later to an upsetting problem, be it pain or an emotional upset, seems to work well at our house for supporting communication. My daughter is a teenager; sometimes teens get upset or frustrated for mysterious reasons not obvious to the adults around them. I find this strategy to be especially helpful with unexplainable tears. But it applies just as well to known issues…and to younger children. In fact, it was during early elementary school that we stumbled across this technique of promising to let our daughter tell us what was wrong later, after she was calmer.
Now, of course we offer comfort right away. That’s a parent’s job. We just don’t necessarily ask for our kids to talk about the problem right away.
There may be exceptional non-verbal communicators who can communicate in the middle of an upsetting situation. But many others, like my daughter, find that the stress of an upset makes communication to be the proverbial “straw that breaks the camel’s back.” They are already processing as much as they can handle, just dealing with the situation. Asking this group of communicators to talk about the problem in the heat of the moment is expecting them to do more than what is humanly possible—for them. Let’s respect their humanity…
So, what about today's accident?
I snuggled my daughter immediately after her fall till she calmed down, then let her rest on her stomach so her muscles could relax while the myoclonus resolved, and after she was fully calm we talked about the accident. She told me her mouth and shoulder hurt right after the fall, but they are fine now. Mostly what had her upset was the frightening noise of hitting the cupboard.
I didn’t have the heart to ask if the fall shook her faith in my ability to keep her safe. I’m not sure I’m strong enough to hear the answer…

How about you? Does it work better for your child to communicate after there has been time to calm down?

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