I’m so fortunate to have friends willing to write guest posts for me. This one gets me right where it hurts, and is posted anonymously, as requested by her son.
This afternoon my tween son came to me for a hug and wanted to talk out an emotional ding. He didn’t need much, only a little compassionate listening for a minute or two. After he bounced off, I remembered the dark days when tiny hurts were overwhelming to my emotionally sensitive child.
When kiddo was three and a half, one of his friends refused to hold his hand while they walked. Kiddo couldn’t hold back the tears. He melted down because his “heart hurt”. The following week I had to intervene when he cried over another friend deciding not to sit with him for snack. To his credit, kiddo never blamed the other child for meanness. He was hurt because he felt he cared more than his friend did. To the other child, it was nothing; to mine, it was the end of the world. Kiddo believed it was a forecast of the future: no one ever loving him, no one ever choosing to play with him.
I never knew what to do about those kinds of pronouncements. How could anyone decide the future so negatively and so clearly from one action at the age of 3? I always felt lost when he was that age.
I couldn’t tell him not to be hurt, nor could I make him understand that one choice didn’t equate to forever. However, he had cried often enough during playdates it had become clear he was risking not being invited to play again. There were already warning signs. I had to fix that, or I’d never be able to prove to him that one momentary choice was not a forever choice.
So the next bright sunny day when he broke into tears, I pulled him aside and asked him to give me his hurt. Tell me about it and trust me to hold it for him, then we’d share it together later and he could cry all he wanted. I wrote down what he told me, and put the paper in my purse. He peeked at it, I repeated my promise to hold him when he cried later, and reminded him he only had his friends while we were there.
He went back to playing and had fun. I thought it was over. How foolish.
The moment he sat in the car at the end of the playdate, he asked me if it was time to pull out the hurt again. I asked him if he could hold off until we got home. We both agreed I needed to drive with both hands, and he needed to be buckled into his seat. It’s the law, mommy.
Once home, the cry fest was epic.
Afterwards, he held the note and asked what he could do with it. He didn’t want to throw it away. It was important to remember.
I hadn’t a clue what to do with a scrap piece of paper on which I had scrawled a small child’s hurt. I was tired, hungry, wanted to cry and scream, and my shirt was soaked with tears. I gave up any pretense of knowing what I was doing, and grumbled, “I don’t know. What do you want to do with it?”
“I want to make a broken heart box. I want you to write down all my hurts and put them there so I can think about them when we’re alone. It’s safe to cry with you. You never tell me I’m wrong about how I feel.”
We used that Broken Heart Box for the next couple of years. Kiddo progressed to drawing and eventually writing his own hurts. Sometimes he just held onto the thoughts, and told me the first chance he had alone with me. He learned how to control his initial emotional response in favor of a more considered delayed response. He eventually recognized that a friend might choose not to sit next to him one day but might sit with him the next, and neither action meant the friend liked him more or less. Time gave him a greater perspective, an emotional flexibility to survive the bumps.
I don’t remember when exactly he stopped using the box, nor what happened to the box and all the written notes. It was always kiddo’s box to do with as he wished, never mine.
The older he gets, the more our discussions revolve around perspectives and options. Different ways to perceive an event, different ways to control or change or delay a reaction. He still sometimes holds onto the heaviest thoughts then shares when we’re alone so he can process the emotions in safety.
We built emotional trust over a broken heart box during preschool. I hope I never lose his trust.