Even in my mind’s eye, Seth is furiously chewing his lip with furrowed brow. He’s small child who’s just turned seven, but his tense muscles are strong and when his fists swing there are bruises. He is quick to tell you that he is bad, that his favorite character is Michael Myers (Halloween), and that no one wants him. Perhaps there are grains of truth in his litany, certainly his behaviors are intolerable as he pummels young and old with his angry fists and vicious words. But this is such an incomplete and misleading description.
Seth is also a remarkably bright child who looks for logic and documents patterns. He is a tender soul who reaches for hugs and chooses the puzzle with puppies and kittens. He is articulate and charming and absolutely adorable. Except when he’s not.
In our team meeting we talked about how Seth navigated the week and I mentioned his agitated state. I’ve learned to watch, to be prepared to keep both he and the other children safe. Not his natural state, he has a visible cycle with a gathering of steam. A watchful adult can often intervene to redirect and de-escalate with careful timing and respectful interaction. With a room full of children and a steep learning curve, I have too often missed the window of opportunity.
As I talked about Seth’s agitation, the therapist on our team, a warm and loving professional, looked thoughtful and then offered, “he’s so very anxious. Have you seen his brow furrow?” Her gentle words were disarming and I mused at the also-true read of the situation. A child who is anxious may become agitated and then perhaps violent. For our child, the pattern is both constant and consistent. I’ve been trying to read the agitation to prevent the violence, and have had occasional success in that endeavor, but what if we tended the anxiety that lies yet deeper?
While this work, of course, belongs between the therapist and the child, a respectful understanding of the anxiety shapes my compassion and thereby my interactions with Seth. Rather than trying to control his agitation, I am more inclined to bring empathy to the enterprise, offering whatever balm I have for the anxiety as I redirect the agitation and hopefully prevent the violence.
All along Seth has communicated as directly and clearly as a seven-year old can. He reports with remarkable clarity the things that he sees and feels and the underlying causes. Tragically they are simply too big even for my adult sized heart. As I consider the sources of his anxiety with my own heart less guarded, I cannot help but see that his emotions are tragically commensurate with his situation. While his behaviors are outrageous and completely unacceptable, the anxiety that produces them is totally appropriate. The culprit is not the child but rather the life events that are traumatizing him. This child has, quite simply, been given more than he can bear.
My own fight-flight instinct is to righteous anger at a world that would hurt children, but I’ve already wasted too much of my life in this endless spin. We have no control of the life events for this little boy. It is our job to help him find (or create) an inner strength by which he can survive. We cannot do this for him, but we can bear witness to the struggle and point to the incredible gifts that are his own. Our therapist says that we can help him to write a new inner message, one in which he is worthy, loved and lovable. We do this one day at a time and trust that over the days that become weeks and then months he will begin to claim this message as his own.
In the meantime as I watch him chew on his lip, I reach for the iPad to redirect his mind and for today it works.
He eagerly takes the toy and puts his head down as his fingers fly. Just five minutes later I watch as he is now in a huddle of boys building virtual Legos together, sharing two iPads cooperatively, happily. Brow unfurled, lip no longer chewed, wow.
This is the child he came into the world to be.
I sit on the rug, mesmerized and holding the moment. There will be other moments not so hopeful, this I know. All the more I cherish this one in which his spirit shines bright. It is so very very good.