My daughter was playing with a gaggle of kids the other day and they decided it would be fun to all pile into our small sauna. In the scuffle, one of the other kids was closing the door and accidentally caught her finger quite badly. On hearing her shriek, I ran and lifted her out. She was screaming, very distressed and for a while I didn’t know what had happened so I took her to sit down and just held her. I could see she was holding up her finger and that it was squashed and bleeding. She was besides herself with heavy sobs and wailing and I just said simply “Your finger got trapped” as she heaved and tried to tell me the story. I stayed close as she shuddered and shrieked and told fragments of the story and just offered simple observations such as
“That really hurts, your finger got caught” and letting her know “I’m with you, I’m so sorry that happened.”
After about 10 minutes her crying started to die down and I suggested “Shall we have another look?” She looked again at her finger and once more started bawling. I wanted to help her stay with the feelings of upset so she could release them fully from her system and recover from this mishap. I continued encouraging her to keep looking at the finger and crying more.
When children cry after small bumps, the intensity of emotion can often feel disproportionate to the level of injury. We tend to want to appease them with plasters or medicines or stop them crying through reassurance that they are fine. We worry that so long as they are crying, they feel hurt. What actually happens is that children are very good at making use of the body’s ability to offload hurt. When they cry for the scraped knee or banged head, they are also letting out other feelings that have accumulated and were weighing them down. Small disappointments such as Mum working late, or a not getting to ride in the front of the car. Or greater feelings of hurt that go in with scary things like house moving, or divorce or a new sibling. We can absolutely trust that any feelings that come up for our children are valid, even if we don’t understand where their roots lie. The crying is not the hurt itself. The hurt already happened (whether it’s the bump just now, or the lost toy yesterday, or pining for a relative who has been gone for a few weeks). The crying is the release of the hurt.
After a good while my daughter had cried enough that looking at her bashed finger no longer elicited an emotional response so the next step was for me to suggest “We’re going to have to wash it under the tap before we can put a plaster.” This allowed her to cry anew and protest “Nooooo that will hurt, noooo. Don’t wash it!” We continued in this direction for some time, where I kept making the suggestion (without actually forcing her finger under the tap). When she had cried enough about it, she held her hand under that tap to wash it and allowed me to affix the plaster.
Interestingly by the time she had cried plenty, the injury didn’t look so bad. I have heard from other parents who use this approach that (as well as emotional the hurts we cry to recover from), crying can have a miraculous impact on relieving physical injuries too.