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  • Janyne McConnaughey, PhD

Planes, Blocks, Moms, & Toddlers

My first airplane flight was in high school—from LAX to San Jose. That sounds a lot like a song, “Do you know the way to San Jose?” It was a short trip on a plane. I had lots of friends (really family) waiting there…and two young nephews. I was eager to go, but also discovered my love for flying, especially take off.

That was many flights ago and lots of plane conversations. Sometimes people don’t want to talk. I respect that. But if they do, it helps the trip go faster. This was the case when flying from Denver to Seattle on Monday. It was Southwest Airlines and Scott and I had been to a wedding and didn’t get checked in soon enough to find seats together. Spotting a middle seat, I settled into an uncomfortable search for seat belts that were way to close to bodies I did not know. In the laughter, a conversation started with my window-seat neighbor. It did not stop till we landed.

It was my favorite kind of conversation…with a young mother. She had been gone for a few days on a business trip. We talked about what we did. She talked about photography and I talked about being a writer. And yes, BRAVE. It was a long flight and we never were at a loss for topics. If anyone around us was hoping for silence, they were out of luck. We were definitely “those” passengers.

We eventually began to talk about the end of the flight, how far we had to go before we slept, who was waiting there, and so forth. She mentioned how hard it was when she arrived home from trips, because her toddler son was usually not receptive to her arrival. While she loved her job, this was wearing on her.

We both agreed this small boy was unable to express his feelings and needs. She had told me enough about the two of them that I knew she was receptive to his feelings and tried to put myself in his place. His mother would leave and not be there at night to cuddle. He could not understand this and it felt powerless.

While healing, my childhood feelings of powerlessness were a common theme. As an adult, if something happens which makes me sad, afraid, angry, or fearful, there is something I can do about it. For children, this is not true. Maybe a temper tantrum is just an expression of powerlessness.

So, we talked about the powerlessness of his small-child situation. No one could give him a choice about how this was going to play out. No one could ask, “Do you want Mommy to stay and not go work?” And even if he wanted her to stay, he couldn’t make it happen.

“He needs to feel like he is not powerless.” I said. “He needs to make a choice in some small way.”

Once said, it was necessary to figure out how it would look. I asked her what she usually did when she arrived. She tried to pick him up to cuddle him, but he rejected it and melted down. That hurts any mother’s feelings, let’s be honest.

She was the one in power in this interaction and he was making a choice (not a conscious one) to exert himself. The key to interacting with kids who have had trauma, is to “come in low.” In a very real sense, her leaving was traumatic to him. Not that she should never leave. It is in working through these small ruptures that children build resilience. If the rupture is repaired!

By reaching out to him, it was a form of control (power). What would “coming in low” look like?

“Let me suggest something with blocks, but you can use anything,” I said. “Without interacting with him, just go sit on the floor and begin to play with blocks. He will watch you, but I think in a few minutes, he will join you. This makes it his choice.”

Would it work? My intuition said yes, but who knew? She thought it might work with bubbles which was his present fascination. We exchanged emails she left with a promise to email and tell me if it worked. This was the email I received (story and email shared with permission):

“Last night when I got home it was a little too late to do bubbles outside so I used your idea of playing with blocks and it totally worked!!!! He and his friend came over and started playing with me and within a half hour he actually came up and gave me a huge hug and kiss! Zero melt downs the entire evening as well! It was the easiest coming home experience ever!!!”

Yes!! This small boy needed his mother and felt powerless when she was gone. He didn’t have a way to express this and as is often the case, was rejecting the very thing he needed most—In this case, his mother’s attention (self protection does this). When we, as adults, are overwhelmed by emotions we can ask for people to give us space. We don’t always recognize this need in children. When his emotions calmed (as they will) and he saw his mother playing, he chose to play with her.

What actually happened was rupture and repair. Their relationship was ruptured by the trip. This is a legitimate “thing.” But it isn’t a bad thing as long as it is followed by repair. When she arrived, his emotions were overwhelming and confusing. His behavior was the only way he could communicate his struggle. When given space and seeing her intent was to do something that would give him the attention he needed, he went to her.

He has an awesome mother and she will eventually help him put words to his emotions and enable him to communicate his needs. There are no “good” or “bad” emotions. They all result from unmet or met needs. The behavior is merely communication of need. Children just need our help in figuring out appropriate ways to communicate.

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