Sometimes children seem to be so unreasonable, don’t they? They lose it over the most insignificant of things, such as which coloured cup you give them, or which flavour ice lolly they got. And it’s hard not to find that immensely frustrating when you are doing your best to be kind and help their lives go well. You did everything right and they are having a huge meltdown about nothing. Except, one thing you can guarantee is that it is never about nothing. We sometimes refer to this at Hand in Hand as the ‘broken cookie situation’; you give your child a cookie and the corner has broken. They scream and scream that they wanted a ‘whole one’ and refuse to eat the broken one, even if it’s the last in the pack.
We see it that there is actually some wisdom in this. When humans are in optimal emotional health, we make use of the body’s inbuilt, self-mending mechanism; we release hurt, stress and tension through emotional release like laughter, crying and raging or trembling. By adulthood, most of us have inhibited this response after being shushed, or scolded from babyhood when we went into emotional release. We hold back tears, we stifle laughter, we try to stay calm when we are angry. But children tend to have their emotional release mechanism in full working order and make really good use of a small pretext like a broken cookie, to offload some stored up feelings.
I recently had a ‘broken cookie’ moment myself and it has given me a greater understanding of how it feels for a child when they don’t get the right cup. This morning I was thrown into full body kitchen meltdown by a pair of socks jumbled in with my laundry that did not belong to me. Now there was enough of a story with these socks to create a small amount of emotional charge relating to a present time (but relatively minor) upset in my life. The rational part of me knew that the socks and even the story were inconsequential, yet here I was in the kitchen, heart pounding, head whirring and dizzying emotion closing in. You know it’s a broken cookie when you are lying on the floor sobbing so hard you can’t breathe and feel like you might die. When the pain that pierces your heart makes a hole so vast, there isn’t enough left of you to contain it. You gasp and wail that you are absolutely not going to be OK. You know it sure as hell isn’t about the socks.
I think this is how our children feel when their cookie breaks and their whole world falls apart. It’s a completely involuntary hijacking by the emotional brain. And the feelings stem from a time where it really did feel as though there were great threat. When we can be with this tide of emotion and treat it as the release of stored hurt that it really is, we are basically enabling a therapeutic process. This benefits all, because the less of this cloud of pent up emotion that our children need to trundle around with them, the less scared they are going to be. And scared people are a piece of work to be around – they are much more prone to rigidity, aggression, withdrawal, hyperactivity, sleep disturbance, neediness. Each time you listen warmly to a broken cookie situation, you are working towards having your sweet, joyful, easygoing, generous angel back.
“You’ll do just fine with this one, Love” you hold a little, kind limit so that they have something to come up against and get these feelings out. And then you stay close and listen while they rage or sob.
“You wanted a whole one”
“I’m right here”
“You don’t like this one”
“It feels unfair”
After sobbing for a while they might say something that indicates what they were really upset about, or you might never know and it’s not important that we understand. And when the storm has moved through, they’ll most likely be happy to eat the broken cookie and they’ll feel lighter and more connected to you.