A few months ago, my three year-old son Noah, his dad and I spent a long time in the emergency room. Somewhere around noon, day care had called me to share their concern about Noah's toe, which seemed infected.
Their concern was valid: Noah's foot had swollen up to twice its normal size and he was feverish. Our regular doctor sent us straight through to the hospital. Luckily, after a lot of waiting and seeing many doctors, Noah had a minor surgery with only local anesthesia and we were all home safe by 10pm. His toe healed nicely and it doesn't hurt anymore.
But the experience itself was tough. I was afraid, as was Noah, of course. But after spending this intense time with my son, I was very happy with the parenting skills I had acquired over the years.
Here are 10 skills in particular that were very helpful during this experience, and that helped Noah respond to the fearful situation with more resilience and calm.
1. Stay as calm as possible.
This isn't as easy as it sounds, but it does help our children. In a tough situation, it's essential to bring your energy down by breathing deeply. Children feel our energy, and although we can openly and honestly admit that it's a little scary for us too, it helps if we can keep our energy as calm as possible.
Admittedly, I panicked a little bit when daycare called. But before I picked up Noah, I took a few minutes to breathe deeply and relax back into my body. Taking this time to recalibrate my anxiety was essential for keeping Noah calm during his procedure.
2. Give "subtitles."
These are two of my favorite parenting skills, because they work really well. Giving subtitles is a funny expression for keeping your child calm by explaining (in a neutral way) what is going on as it's happening. "Now the doctor is going to..." we would tell Noah. That way, he was prepared for things as they were happening.
3. Allow and acknowledge feelings.
There was one very intense moment when the doctor injected the needles for the local anesthesia. Noah was very calm before but at this point it really hurt him and he started crying and screaming wildly. We acknowledge his feelings and allowed him to express them fully. “Yes this hurts and it's okay to cry.” “Yes you said you didn't want something in your toe and the doctor did it anyway. That wasn't fun.”
There's seems to be some kind of common habit that children who stay calm get praised for "being such a big kid." But I believe it is actually very brave to communicate and express your feelings. I was so proud at Noah for sharing the things he found scary, and asking us for a hand or a hug when he needed them.
4. Offer "small choices."
As parents, we just don't always know what our children truly think and feel. A child that is hurt might want a hug, but sometimes s/he might just want to be left alone for a minute and deal with it in his or her own way. So instead of assuming, we can ask our children what they prefer and offer "small choices," giving them some sense of control and influence over a situation.
5. Find a higher perspective.
I believe that I have a decent level of trust in my abilities as a mom, but I'm very sensitive and I gravitate towards feeling guilty sometimes. That day, my mind kept racing to figure out if I had done something wrong. Did I miss the toe in the morning? Was Noah having to deal with this experience because his body was out of balance due to something I'd done or failed to do?
But I had to release this impulse to blame myself. We cannot control all of the experiences that our children will have. By the same token, we can't help them avoid all negative experiences. We can help them with coping skills that will cultivate a more balanced and resilient attitude. As a result, they will more likely feel sustainable happiness, even in the face of hardship.
6. Do something fun when the situation has passed.
Making space and allowing time for some fun after a tough moment has passed, helps release intense feelings and adds some positive vibes.
Even though it was way, way beyond bedtime when Noah was done, we allowed him to play a little more in the waiting room after everything was done with the new ball he had gotten as a present from the doctor. He is very passionate about elevators so when he saw one on the way out of the hospital, we rode it up and down a few times and let him press all the buttons.
7. Don't forget to take care of yourself, too.
We want to be there in the moment for our children during a hard time, but we have to allow ourselves time to process the experience, too. When the intense element of the situation has passed and there's time for you to check in with yourself, allow your own feelings to come up and nurture yourself.
When I put Noah in bed and watched him fall asleep almost instantly, I finally felt the tension of that day and had a good cry. I suddenly felt very shaky and ungrounded so I got myself a hot cup of tea and talked with some friends about the experience until I felt calm and relaxed again.
8. Be patient, and allow time to process
In the case of dealing with difficult experiences with your child, it's essential to process together. Talk about it, let your child share his or her feelings and give them space to do so. It helps them process the experience.
In the days after Noah's operation, he would bring something up about the hospital every now and then. We talked about it and went over all the things that had happened that day. Every time when we got to the part about "and then the doctor injected you with needles," he started crying again. I acknowledged his pain, and reassured him that it was OK to feel sad.
9. Cultivate a warm environment in which your child can feel safe again.
After a scary event or situation, it's key to go out of your way to help your child feel safe again. Touch works really well, as does taking a warm shower or bath. Afterward, make sure you help your child put on some fresh clothes to release the energies that are related to the emergency situation.
10. Go back to your regular schedule as soon as possible.
Allow extra time for talking and hugging and be a little more patient with difficult behavior, but try to get back to your regular schedule as soon as possible. Children love structure and predictability and that actually helps them feel safe.
The night we came back from the hospital, I let Noah sleep in my bed. The second night he was obviously doing much better so I put him in his own bed again.
By cultivating these skills, you will prepare yourself as parents for tough situations. And in the process, you'll be doing the same for your kids.