CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

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What Can Possibly Be The Matter With My Child?

By By Helge Staby Deaton, MSW,

The teacher of a class of three-and-a-half year old pre-school children at the daycare in Trenton where I have been consulting for the past eleven years called me late morning one day, greatly distressed, to help her out. She told me that nothing in particular had happened to cause this child’s extreme upset, no conflict with another child, no upset about the inability to do something the way he had wanted.

“I’ve no idea what to do with this little boy. He’s been crying for half an hour, saying that his finger hurts. I’ve done everything I could think of, including putting on a band-aid, only nothing at all has helped! And there are all the other children I need to see to.”

I looked at the little fellow. Chad was sitting there in deepest misery with a tear-wet and snotty face, still crying his eyes out, holding up his right hand’s middle finger straight up, almost accusingly. He had started pre-school in September. It was now February. Throughout his time since he began attending the nursery he seemed to have adjusted well to this very new life situation: all day away from home. And now these streams of tears!

“Ok, let me see!” I sat him on my lap, took the hand with the hurting finger, saying: “What happened to your finger? Did it happen this morning?” He was sobbing so hard he couldn’t talk. I decided to wait. Of course I had no idea what happened this particular morning that got him so upset.

“Well, I’m sure something is hurting, so when you’ve stopped crying, maybe you can tell me.” I sat there with him on my lap for comfort for about five minutes, knowing that children, and even grownups, cannot talk when this upset. Gradually his sobbing subsided.

“Can I take the band-aid off so we can see what’s the matter?” He shook his head in a definite No! I thought I needed to revive his representation of his mom and show him a photo of her. Teachers, as a matter of practice, usually have family photos around. Now there wasn’t one available. I thought of drawing his mom. As I am no great artist, it would not resemble his mom, but it too would revive the image of her in his mind. Yet the extent of his distress told me something else was also needed.

“You know Chad, I’m wondering if it’s maybe something else that hurts. Like your heart! You miss your mummy?” Many firm nods on his part. I wiped his face with a few tissues. We continued to sit in silence for many more minutes. Eventually, when sensing his body was molding a little more, I said: “You know, your mummy knows you are here. She has not forgotten you. But I know you really miss her. You’ll be playing now, then have lunch, after that have a nap, play some more, and then she’ll come to pick you up. Like she has done for many days so far. And she’ll pick you up today.”

Nod! We continued to sit, silent, for a few more minutes. The look on his face began to change.

“What else can I do to make you feel better? Maybe you’d like a drink of water?” He nodded once more. A child brought him a cup, which he drained with one big gulp. When he was done I asked him what he would like to do next. Would he like another band-aid?

“No!”

“What will we do with this one on your finger?”

“Take it off!” he said with a big smile. And he took it off himself, threw it into the garbage, and bounced off to play as he usually did. I watched him go, thinking how little was needed to put him back on track: by reviving the internal representation of his mother that would reassure him of her unseen presence, by naming his feelings and helping him understand the real reason for his hurting finger – the physical expression of his mental pain, and then mapping out the rest of the day so he knew what was going to be happening and when mom would come to fetch him.