Storytelling to Address Fears and Anxieties
This week, I am delighted to publish a guest post from Mom and accomplished writer, Lane Pierce who, in her words, captures stories from the “parenthood trenches.” Lane contributes to WUWM, Milwaukee Public Radio’s Listen To Your Mother show as an essayist and previously as a cast member. You can find more of her articles at Scary Mommy. She writes, wrangles and raises a spirited preschooler with her husband in Milwaukee, WI.
Storytelling to Address Fears and Anxieties
Last summer I traveled to New York alone with my son who was three and a half at the time. After a summer of adventure, airplanes and cross-country travel, I didn’t think twice about bringing N on a long-weekend with dear friends. It was a long travel day with delays and a layover. When we finally got to our second flight, we boarded early to get settled. A friendly flight attendant, Debbie, welcomed us aboard and “Ooh’d” and “Aaah’d” over N. The plane was small. Our seats were in the far back, and my trusty carry-on would not fit into the overhead compartment. After several attempts, Debbie explained I’d need to gate check it. “I’ll stay here with N, you run up and hand it to the attendant at the front of the plane,” she explained.
By now the plane was full and crowded. “Mommy will be right back. I’m going to give our suitcase to the man at the front of the plane. I’ll be gone one minute. Debbie will stay with you until I get back,” I told N. He seemed fine with the plan.
I bolted up to the front and was back within my one minute promise. Debbie was helping a passenger halfway up the plane, and N was alone in his seat, curled up in a ball under my backpack, fighting tears. “That was more than one minute! She left! And you took too long!” he sobbed.
To his little mind, it must have felt like an eternity. He couldn’t see me, his trusted caregiver had abandoned him and he was in a loud, busy unfamiliar environment. “I’m so sorry you were by yourself,” I said as I pulled him into a hug. “That wasn’t the plan, and I can see that was scary.” “Yes!” he wailed. After a few minutes, the take-off and snacks distracted him from his distress and he was back to being a happy camper. I thought the moment had passed.
But this is the thing about little brains…they interpret and digest things in nonlinear ways. They can’t necessarily resolve intense emotions at the moment, shut the door and move on. Aren’t you shocked sometimes when your son or daughter brings something up from months earlier? I often find myself asking, “How and why does he remember that?”
It turns out that while the moment had passed, the feelings had not. Gathering around the dinner table that night with friends, I stepped into the kitchen to get some water. “Mommy!”, N sobbed from his chair, like I was leaving forever. Every move I made for the next three days elicited an intense angst and panic from my son. He needed to be attached to me every second. The moment had not passed. It seemed we were stuck in it. It was an exhausting three days for both of us.
I thought the problem would resolve when we got home. It didn’t. A week later, N would collapse into sobs and cling to me whenever I’d leave – at school, and even at Grandpa’s house, his favorite place in the world. We had never dealt with separation anxiety like this and I wasn’t sure what to do.
Enter Dan Siegel’s and Tina Payne Bryson’s book, The Whole-Brain Child. As I turned the pages, I began to realize our situation was less about what had happened and more about how a young brain develops and responds to the world. According to their brain research, “The ‘upstairs brain,’ which makes decisions and balances emotions, is under construction until the mid-twenties. And especially in young children, the right brain and its emotions tend to rule over the logic of the left brain. No wonder kids can seem and feel so out of control.” When a child is in distress, they explain, the brain is not in alignment. The key to helping them through the emotional storm is to encourage both left and right brain thinking to even things out.
Their strategy, “Name It to Tame It,” was especially helpful for us. Finding words to describe stressful experiences is a left-brain activity that can help align an over-reacting “flight or fight” brain. I learned through this book that one of the most helpful things I could do with N was tell the story of what happened – together – using our own words. Now, this went against my inclinations. My inclination was to avoid the trigger, to not discuss that which made him so upset. But it turned out that addressing the story directly diffused the feelings instead of exacerbating them.
When we were having a particularly calm morning cuddled on the couch I asked N, “Hey, I was just thinking about that time on the airplane. The time I had to leave our seats and you were by yourself for a little while.” He got quiet and his eyes got big. “What do you remember about that?”
“The woman didn’t stay with me,” he said. “Yes, that was scary,” I said. “That wasn’t the plan. What else do you remember about that?” We filled in as many details of the story as we could remember, and then I explained it’s my job to make sure he’s safe, that we all ended up being fine after it happened and that I would make sure he wasn’t left alone on a plane again. Then we went to go play.
The next day, he asked me to tell the story of the plane again. I shared one detail and asked what else he remembered. He told the story again, according to his perspective, then shared one new detail – “I didn’t want the lady to see me crying.” Over the next week or so, we told the story two or three more times. The tears stopped at school drop off and at Grandpa’s house. We went to the park and he ran to the sandbox – and away from me – and I knew we were back. He had processed enough, his
left and right brain had aligned.
This whole experience was such a good lesson for me as a parent. I was able to help N through something difficult, that we – together – were able to handle and process and move on. I felt very empowered, and I think he did, too. I don’t shy away from talking about difficult moments anymore because now I know it’s helpful to processing. We have found power in our words, and that’s something that will serve both of us well, no matter what comes.
Siegel, D. J. & Bryson, T. P. (2012). The Whole-Brain Child, 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. NY: Bantam Books.
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