We’ve all been there. Whether it was back in college, or more recently, we’ve been responsible for a friend who has imbibed a little too liberally, and now requires undivided attention and care until the bad trip is over.
It does no good to get mad at this person for their behavior in their less-than-coherent state, nor does it help to rethink the logic of the poor choices that led up to this point, at least not until the buzz has worn off. No, what’s required for the duration is kindness, compassion, and patience. We tenderly hold hair away from sweaty faces, listen to esoteric, nonsensical ramblings and theories with placid faces nodding ever so slightly, and firmly but gently steer our pickled protege away from danger and toward the nearest sofa.
This, my friends, is also the right attitude to adopt when caring for a small child.
I mean, how else can you explain my daughter’s trajectory of activities when she returned home from school today?
- Remove pants.
- Put on headband.
- Apply pink face paint to face.
- Attempt to do same with daddy and mommy.
- Place several handfuls of beads into a drawstring bag.
- Give other drawstring bag to mommy (“Mommy’s needs to be empty”) and instruct her to put it on her arm.
- Eat pizza.
I literally cannot make this stuff up.
I also cannot make up the fact that there have been times when my tiny human would neither make eye contact with me nor acknowledge my presence at the table, but would engage in a full-tilt babbling conversation with a unicorn hand puppet, which she named “Corny.” For the next few days, she didn’t give a fig about what I was doing, but whenever mealtime rolled around, she went on a fervent, heartfelt search for the puppet, asking, “Where’s Corny? Where is him?!”
Additional case in point, dealing with childhood fears. As children become more adept at abstract thought, no longer living solely in the realm of the concrete, it frees them to imagine wildly, and sometimes dangerously. In a recent parenting class, I heard about fears of hippos coming out of trash cans, stars falling on heads, and dinosaurs coming to the dinner table. What to do about such irrationality? I mean, we all know there’s no such thing as trash can hippos, falling stars are unlikely to hit us on the head, and dinos are long extinct.
As with everything else related to childhood, it’s feelings and connection–not logic–that soothe the soul. I mean, are any of our fears logical anyway? And when did someone pointing out the irrationality of our fears ever help us feel any better? Good luck trying to talk a 2 year old out of the existence of monsters under the bed; no matter how many times you sweep aside the bedskirt with a flourish to reveal only dust bunnies and missing socks (so that’s where they all went!), your child will proclaim with perfect certitude that they only come out when nobody is looking.
Yes, small children are somewhat delusional, as we all are. We all harbor strange beliefs in things that are difficult to substantiate. Some of these beliefs are more congruent with socio-cultural norms than others, but they are delusions nonetheless. And take it from me that you can’t talk someone out of a delusion. Case in point, I once had a client who believed the FBI was monitoring his every move, feeding me lines through an earpiece. So I grinned widely, pushed back my hair, and leaned forward to give him a unobstructed view of my utterly empty ear canals. This act, however, only convinced my client that it was new tech too small to see. Delusion = 1, Rebekka = 0.
I should have known this would be the case. I remember studying the power of cognitive dissonance in my graduate school social psychology class when we encountered a particularly outrageous example of this phenomenon. In 1997, the now-infamous Heaven’s Gate followers believed their saviors were traveling to meet them in a UFO tailing the Hale-Bopp comet. Eager to sneak a peek, the cult purchased a a telescope to glimpse their existential getaway vehicle. There was just one problem: it wasn’t there. So what did they do? Return the telescope, of course. It had to be defective if what it showed did not align with their beliefs.
So hopefully our children haven’t gone quite this far in their psychedelic adventures, but they certainly are weird and random, and they certainly have some strong opinions about some very bizarre stuff. It makes for interesting living, to be sure, but it can also make for some intensely frustrating moments as well.
In these instances, I find it best to fight fire with marshmallows.
- Forget about sweeping under the bed. Repel tenacious monsters with a bottle of monster spray, either homemade or purchased.
- FBI in your therapist’s ear? Make some foil hats to block the signal.
- Kid got an invisible (read: nonexistent) injury that just won’t go away? Take a page from the book of toddler psychology juggernaut Alicia Lieberman and offer a magical solution to a magical problem. Kiss those boo-boos. Stick on as many bandages as needed. Apply an ice pack for a few seconds.
And, perhaps most importantly, hold onto the incredible reason why these little tykes are such trippy space cadets.
As my friend, psychologist, and clinical hypnotherapist David Gordon recently reminded me, children are adept at entering what might be known variously as trance-like states. We might also say that they are living in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described as flow. To paraphrase child development psychologist Alison Gopnik, being a small child is like “being in love in Paris for the first time after you’ve had three double espressos.”
To put it in layman’s terms, tiny humans live in the present moment, in the now. They are in deep, laser focused, inextricably tangled up in their object of engagement. Perhaps this is why it’s so difficult to redirect them in these moments of intensity and weirdness.
And perhaps this is also why many talented people have strived to regain a child’s perspective. Pablo Picasso was said to have quipped, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.”
Think of the deep breathing of a child in profound concentration. It feels like a cardinal sin to interrupt them. Like in a national park where you are asked to walk only on the paths, as precarious and precious microclimates are perched delicately all around you – we must whisper as we talk, tiptoe as we tread, lest we disturb the tiny miracles that are happening around us every moment.
Don’t let that little one bogart all the wonder – take a toke next time it passes around. Join that magical mystery tour and strive to see the world purely, as through a child’s eye, once more.
- “Who’s a pretty bird?” How Cookie the penguin makes me a better parent
- Family is (not) magic
- What love smells like: On bathing with my daughter
Rebekka Helford is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in Los Angeles, California. With over a decade of experience working with parents and young children, Rebekka specializes in short-term intensive parenting consultation, using a variety of tools including home, office, and school visits to help families navigate developmental hiccups and get back on track.
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!