We picked the kids up from kindergarten and preschool one afternoon and drove straight to the airport. Our four-year-old daughter noticed that we were not driving home, so we made the happy announcement, “Surprise! We’re going to Lego Land.”
Turns out, anything that has the element of surprise in it, was going to be a big strain on our daughter. But we didn’t know that about her yet.
She immediately spun into a meltdown. She screamed all the way to the airport, and continued to scream throughout the majority of the plane ride. It was horrible: for her, for us, and for everyone on the plane.
We Staylistened as she offloaded her fear about something new happening, and her rage about the surprise of it all. “You didn’t tell me. I hate surprises. I hate Lego Land. (She’d never been to Lego Land.) I don’t want to go. I won’t go. I’m not going. I’m not getting on the plane. I hate planes. I’m to going to Lego Land. I’m not going to the hotel. I hate hotels.” She screamed.
We also Staylistened with our 6 year old son, who was very excited about Lego Land, but furious at his sister. “Why is she always ruining everything? Make her stop screaming. I don’t like it. This isn’t any fun. She’s too loud. Make her stop. It hurts my ears Mommy, make her stop.” he pleaded.
Our son was able to offload his disappointment and anger at his sister. He then easily shifted towards enjoying his own interests on the way to the big adventure. He read on the plane. He and my husband played cards. He had moved on. We could be excited together.
However, it wasn’t till the next day that our daughter joined the party again. She was either screaming, or sullen and withdrawn until we got to the park. At that point she started to relax.
Staylistening helped her offload her fears and worries. It would have been easier if she didn’t have so many worries, or such strong and sustained responses to her worries, but she did. At that point in her life, there was a backlog of fear that couldn’t be emptied, before new fears filled right back in. Newness and changes in the routine were (and still are) very stressful for her. The phrases “sensory defensive” and “initial withdrawal,” we later learned, where phrases that could be used to describe her style.
Having these labels didn’t ban her into an untouchable category in our minds, or make her unlovable, but it did help us anticipate her struggles and plan for how great her needs for Staylistening might be, and when. I think of it as a broad reaching form of “friendly patrol.”
Listening to her, slowly, carefully, and for long periods of time locked in that we deeply care about her. She offloaded her fears, and received our patience and love.
On that weekend, both our kids could offload their worries and agitation and receive our confidence about their ability to survive adversity (our son), and safely try new things (our daughter). We didn’t lecture them about these ideas, nor did we insist that they appreciate us for our fun, generous plan. We simply listened with our steady gaze and our warm, close attention. Staylistening allowed them to offload their emotions connected to current or stored worries, anger, or disappointments, after which there was more room to enjoy the day, or at least move to the next location.
Our son had the time of his life. He wanted to move there, and build a Lego house and live in it forever. Our daughter did have some fun at Lego Land. There were stretches of time without screaming, at least.
But we made it through.
Some fun was had by all, and some had more fun than others.
In the end, I’d think the greatest success of the trip was that, through Staylistening, we formed a deeper connection with both our kids. And just like the Hokey Pokey song says,
“That’s what it’s all about.”
Join Beth Ohanneson in the Professionals Intensive, beginning April 13.