Saturday, April 3, 2004


Ashley Harper

My daughter, Flannery, is eight, a second grader in a Memphis public school. She just entered the school in January, three weeks after her summer vacation had begun in Peru where we were living. It has not been an easy transition for her, as expected, but as is the case with young children, the expression of her confusion and misery is far removed from its cause, and therefore not always easy to identify. She snatches toys from August, her four-year-old brother and throws action figures at his eyes. She destroys the things she makes and is unable to concentrate. I have tiny fist bruises on my thigh, a sore throat from screaming and thoughts about my first born that have sent me to meds.

Over coffee I can tell my girlfriends about the differences between here and there, the people I miss, and the ramifications a big move has on my emotions. I could make a list or write a five paragraph essay using appropriate psychobabble and headings for each phase of my feelings. I don’t have to scream at my mother or kick my dog. With my rational thoughts unpacked and put away, the urge to cry about the toothpaste or unfrosted breakfast cereal is controllable, but my daughter has no recourses. Other adults may ask her about her new school or missing her old friends, and her response is rote, that school’s good/fine/ok and she feels good/fine/ok. Her dad and I say to each other, she seems to really be handling things well, she got an A on her reading test, she finishes all her homework before dinner. And then, that calm eye of the storm passes over and she begins screaming at whatever random straw that broke the feeble camel’s back.

Tantrums may begin with twisted socks or not enough breakfast sausage, but inevitably come around to Peru, and how she belongs there, NOT here. The proverbial dam breaks again and again and all the peaceful waters of good grades and calm answers tumble along the rapids of her emotional river.

Though we know changes take tolls on children that aren’t often evident on the surface –suppressed sexual abuse, inner child therapy, re-birthing – parents still forget that these little people hold reservoirs of rage and confusion that can appear at any time or in any place (though usually both quite sudden and inconvenient). The worst part of our parental blindness is not that we can’t empathize with our daughter’s outbursts, but that we don’t recognize the source that often has nothing to do with the catalyst. While it’s simple to understand her verbal rages, I don’t belong here, I feel like no one understands me except in Peru, it’s much harder to see her whining and hostility towards her little brother (who really IS adapting remarkably well) as expressions of that same pain. It is far easier, relatively speaking here, to have patience and apply the correct strategies when a child tells us where it hurts, why it hurts and how much it hurts, than when they just mope or cry or hit or scream without giving us the directions first.

As our beloved president would have us do, we have to be on our guard for indications of possible attack when we think all is well. While my daughter’s emotional behavior is the most obvious distress signal-- crying at little things, irritability, general bitchiness (hmmm) -- physical evidence of stress can also be seen. Her refusal to eat certain foods, constipation or rashes, headaches and other vague tummy or body aches are all signs of stress that may not be otherwise expressed.

I have been very caught up in the logistics of our recent move and it is clear that I haven’t spent enough time with Flannery. My husband and I have been so frantic to get moved in and settled that we’ve ignored requests to go to the park or play amid the half unpacked boxes. And in our dual haste to get organized, grandparents, other family members and friends have been indispensable. It is important to give Flannery and August a break from whatever chaos we are facing, and it’s also fair to give us some uninterrupted time to advance. But when the kids arrive home, it’s important to put down the hammer and picture hanging wire to check in with them and let them sense that things will get back to some sort of normalcy, that we won’t always be unavailable and preoccupied. We tell them we know they hurt when they want to talk about it. Just restating what they’ve said in a matter of fact tone reassures them that their feelings are legitimate and understood. There is no reason to talk Flannery, or any child, out of their feelings, telling them that they will feel better soon or that the feelings should be tucked away because they are not very pretty. Isn’t it sometimes necessary to cry on our pillows and slam doors? I know I enjoy both.

Children are learners, and since they’re learning when we least expect it, it’s damned advisable to be careful about what they’re taking in. Yes, change is inevitable and it can hurt, but parents are there to give kids methods to cope. Often this is as simple as a hug and eye contact. We have to let them know they are heard and that what they feel matters more than whether the loveseat goes in the study or the living room.

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