Every child bumps around and gets hurt. Children’s intelligence and competence can’t build any other way. They have to take chances. They have to bump into circumstances they didn’t anticipate. They have to misjudge many times, before their judgment is honed. So our children get bumped, cut, bruised, and stung. It’s painful for parents, too, when these dustups happen. We assume that it’s our job to prevent all injuries, and we feel very badly when they happen.
There are ways, though, that you can help to turn a bump, bruise or boo-boo into a confidence-building experience that will make your child more resilient in the long run.
The healing process has both a physical and an emotional component
Our bodies have an amazing capacity to heal. When you take a Biology class in high school, you get an introduction to the absolutely stunning complexity and power of the human body. Physical damage instantly kicks an efficient healing process into gear. We don’t have to think hard to heal from a cut. We don’t have to concentrate to mend a broken bone. We just need to practice a bit of hygiene and, for the bigger dustups, get an expert’s touch to make sure all roadblocks to the healing process are addressed. Our bodies go right to work, and days or weeks later, we’re good as new.
However, every bit of damage to a child’s body sparks not just the physical healing process, but the emotional healing process, too. Children are small. They don’t know how the world works. They are utterly dependent on us for their protection and survival. So any little cut or scrape ignites a huge emotional response. Their systems interpret even small troubles as immediate survival threats. Major emotions are lit in an instant. And these emotions don’t subside just because we tell them, “Oh, Honey, you’re OK. That was just a tiny bump.”
With your support, crying heals the emotional hurt
When your child suffers an injury, large or small, the emotional shock of getting hurt is a big part of her experience. It intensifies a child’s pain. It stresses her system. She cries to release the shock, and in response to the pain. Crying is not just a signal that harm has occurred. It’s also part of the healing process.
Crying is designed to actually defuse that shot of fear and surprise that flashed through your child’s mind like lightning. If no one attends to her feelings, and no one listens while she recovers, the emotional tension she has to hold onto and store away can create a scar that lasts far longer than the scab or the black-and-blue mark. Children who fall off a bike while learning, and are whisked away for a band-aid and some ice and an “Oh, that’s not so bad. You’re a big girl, sweetie. This is nothing to cry about,” will carry more fear and awkwardness into their next try at riding the bike. They will have lost some physical grace. Fear retained from the fall will tighten them up.
When your child is hurt, Staylisten for as long as you can
Life doesn’t afford us a lot of slack for listening to our children these days, but it’s sometimes possible to let our schedule slide a bit, and come to a child’s side to give loving attention as she processes a painful moment. When you can Staylisten, your child will make gains as she works through not only this tumble, but other tumbles and painful experiences she’s had. Some children use small boo-boos to have huge emotional episodes that might be related to healing from a painful birth experience, medical prodding and poking, illnesses, or previous trips to the emergency room.
When your child is hurt, make a quick safety check, of course. If need be, remove the thorn, take out the stinger or pick up the bike that fell on her leg. Then, move close and listen. Do little. Say little. Bring her your love, the circle of your arms, your very quiet confidence that she has survived, and let your child do her emotional work. She certainly knows how!
Your child may become panicky about needing a band-aid or ice, if she’s used to you rushing to bring some solution to the pain. Rather than try to blunt the pain or distract your child from it, consider that the pain is a natural process that’s got some healthy features to it. Just make sure your child has your close attention while she feels vulnerable. As she cries, she’ll be able to pay attention to how much it hurts. With just a few exceptions, the more attention a person pays to pain, the faster the pain subsides, and the better the healing process goes. Isolation and distraction seal in the emotions that accompany an injury. In storage, those emotions continue to signal some kind of trouble, and the body overreacts to the pain.
For instance, a child who cries all the way through a bump on the head will have less swelling, and may not even ask for ice once she’s finished crying. A twisted ankle that is gently massaged and very gently nudged in the direction that causes pain will swell less, and heal faster.
Staylistening builds a child’s resilience
Children who routinely have the chance to cry fully with Mommy or Daddy about their bumps and bruises become fearless over time. They cry very long and hard early in their childhood, peeling off underlying feelings of helplessness and fear. Then, as they grow, they cry only as long as it takes for the pain to go away, because they’ve taken care of that backlog of fear. Then, the prospect of pain doesn’t frighten them so much.
For example, when my six-year-old granddaughter went to get her ears pierced, there were three other girls in line before her, 8, 9 and 10 years old. The girls and their parents were talking about how they had been dreading the experience, and there was some back and forth as they each took time to gather their courage. My granddaughter, who has been listened to through years of scrapes and bruises, was happy, expectant, relaxed, and nonplussed by the experience.
When the body’s emotional alarm system is allowed to do its job, the body can then stop being so alarmed, and get on with healing. That’s the long and the short of it. Pain becomes much more manageable because stored fears aren’t magnifying it any longer. Of course, it’s important that a loved one come close and accompany a child while she’s offloading hurt and fear. But you don’t need to try to short-circuit that pain. Allow it to be felt, with you keeping things safe, until it goes away.
Here’s how it can work
One four-year-old boy I was caring for was running barefoot, and stubbed his toe badly in the yard. I went to him and held him while he cried. He screamed at first, then cried hard for a good long time. I stayed with him where he had come to me, bringing a paper towel to cover his toe and staunch the bleeding. I saw that the cut was dirty.
He cried for probably twenty minutes at first. He missed his Mom, who had gone out for awhile. I reassured him that she would be back, and she would see what happened to him. This made him cry hard, too. When he began slowing down, I let him know that we were going to need to lift the paper towel, look at his toe, and wash the cut. This news brought much more crying—another ten minutes or more. I went back and forth between asking him if I could lift the paper towel so we could look at it, and telling him that soon, we would need to wash it. I also moved him to the sink, where we could have access to water. He sat on the sink, and I stood with my arms all the way around him.
Eventually, he told me that he didn’t want me to lift the paper towel; he wanted to do it. I took my hand away from his toe, and he cried and told me he was sure it was going to hurt a lot. I said that it might, but that maybe some of the pain had gone now. We would only know when he lifted it. He cried in anticipation of more pain. I let him know what a good job he was doing, and that it was brave to be getting ready to look at his toe. A few more “I don’t want to” and “Why do I have to?” cries, and then he looked down and lifted the paper towel.
We looked together at the bloody toe, the cut, and the dirt. I asked him how he wanted to wash it. He said he wanted to touch it with a wet paper towel, and start that way. I gave him a paper towel, and he wet it and started the process of cleaning. It went slowly, with lots of “Owww!” and “Ssssss!” as the water stung his cut. There were some more tears, but he wasn’t beside himself any longer. He was actually quite engaged in this cleaning process. Eventually, we had to put his toe under running water and scrub a bit to remove the dirt—he managed this himself, with my guidance. We were at the sink for a long time, in an embrace, as we concentrated on his toe. Then, we bandaged it up well, he got a drink of water, and he literally ran off to get some more play in before the morning was over.
The whole process took about forty minutes of our time. But giving support is a rewarding way to spend part of a morning, and he was a whole boy when we were finished. No fear. Nothing was in his way of playing hard again. His toe was clean and on the mend, he didn’t feel the need to favor it, and he and I now had a special bond, as well.