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Loud and Clear

February 15, 2012

The other night my 18 month-old Finn woke up screaming. He does this sometimes. Not every night like he used to when he was a colicky infant, but enough that we’re hardly surprised by it. We usually “ignore” him so he can fall back to sleep on his own (otherwise it tends to become a habit) but this isn’t a hard and fast rule (is anything when it comes to parenting?).

On this particular night his screams were so shrill and desperate that I had to go to him. He sounded terrified or hurt or like something was definitely wrong. Why else would someone go from sound asleep to screaming without so much as a pause in between?

I opened the door to his warm room cooing, “Baby, baby, baby, what is it?” He caught his breath and stood up and reached for me in the dark. I lifted him out of his crib and held his tiny body close to mine as he wailed and squirmed and patted my back. “Finny, honey, you’re okay. You’re okay. Mama’s here. Mama’s here…” But his screams didn’t stop and he was practically throwing himself out of my arms.

Did something hurt? Maybe he was getting another tooth? Or that milkshake he stole from his brother was hurting his tummy? Could it be another ear ache? Do kids this age have nightmares? Maybe he was scared? Or half asleep and confused? Was he too warm? Too cold? Did he need a diaper?

I held him closer and bounced and whispered into his feathery soft hair, “You’re okay, baby. You’re okay.” But it only made him scream more.

Finally, in the still of the night, I heard him. Loud and clear. He wasn’t okay. I may not have known what was wrong but no one screams like that if they’re okay. How frustrating it must be to feel one thing and have someone you love and trust keep telling you the opposite.

So I switched sides. “Finny’s sad,” I said in my most matter-of-fact voice. “Finn hurts.” As I spoke to him, he instantly quieted down. He rested his head softly on my shoulder as I continued to put words to what he might be feeling. “Finn’s so upset. Finny’s scared…”

It felt like as soon as I stopped fighting him (“You’re okay” vs. “NO I’M NOT!”), he was able to come to terms with what he was feeling and let it go. This is something we do with our five year old quite a bit and it works remarkably well. It’s one of the things I forget to do as often as I remember. I’ll find myself in a classic tug-of-war when suddenly I’ll remember—just repeat after him until he feels heard.

This is how it went the other night: “Honey, it’s late. Go back to bed. It’s just a dream. It can’t hurt you. Dreams are not real. Just GO TO BED. I’m serious. If you get up one more time…” The more I discounted what he was saying, the more he held his ground. There was no way he was going to give in. Then I remembered—if I take his side, there’s nothing for him to fight against. So I took a deep breath and said, “You’re really thinking about that dream. It’s bothering you a lot tonight. You’re scared you might have it again. You’re so scared you don’t want to go back to bed…”

It sounds crazy, I know, but as soon as he felt heard, he was able to LET GO. Without any further prodding from me he said, “If that dream comes back, I think I’ll just change it. I mean, it’s my dream. I can control it if I want.” Then he said goodnight and walked back to his room to tuck himself in. I’m not even kidding.

So of course it would be the same with his brother. Not because they’re brothers but because they’re HUMAN. Who doesn’t want to feel heard?

Maggie navigates the slippery slope of stay-at-home-motherhood and trying to avoid common pitfalls such as sweatpants and mommy brain. When she’s not jumping on the trampoline with her boys, walking the dog, or watching The Daily Show with her husband, she writes and illustrate children’s books and blogs at Just Say NO to Mommy Brain!.

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