I was working at the dining room table this morning with my 4 year old
son Isaac happily engaged at his play kitchen nearby. He suddenly
looked up and asked: ‘where is this?’, pointing to the picture of a
cardboard tube that had, at one time, held his wooden toy cookies.
I admit, that cardboard tube (which was over a year old, bent and torn, and hadn’t seen those wooden cookies in months) had been thrown away. And so I said “oh, sweetie, that’s been gone for a long time.”
His entire face fell and he sadly said “but it was a birthday present.” Tears followed as he took in the loss.
Surprised by his response, wanting to rescue him from his sadness, I began to explain: "it was broken, the cookies are fine on the cookie sheet, you don’t need it to play with the cookies…" trying to think of anything I could say to help him feel better.
And then, I stopped.
Something visceral stopped me; a feeling that I was pushing against him rather than helping him. In a split second I realized: what I was saying wasn’t helping at all, but rather discounting his very real emotional experience.
That’s when I got down onto the ground, wrapped my arms around him, and said “you’re really sad that it’s gone.” He nodded, and I told him that I understood how disappointed he was feeling. I continued to hold him for a minute or two, until he decided to get up and move on to another activity.
About 10 minutes later, he was back with the cookies and said to me, “I know, mom, I can do it this way!” He then showed me how he would stick the cookies together and cut them apart, skipping the step in which the cookie roll is taken out of the tube (as depicted in the instructions.) He was so excited and proud that he had come up with a solution.
The approach I chose (once I caught myself) helped me as well as my son; instead of grasping for ways to make him feel ’better’, I made a real connection with him in his moment of distress, supporting him until he was able to creatively solve the problem for himself. In the end, we both felt better.