The difference between a trauma and a difficult experience is how it ends.
We had just finished up at one of our local indoor playgrounds, walking hand in hand to the car and planning to make a chocolate smoothie at home. It requires a surprising amount of manual dexterity to secure a wiggly 3-year-old in a car seat, so I did what I always do: dumped my armload of belongings onto the passenger seat, leaving me both hands free to wrangle her in securely and tighten her belt safely across her chest. I planted a kiss in the center of her forehead, stepped back, shut both doors, and walked around to the driver’s side.
Which did not open.
I panicked briefly, trying the door handle a few more times, just in case. No dice.
I rehearsed the last few minutes in my brain—did I hear a chirping sound as I left my purse and keys on the passenger seat? Had I (oh no) accidentally (oh please god no) locked my car…with my vulnerable, innocent child on the inside? Yes, I had.
I dashed back to her window, wiping a clean spot and peering in. She smiled at me cheerily.
“Can you open the car door, sweetie?” I asked in as unfazed a voice as I could muster.
“Yes!” She answered with glee, then returned to singing a song or looking at a book or doing whatever totally chill thing she was doing, completely oblivious to the fact that she’s just been locked in a car that’s parked in the sun in the middle of the day.
I walked quickly into the nearest establishment—an ice cream store, not quite open but getting set up for the day. I located an employee and explained myself. “Excuse me, but I’ve locked my kid in my car, it’s parked just outside. Could I use your phone to call my husband?”
She looked unimpressed but let me use her cordless phone. I dialed. He didn’t answer. Of course he wouldn’t answer—he’s in a meeting and he doesn’t recognize this number; anyway, he probably thinks it’s a spam call. I voiced this concern aloud and the employee generously offered to text him. I dictated the number, and she started to type a message on my behalf:
hi its rebeca. i locked my keys in the car—
“—No, actually, I locked my kid in the car,” I interrupted her. Her eyes grew wide and she stared at me blankly.
“You were so calm I totally didn’t get that part. Here, take my cell phone. Do what you have to do. Is she okay?”
“I think so.” I finished the text to my husband, and he said he’d get the spare key and come over. I looked in the car window again. She was still cheerful, but asking for me to come in the car. I smiled and told her to hold on.
As the ice cream lady (who introduced herself as Cici) and I bustled about my car, someone noticed our situation and thankfully flagged down a police car. Officer Robbins from the Culver City Police Department, calm and reassuring, walked over and asked how he could help. I told him what had happened, and he greeted my daughter through the car window.
“My husband is on the way with the spare keys,” I explained. He said he’d just wait until we got her out, which I appreciated, since this had never happened to me before. Just then my husband called me on Cici’s phone, frustrated and jittery.
“We don’t have a spare key for your car, and the only spare clicker is in your glove compartment! I’m coming over now!”
Damn it. I knew that, we both did, but in the insanity of this dangerous moment, that knowledge was utterly, hopelessly lost to us.
At that moment, I checked on my daughter again, and she had begun to cry. Somehow, I kept my cool, in spite of the rising fear creeping into my sweet child’s tears.
“Put your hand on the window, honey. Touch your hand to mine. That’s good, that’s really good. Now let’s sing together. Twinkle twinkle…” She kept crying, getting a tiny bit hysterical. Oh god, please let this turn out okay. Officer Robbins checked in on my husband’s status with the keys, and I explained our situation.
“No problem,” he said, “I’ll just call AAA—you’re a member, right?” Of course, AAA! I had thought briefly to call, but my ID card was locked securely in the car, and I had no idea how I might convince them to come without my member number. But Officer Robbins got through right away, and before I could finish singing the A-B-C song, the service worker had arrived and popped open my front door with an inflatable wedge.
I scrambled to scoop her out of the car seat—she was hot, sweaty, and tear-streaked, but otherwise alive and well. The AAA worker brought us a bottle of water, and I rocked my sweet child in my lap. I told her I saw how scared she was, and reassured her that she was safe now.
Officer Robbins bent down and grinned broadly. “Well now, you are certainly a brave kid! Can I give you a high five? You know, I think I have a sticker in my police car for brave kids. Would you like one?”
The tears dried almost instantly. “Oh, yes! A sticker! I am brave.” She high-fived her rescuer, who promptly retrieved a shiny silver badge-shaped sticker, which she elected to take home and stick on her crib. Clutching it tightly, she repeated, “I am brave.” I thanked the officer and the AAA worker, who departed.
Cici came over—“I’m so glad she’s safe. Can I please offer her some ice cream?” A sticker and ice cream? Today was certainly looking up, as far as my child was concerned. We walked to the shop, where she was given her very own little scoop of strawberry ice cream with a red gummy bear on top, which delighted her to no end. As she ate, I spoke to her gently.
“I locked you in the car on accident, it was a big mistake. You got scared, and I sang to you through the window, then Officer Robbins came and helped us and we got you out, and you were brave. I’m so sorry for my mistake. I will never, never, ever lock you in the car again. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I’m brave. I got a sticker and ice cream. Mommy will not lock me in the car again, and I will not lock her in the car when I am bigger.”
“Sounds like a deal, kiddo.”
Just then, my husband arrived. A wave of relief crossed his face when he saw our happy ragamuffin, devouring ice cream, safe and sound. He gathered her up in a bear hug, settled her on his lap, then turned to look at me, at which point his gaze hardened.
I took a deep breath.
“Please don’t be angry with me. I made a mistake. I will never do it again. Accidents happen to everyone. I’m already horrified that I let this happen, and you don’t need to rub that in, trust me. I’m just glad I was able to get her through it safely.”
“You’re right,” he said. “I’m sorry. That was really scary.”
“I know.” I reached out and offered my hand. He took it.
* * *
What did I learn from this comedy of errors? Two very important lessons that I really didn’t feel like learning that day, but as my husband often says, pain is the greatest teacher, but nobody wants to take his class.
The fastest way to get a kid out of a locked car is by summoning the police and having them contact AAA. (You could also consider placing a magnetic hide-a-key box under your chassis and keeping a spare in there. Great tip, Officer Robbins!)
Whereas the first lesson is extremely practical, I plan to keep my promise to my family and never, ever have to use it again. That being said, the second lesson I learned will come in handy on a regular basis for the rest of my life. And it’s this:
The difference between a trauma and a difficult experience is how it ends.
Both involve a huge uptick in fear, distress, and uncertainty. However:
- In a trauma, unfortunately, there is no return to safety and connection at the end of the experience. The person gets stuck in survival mode, and never learns that things will be okay again.
- In a difficult experience, the person can return to safety and security, discharging the powerful emotions generated by the experience in the presence of a caring other. This fosters resiliency and self-efficacy: the capacity to bounce back from adversity, and the belief that one can do so, as well as other challenging tasks.
I can tell my daughter she is brave until I lose my voice, but it’s experiences like these that teach her what being brave feels like. Would I have wished it on her (or me for that matter)? Not in a million years.
Hell, I just wanted a chocolate smoothie. But what I got—what we got—was something infinitely more valuable.
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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. Virtual visits now available!
Click here to schedule an appointment or contact Rebekka with a question – who knows, she might even answer it in her next post!