(Email correspondence between myself and an internet friend, Ellie, in Sweden, whose 8 year old child woke up one moring unable to walk. (It is shared with Ellie's permission).
(28th September 2006) Email title: "My son wants to be little"
We were discharged from the hospital today to be in time for his drum class and he plays drums, including those that are played with pedals, without difficulty. He just can't straighten out his legs to stand or walk on them. Though he can 'walk' squatting (on his haunches). As I see it, he needs to 'be little' again for a while.
PAT: From what you describe, I think your assumption that he is 'regressing' to something earlier, may be correct.
ELLIE: He is my middle child. He has one 2 year-older sister and one 2 year-younger brother (10, 8, 6) and I know that I wasn't able to attach to him as a baby the way I did with the others (and at that time of course I didn't know what I know today about little childrens' needs.) As a toddler he was very active and I know I have been 'over the top angry' with him many times.
PAT: I understand, and yes if there are painful memories and scenes that happened to him at that time, then if he feels safe now, his body will try to relive them spontaneously to heal.
ELLIE: He has told his school-teacher that it was unfair that only his siblings were ill and permitted to stay at home from school and that he wanted to be ill, too. We are going back to hospital on Friday to see a psychologist…
PAT: The fact that he is able to talk about his feelings is a very positive sign indeed. That would suggest that he feels safe enough in the present. May I share with you the story of my best friend and her children?
My friend has, like me, been through primal therapy and so she is very in touch with feelings. But her marriage didn't work, and when her two youngest were still small (and breastfeeding and doing 'family bed') there was a divorce, and suddenly a new step-dad who didn't much like the children wanting to climb into the bed with them at night (it caused some big problems, and the middle child of the three was badly affected).
Almost always he would burst into tears (up till 10 or 11 years of age) and start, first to cry about something in the present (that is how we do it in 'primals' too) but very soon he would be crying deeply about earlier stuff, and quite often it went to, "When you moved in with Lex, I couldn't come into your bed at night. Lex locked the door and I didn't have a mother anymore. I hate Lex! Why did you make us live there?"
There would be very deep sobbing with these early memories, and then suddenly they would be over (for the moment) and he would give her a hug and go back to playing happily. I think he got a lot of his early hurts out this way.
What we advise in a situation like this is to let the child talk and always acknowledge the feelings expressed, and that we listen with caring and understanding. If early pain is involved, then for complete healing, the feelings need to be expressed as well as the words, and that is usually with crying. So we hold the child (if they will permit it) and let them know that it is always okay that they cry (or express anger) as much as they need.
If they need something to hit, we give them a pillow, as it is not okay to hit a person. But we let them know that we accept their anger, and understand with compassion. If they are crying, the crying may be deep and long (becoming more so with further sessions as they go deeper into the hurts). But it is always fine to let the crying go on as long as the child needs and as deep as the child needs to go. When the old hurt has been expressed enough for the day, the crying will stop by itself. If we cut them off before they have finished, then they are left feeling unresolved, but if we let them finish, then they feel 'clear' and 'relieved'.
Big hurts may take many sessions to work through, smaller hurts take a shorter time, but once they learn how to do it, most kids are good at doing it, and will tell us when they need more. My friend's child became good at that. He would finally tell her he needed more holding, and to cry more.
I am making the assumption here that it is indeed 'old memories' that are coming up with your child. I know it might be something quite different, and I hope that the psychologist will be able to help too. Please feel free to be in touch at any time.
ELLIE: Thank you so much for your listening and support. It was a great relief to read that he might get back to normal when he is ready with this. Just to make sure: If his state is as we assume, will he be able to get through this without crying sessions?
PAT: I think there are many ways children can deal with their stuff. Sometimes they just want to talk, but if they need to cry, we make it safe for them to do that. I think it is good not to force anything, but just to make it safe for the child to express himself any way he wishes.
ELLIE: I asked him if there was something he wanted to cry about and then he mentioned his Granny, (my mother) who died last year. It was a really painful loss for him, too and he's been picking his own flowers in the garden, riding his bicycle to the cemetery and putting them in a vase on her grave all by himself. And he was sad because his little friend Erik's father died from cancer last year.
PAT: I hear that he has recently had to deal with a big very loss, and also with the fact of death, which can be very overwhelming to a young child.
ELLIE: There was a situation about half a year ago when Lasse and his little brother, Sven, dressed up in skirts. They brought dolls to play with and Lasse began to play out an obviously tramuatic scene that I recognised from when he was little, 2-3 years maybe. He argued with the doll in a really hard voice only, all of a sudden, to change to a really soft voice and asked for an apology. It was painful to see but still fascinting that it is so close.
PAT: Yes, it does sound like he is very close to his feelings and in a healthy way. The fact that he could replay a scene that hurt him, is constructive. Children work through a lot of their problems through play, and role-playing as they play. A good book on that subject is Dibs in Search of Self by Virginia Axline.
ELLIE: I mentioned your email to my husband who remarked that Lasse actually very rarely cries. And if he does, he does it in anger and frustration, because something is unfair. I can't remember when I last saw his eyes just water softly. And boys are certainly permitted to cry in our home. We have never (consciously) disapproved of the boys' sad feelings.
PAT: That is very good. I think it is fine not to force children into their feelings, but just to encourage it and allow it when they express any strong emotion - like anger, or sadness or fear, or hurt or whatever. Children have a wonderful way of self-healing if we just make a safe space for them, and if they know that all their feelings, negative and positive, will be accepted, heard and understood. I do know that sometimes parents want to tell children what they 'should' feel (I had to learn to stop doing it, and just listen with empathy).
ELLIE: I know I shouldn't, but it's so easy to get stuck in what adults used to tell you (me) when you (I) were little. . .
PAT: It has taken me three decades in primal therapy to unlearn what I learned from my parents (and other adults), and sometimes I still get it wrong!
I noticed that you have mentioned he said the words 'fair' and 'unfair' more than once. It sounds like those words describe something that is an issue for him, and I think it is good to just allow that or encourage him to talk about that, and let him know that you hear how he feels. I find that children mostly just want to know that we have heard their feelings and accept them. Then they do the rest.
ELLIE: Would it be wise to take out the photographs from when he was little to make things pop up or would that just consolidate his emotional pain (like being left at the daycare at age one)?
PAT: That is a good question. I think maybe it is best not to force things (especially at a time when a child is having problems) but to wait until they give clues that they want to work on something. Sometimes they will give a definite and clear clue. Or the time to share something spontaneously just happens in its own, and then we can feel that the time is right. But if there is any resistance, I would drop it. It's best to let the child set the pace.
ELLIE: I am concerned but I also try to see it in a positive way. This came up when Lasse really was in a good place - he seemed so happy the weeks before, he had just found a new little friend. Then he decided he wanted to move back into our bedroom after nearly 3 years in his own bed in his own room. But his school-teacher remarked a couple of weeks ago that he seemed happy and worked well together with the other kids. He invents his own games and is also very intelligent for his age.
PAT: If this is an old memory coming back, perhaps it is because things are going so well in his life at the moment, and that has made it safe for his psyche to bring up any problems that might be there. When children are under stress, they mostly don't bring up old issues, as they are too busy trying to cope with the stresses in the present. It is interesting that he has moved back into your bedroom too, in order to be closer to you at this time.
ELLIE: Only his physical problem hasn't improved anything at all today - he walks possibly worse. And I, the mother, am swinging between hope and despair. . .
PAT: I can imagine this must be of concern to you. I am glad that they are checking him for any medical or physical problems too. It seems that at this point we don't really know what the problem is. It must be hard to have to try to guess. What is the child saying about it himself, if I may ask? Does he speak of physical pain, or just of weakness, and how does he feel about what is happening to him?
The next day…
ELLIE: Last night Lasse was sobbing in his sleep - or rather whining, "I don't have the strength for anything". I just agreed with him and I didn't say things like, "Oh you will feel better soon". He says sometimes that his legs hurt and that's why he can't straighten them - but that is rare. Mostly it's just the weakness. And again - he straightens them in his sleep and in the swimming pool.
I am tempted to remark on it when I see him walking better, but I 'm not sure that's sensible. As soon as I say, "Now you're walking well" he sinks down more heavily into my arms. . .
PAT: Yes, I think what you say is right about not remarking on it. If he wants you (even unconsciously) to see how weak he feels, it may be best not to comment when he is walking better.
But it sounds like you are handling it very well. When I was in training (Parent Effectiveness Training), they taught us how to 'reflect back' the feelings of the child, to draw the child out to say more, or go deeper into the feeling, e.g., with the above, "I hear that you are not feeling strong, and everything is very hard. . ." Usually that encourages the child to say more.
I understand about the 'weak' feeling too by the way. It sounds like something earlier has maybe been triggered. I know when I am in early feelings (I had a horrendous birth, and was pulled out with forceps) I often feel very weak and it is hard to find the energy to do anything. The feeling underneath that I have got to is, "I can't go on. . . This is just too hard and too tiring. . . I give up. . ."
ELLIE: Lasse seems better now. We have seen the psychologist. He mostly questioned me about our family and home-life. Finally, he asked Lasse what he was the most afraid of. Lasse said his biggest fear was that Mum, Dad, Sven and Birgit (his brother and sister) would die. The psychologist ensured him that the way we live, we are very unlikely to just fall down and die.
PAT: I hear that he has big feelings about loss and fear of being left alone. Perhaps his granny's death has taught him about death, and that is connecting into earlier fears of loss or being left alone.
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