A while ago in a play park I witnessed a seemingly mild incident that left me feeling deeply disturbed. A little girl of around two or three years old was being ‘walked’ by her father on one of those harness things, like a dog’s leash for children. The girl was screaming and clearly didn’t want to leave the park and her father was pulling her and saying “Come, come!” as one would to a dog. She was determined, literally digging her heels into the ground and was putting all her weight into staying put.
(This is not going to be a rant against those contraptions. In my opinion a tool is a tool and its use or misuse depends on the user. While I personally prefer the method of talking and holding a child, there might be a place for them with those magnificent children who have the most remarkable ability to disappear in seconds and scare their parents to death on a regular basis. Such a harness could maybe be used lovingly to help a child understand the concept of staying close. It would be discussed and explained to the child without frightening them or forcing the experience onto them. And it would be ended as soon as possible once the understanding has been gained. That is my opinion.)
I was left wondering why this incident disturbed me so much. Like all of us, I’ve often seen uncomfortable examples of parents in play parks urging or forcing children to do things they don’t want to do. And what was so bad really? Children often don’t want to leave the park and have to be cajoled or dragged away by their caretakers. I checked in with myself about what parts of this incident were triggering my personal wounding and cleared them. But even after this, my discomfort remained and I began to have rescue fantasies of how I would educate these parents who, other than this incident, actually seemed quite obviously loving and caring. They just didn’t seem to realize the effect of the incident on their beloved daughter. I knew they would want to know and desperately wished to help them see this. Of course I shut up and stayed put. They were not asking for help or advice and I’m not suicidal.
(Again I feel I must add, that if I witnessed parental behaviour that made me fear for the child’s safety I would put on my bomb vest and head in there!)
In this case I merely let myself dream my dreams and it was in allowing myself to fantasize what I would tell them that I realized why I was feeling disturbed. What I was witnessing was very similar to many incidences that I had heard from my clients in hypnosis. It was a classic example of the small daily wounding that shapes us in maladaptive ways in our lives. I was seeing one of those moments in vivo. This girl would very likely be deeply shaped by being pulled on a rope, helpless, her screams unheard, as the man she loves and who loves her pulls her along, not hearing or seeing what she is trying to express. The potential impact on her future relationships with men and authority figures is actually large – as well as her potentially huge future emotional reactions to situations in which she feels unheard or powerless to stop something happening.
People always think it takes big traumas to shape and damage but it is incidences like this that seem to really make the dents. The perceptions we build on those. The little girl has no context to guide her – children live in the moment and this moment is her whole life. What is this moment like for her? What would it be like for any of us?
This is an excellent, although inconvenient question to ask ourselves when we are busy debating with or forcing our child. As adults we are so focused on outcomes and future goals that we often lose the moment, but children live IN each moment with no others for context. That’s why painful childhood experiences feel so big and scary to access again later and feelings seem so big and unbearable when in fact they are totally manageable as adults. They were too big for us to manage as children.
That little girl was in crisis in that moment. As I could see it, this wasn’t about a tantrum for her, she was deadly serious in her struggle to be heard and seen by her loving father. That moment was shaping how she perceives the world to be. A world where she has no control no matter how hard she struggles.
We can’t control what our children will experience nor what they will feel is important but we can at least try to listen to them when they try to tell us. Especially if they are screaming at us we should try to listen because it must be very important if it needs to be screamed at us. We can at least try to create the optimum environment. Then we have a lot of space to mess up and occasionally override our child without it being the end of the world for them because they know they can tell us, even if it’s only later.