Skill: Give in fantasy what you can't give in reality
Sources: How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk (Faber and Mazlish); Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids (Laura Markham)
A great challenge for parents is to listen to their children in such a way that their children actually feel heard. When a child feels heard, not only does he feel your love loud and clear, but he can also calm down and start to think about the problem at hand. Often, parents do hear their child and appreciate their struggle, but do not effectively show the child that they hear, so the child continues to try to communicate the same message, often to the frustration of his parent.
Consider those times when your child wants something but it simply is not available. She continues to complain even though you tell her repeatedly, with clear explanation and logic, that you are not able to satisfy her desire. These kinds of situations are infinite: there are no more cheese sticks left; her favorite shirt is covered in mud; it started to thunder when you were about to go to the playground, etc.
One day this summer, I was pushing a sleeping Forest (1 ½) in his stroller with an almost-as-tired Darwin (3 ¾) walking alongside. We had just left the train station and were waiting for the light to change when it seemed to dawn on Darwin that now we had to walk back to our house - up…and up…and up our very long and very steep hill. He got a twisted look on his face like he was about to cry. He threw his arms around my legs, leaned all his weight against me, and in a very distressed voice moaned, “Mommy, carry me!”
You can probably imagine how this story might have proceeded:
Mommy: Sweetheart, I can’t carry you right now because I have to push the stroller.
Darwin: Why?! (with wails)
Mommy: Because we need to get home and Forest is sleeping in the stroller.
Darwin: But I want you to carry me!! (more wails)
Mommy: I just told you that I can’t carry you because Forest is sleeping in the stroller. Darwin, you are also very tired so we should get up the hill so that you can rest at home.
Darwin: I’m not tired for a nap! I just can’t walk because my legs are tired! (crying on the ground)
From here it would probably have gotten worse, in any number of different ways, but now you can breathe a sigh of relief because that was not what happened. In reality, I was lucky enough to identify that this was one of those situations when the object of his desire simply wasn’t available, so I gave him his wish in fantasy.
Mommy: “Oh sweetheart! I WISH I could carry you and push the stroller at the same time. I wish I had four arms.”
Telling him I “wished” I could give him what he wanted communicated to him that I heard and really joined him in his desire, and simultaneously made it very clear to him that I was not going to be able to give him what he wanted.
So what did he do next? Well, he sat down on the sidewalk and began to cry. He was really very, very tired, and it really is a very, very steep and long hill. Poor kid was processing the reality of the situation - that he was going to have to walk home. Hey, it’s hard to get bad news. I’d probably cry if I were him too.
I knelt down beside him. I had tried to convey that I heard how upset he was, but maybe his feelings were just a little too big, and he needed me to tell him in a few more ways, so that he really didn’t feel alone with the feelings. I stuck with the skill of giving him his wish in fantasy, but got a little more playful now.
Mommy (close to his face, in a tender voice): You know what I wish? I wish that big ol’ dump truck over there would let us climb on and take us up our hill. Wouldn’t that be great?
Darwin: (stopping crying and making eye contact): Yeah.
Mommy: Oh look! There’s a bird! I wish she would swoop down and let us ride on her back all the way up to our house!
Darwin (now totally done crying, standing up, starting to smile and get into the game): Yeah! Or a spaceship could come here and blast us off all the way home!
Mommy: Now that would be really super fun. Would you work the controls?
Darwin: Yeah, but we all would need our space suits... Wait! I have them right here.
Mommy: Oh perfect! And the light changed so now we can cross the street. Three, two, one…
Darwin (grabbing hold of the stroller strap to cross the street): Blast off!
We walked across the street in silence, and when we got to the other side, Darwin said, “But you know Mommy, if we walk then our muscles will get stronger.”
Mommy: Oh yeah. Good point.
Darwin: Mommy, did you not know that before?
Mommy: Well, I did know it, but I forgot it in that moment until you reminded me. Now I feel a lot better about the walk.
We walked together up the hill very pleasantly over the next 10 minutes, chatting. Amazing.
In my view, this skill, Give In Fantasy What You Can’t Give In Reality, works so well to calm a child and allow him to transition to dealing with the situation at hand because it shows him that his parent (or other grown up) understands his feelings and cares. In addition, by engaging playfully, the parent immediately creates a connection with the child in his favorite language, play. This connection reassures the child both of the parent’s commitment and also of the parent’s belief that, despite the presence of strong negative feelings, the world is basically okay and safe. This reassurance works to help him feel more self-confident, so it makes it even easier for him to think clearly and do what needs to be done. According to Laura Markham, when we mentally picture our wish being granted, brain scans actually show the brain temporarily looking satisfied. I haven’t been able to track down the source of her research, but the idea is certainly appealing, and if true suggests an additional reason why this tool works so well to help a frustrated child deal with disappointment.
Finally, I love this skill because I have been able to see very clearly how Darwin has integrated it into his internal toolbox of coping skills. I have been giving him wishes in fantasy since before he could understand the words, and last year I noticed that he was beginning to use this thinking skill independently. I remember one day when he was just over three years old when we had made oatmeal together. He was very excited to put butter in and watch it melt, as was our routine. When I said I didn’t see any butter in the fridge, he searched there on his own plus suggested we look in the freezer. When we both finally agreed there really wasn’t any in the house, he took a deep breath, looked at me with a half-smile, and remarked, “I wish we had a whole big jar of butter!” I smiled back at him, holding my own tongue.
His concluding thought? “Well, I guess I can put peanut butter in instead.”