Jul 25, 2015

See a child screaming in public? Don't glare at them. Their momma might write a blog post.

This has been bouncing around in my head since seeing someone flat-out glaring at my son (nickname Bug) yesterday morning when he lost control of his emotions in public following a morning of doctor's appointments, pokes, and other things with which he was just done:

I am "that" child. You know - the screaming one you just glared at. You can't miss me; you didn't miss me. I might be little, but I know angry looks even if I don't know you.

I've never screamed this loudly. Every cell in my little body is crying out in frustration and fear. Maybe if I'm loud people will just listen. I've never screamed for this long. I scream that I want to leave; that no one around me can talk. Everyone, please just stop talking. Stop talking. Stop touching me with pokey things, with cold things. Stop telling me to open my mouth and say “ah”. Stop saying that “it's okay”. Can't you hear that it is not okay?!

Just stop talking. Don't hold me. Holding me feels like more pokey things when I'm this upset. I just want to go home. Momma? Nana?  They're trying to make it better but they're also trying to talk to the doctor. I don't want them to talk to the doctor. When you big people talk, more things happen to me that hurt or make my tummy upset. Or I get pinned again. Everyone, just go away. I just want to be at home. Stop talking and take me home! Can't you hear that it is not okay?

Maybe if I'm louder, someone will listen. You big people use words I don't understand and then tell me “shhhhhhh, it's okay”. No it's not!! Okay, I'll scream some more. Maybe someone will just take me home and out of this place of pokes and medicines and numbers and blood counts and being pinned to those big examination tables and people in my face and complete, bone-wrenching helplessness.

Someone just listen. Someone just do what I want. Give me some control...anything. Take me out of here. We're going? No! I like it here now. Leave me here. I'll live here. I don't need a pillow, I'll live here. I want to stay here! Someone listen to me! Why are we going? Why won't anyone listen! Ahhhhhhhhhh!!

Momma, why did that person look mean at me?!

I saw that. This momma bear couldn't miss the menacing glare that woman leveled at my little son as we hurried by; him screaming and writhing in my arms as the big feelings bubbled over. Her furrowed brows sat atop glaring eyes that I'm sure twinkle when she smiles, but at that moment her lips were pursed in disapproval as she shook her head and glared.  Her face demanded why can't you just control that child? Make him stop screaming!! You're in public, for goodness sake.

I bristled. My feathers ruffled. I wanted to fucking slap her. And I'm a pacifist.

I knew we were in public. I also knew what “that child” had already endured this morning. He woke up excruciatingly early and heard these words: “You can choose. Either I put the emla cream on you so the poke is numbed or it will hurt more when they have to access you. I know you don't like the cream, but please let me put it on you!!”

He is 3 years old. My Bug is 3, and he had to choose between cold numbing cream applied to his skin or a painful poke. I wish he had just had to choose what kind of cereal he wanted.

After choosing the cream and for the first time actually allowing me to put it on him without a fight, “that child” sat in a car that Momma maneuvered through a rain storm as she, Nana, and Twinkle (sister) went with to the doctors. He was then pinned to an exam table while crying as nurses poked him with a needle, adhered that needle to him with a massive sticker that hurts mightily when it is removed, had blood drawn, then had to wait for another appointment where the grown-ups all talked about things that could hurt and the sticker was taken off.  He knows the word “leukemia”, but he doesn't know what it means. He is 3 years old. He shouldn't know the words “cancer”, “chemotherapy”, “treatment”, “accessed”, etc. He shouldn't know how how to correctly pronounce the names of his medicines. But he does.

And yesterday morning after hearing his name come over the waiting room intercom as yet another staff member summoned him back to see another doctor, Bug was just DONE and overwhelmed and letting everyone with eardrums know.

And she. glared. at. him. But she don't know what his morning was like. She don't know that 6 months ago he was completely bald thanks to doxyrubicin, or that he puked last week after having chemotherapy put in his spinal fluid, or that he loves Spiderman and adores his baby sister. She didn't know what he has been through in the past year. Her only exposure to my precious boy was him rattling her eardrums painfully as we tried to just get him home.

I am “that mom”. You know – the one with the screaming child whom I “can't control”. No, I can't. But he's gone through absolute hell over the past year and I want to scream to. At that lady, at the situation, but mostly at an entire society that is afraid of children's big feelings.

That's right, I said it: we as a culture are terrified of letting children experience and express their big feelings. It feels unjust to humanity to me that part of becoming familiar with the mores and laws of this culture means that children learn to quash their big feelings when around others. Why? Why do so many adults experience discomfort and fear at encountering children's big feelings? We want to fix it right away; to make it go away and bring back the calm. Why? I suspect it is due in part to kids' big feelings threatening to bring out the same in us that we've spent so many years suppressing that if it comes out, it will come out in a way that is frightening.

Maybe children's big feelings originate in something environmental, a mental health diagnosis, being plain overwhelmed, not enough sleep, an annoying sibling, adults failing them again, cancer, food dye....whatever. The point is not that children experience big feels. We all know they do (c'mon, let's be honest – so do we as grownups and we know that too). The point is that when these big feels become obvious, we as a culture do our level best to discourage children from expressing their big feelings. “Shhhhhhhh now, it's not that big a deal.” “Hushabye, calm down.” “Honey, there are other people around.” Be honest – who here has said that to a child who is displaying big emotions or negative behavior? Now let's be honest about ourselves: how helpful are those phrases, really, when someone says them to us when we are upset? I know that for myself being told to calm down when I'm upset is absolutely maddening. Why would I expect a child to react differently? And yet we do expect them to!  We expect children to calm down when told to do so, to act like it is "okay" when it clearly isn't, to act like innocent cherubs no matter what.

It's okay to be mad. It's okay to be anxious. It's okay to be so happy your bubbliness can be felt from the other side of the room.  

Feelings are okay.  It is okay for children to experience and express feelings.

I'll say it again – feelings are okay and it is okay for young ones to express their feelings.

What might not be okay is what is done with those feelings if they are dealt with in a destructive manner. Harming self or others is not okay. Property destruction is not okay. Bottling feelings up until they explode into something that is the lead story in the evening news is not okay.

But tell me: how are children supposed to learn how to positively and constructively deal with their big feelings if those feelings are constantly shushed/avoided?

What if instead of shunning children for experiencing and expressing their big emotions, we as a culture moved towards letting children and adolescents “feel their feels” and teach them how to channel the energy of those feelings as constructively as possible, or at the very least not to avoid those feelings? 

Mental health professionals have documented a dramatic rise in mental health diagnoses over the past several decades. After working in the mental health field for awhile now, I'm utterly convinced this rise is due in part to the fact that society at large tries to have people quiet their big emotions rather than processing through those emotions and figuring out how to channel the energy from them in a healthy, constructive way.

To return to this morning; I bristle at "that woman" who glared at my boy, but I don't know her story either. I don't know where she's been, what her morning looked like, or what choices she had to make before lunch. Perhaps she was glaring at life and not specifically at my boy. She was in that place of sickness, healing, and death...just like us. Chances are she is either ailing or is somehow attached to someone else who knows the names of medicines that are difficult to pronounce.

And here was a child being disruptive and making her day louder. Experiencing big feels.

Now, I'm not one to encourage disruptive behavior. But I also know that all behavior is communication. My son was trying desperately to communicate how very much he needed some kind of control in a world where he received a cancer diagnosis at the innocent age of 2 and was flung into a world of pokes, prods, and people in scrubs who “like me even though they have to do uncomfortable things to me.”

How about when we see a child losing it in public, we look for what their behavior is communicating?  Instead of glaring and judging, let's try on compassion, empathy, and a helping attitude. There may be nothing that we can do for one another in some of those moments (a stranger talking to Bug would make him more nervous/dysregulated), but we can change how we respond to one another and the looks on our faces. Let's make this a place where being “big” emotionally in public is okay precisely because there might be someone around who can help, or at the very least someone who is able to be empathetic. Let's be a village for each other rather than insisting we all live on our own emotional islands.

I saw that glare. And so did the other adults around us for whom those glares are now a little more okay. So did the children present who are learning how to respond to those in their environment who disrupt their day. 

So this is my attempt at taking my frustration at the situation and the societal problem it illustrates and turning that frustrated energy into something constructive.  Maybe you'll be a little more sympathetic and empathetic to children and their families when those children are losing it in public.  After all, "losing it" isn't fun.  "Those kids" are communicating; they are not "having fun" (usually).

And by the way, Bug's day got a lot better.  And I didn't slap that woman.  We both won.