I had given my son $20 to go with friend to a water park for the day. When he came home he gave me $10 saying he’d used the rest for food. A few days later the friend’s mother called to ask about something and mentioned that she had sent all the money back with him. I told my son that I knew he hadn’t spent the money on food and did he keep it? He sheepishly nodded yes.
I didn’t want him to feel badly about himself but I did want him to be accountable. Right away I felt like I was floundering around, not knowing how to handle this properly. In my upbringing, shame and guilt would have been used to solve this issue. There would not have been any possible way to walk out of the situation with any sense of dignity. Both my husband and I worked together on this one. We sat down with our son on the couch as we talked to him about how important it is to be honest and that we wanted to be able to trust him. That we love him no matter what and that giving the money back would help clear out that yucky feeling inside. He went and got his wallet, gave us $10 and then ran to his room crying.
This is where I often struggle. I think, “Maybe he needs time by himself right now. Am I smothering him? Invading his space?” It goes on like that in my mind. I had to trust my gut, which told me, “I wouldn’t want to be alone if I felt that bad. I would want someone to follow me and let me know I was loved.”
I checked in with my husband, and we agreed that this was a good opportunity for him to get out a lot of stored up feelings he’d had about taking the money, and that we didn’t want him to have to keep carrying those around. The super good news about this is that in the past my husband has had a hard time when our son is having big feelings, especially when he can see that me being close to him makes the feelings come out stronger. In the past he has leaned on the side of “Leave him alone if he’s walking away. Don’t upset him even more.”
We followed him to his room, knocked, and asked if we could come in. “No!” “Well, can I stay outside the door?” “No!” “Well, how about five feet away?” “Okay.” So I sat down and let him know I’d be right there if he needed me and that I wasn’t going to leave him alone.
I couldn’t hear much going on inside. Occasionally it sounded like he was still crying. Of course I wanted to burst in and hold him and tell him, “Everything’s okay!” I hated that my “baby” was feeling so bad. But I was trying to allow him to feel in charge by respecting the distance he requested. Every once in a while I would remind him that I was there, and that I was sorry he was feeling so badly. Sometimes he’d tell me “Shut up!” or “I don’t care!” and I’d say I’m not leaving.
This went on for quite a while, until finally he opened the door and burst out, “That was my money you took and Ronnie said I could be his friend if I gave him that $10 and now you have my money so I don’t have it and that’s not fair!” and slammed the door. The tear floodgates opened (for me too).
It took at least 45 minutes of my husband and I taking turns listening for him to finally get that out. If we had left him alone when he had told us to, he easily could have tucked that story away and carried all that crummy stuff around: feeling bad that he’d lied about using the money for food, feeling bad that his friend had put him in a weird position, feeling bad that we thought he took it himself. You could see how that could easily “gunk up the system.”
He still had the door shut and we could hear him crying hard inside. We let him continue to cry, with gentle reminders of our love. I realized there could be an array of leftover feelings: “Did I betray my friend? Will he still be my friend?” I let him know we still love Ronnie and that we knew that he just got a little confused about money.
Before long he came out and wanted lots of snuggling. We talked about what he wanted to do about it, and had him practice with us what he wanted to say to his friend about getting the money back. I called the mom the next day and told her what happened and let her know there were no hard feelings. The boys got together and talked and the money was exchanged, and they played happily together after that.
I was so pleased that we were able to tackle the situation so well, as a team. I have no doubt that the extra attention my son got from having us both there allowed him to get to the hard stuff that he was trying so hard to hide. I was also pleased that we got to find out what was at the root of the issue for a change. So often it just looks like release of emotions and healing but I don’t know exactly what it was about. It was a big victory for our family and a step in the right direction.
-Join Certified Instructor Kirsten Nottleson in her Building Emotional Understanding course. Starts March 27. Register now.