It is a Wednesday, approximately 12:25 p.m. I am trying to focus on the words coming out of the therapist’s mouth, trying to mentally record everything so that I can bring it home and do better and be better and make everything better. But all I can do is cry under an alarmingly crushing realization:
My daughter is so lonely.
My 5-year-old daughter and I have begun filial therapy, also known as play therapy. Suffice it to say, we have been making each other miserable lately. I have run out of ideas and I am tired of yelling, so I am turning to a professional.
One major part of filial therapy is what they call “reflection.” Not self-reflection, but reflection of the child’s experience. This is only our third session. I am no expert on filial therapy. But the little I have learned so far has granted me this one giant epiphany: Being 5 is lonely.
How did I realize she’s lonely? Well, in play therapy, the child is given a set amount of time to play. That’s it. Just play. Because play is how children process life. As the parent, you cannot ask questions, you cannot suggest ideas, you cannot even directly answer questions. All you can do is “reflection;” that is, reflect back to them what you are observing. It sounds ridiculous, it feels a little ridiculous, but when you observe it in someone who knows how to do it, it works.
The child begins to play in sand. “You’re exploring how that sand feels.” The child gets a dinosaur figurine and puts it in the sand. “You’re placing the dinosaur in the sand.” The child tries to bury the dinosaur in the sand. “You are trying to cover that dinosaur in sand.” And so on. If the child asks you, “What is this?” you do not answer. You reflect, “You’re not sure what that is.” Or you share, “Here, it can be whatever you want it to be.”
This is so hard. As parents, we want to answer their questions.
We want to ask what they’re up to. We want to guess at what they’re doing, suggesting “Are you imagining it’s quicksand?” But these simple verbal cues redirect, reassign, and redefine whatever it is the child is doing organically as they process the many big feelings they have inside of them.
How is this going to help me in the moments when we both want to scream at each other? It will get me in the habit of pausing and acknowledging how she is feeling.
As a parent, we have years of life experience. We know that we don’t always get what we want, that that’s the way life is, and that you can either accept it or be miserable. We want our children to understand this as quickly as possible so that they can stop being miserable. Hence the prolific appearance of, “Before I count to three,” “Don’t make me repeat myself,” and “Because I said so.”
But this doesn’t make sense to them yet. It doesn’t matter how smart or advanced your kid is. It doesn’t matter if they can read chapter books or count to 200 or tie their own shoe. They have only been alive for a few years, and they are trying so hard to figure this complicated and confusing world out. Often they are the only person at their exact experience level in their entire house. There is no study group, no peer circle. You, the parent, are their main instructor.
When you introduce a new rule, or reinforce a rule that the child doesn’t yet understand, it is frustrating. No one in the entire house understands how frustrating it is, because no one in the house is learning this rule for the first time. To top it all off, the person they turn to for comfort and consolation is shouting at them or sending them to time out or taking away a toy just because they had the audacity to express frustration.
How many times have I fought with my spouse and shouted in exasperation, “I don’t want a solution, I just want you to acknowledge that this sucks!”
My daughter wants to know that I know that it sucks. That she is frustrated or sad. That she is angry or mad. My daughter wants to know that she is allowed to feel.
The limits are still there. She still does not get to watch TV until the toys are put away. She still needs to eat her vegetables before leaving the table. She still has to take time away if she hits her sister. But at least I can acknowledge that this sucks. It sucks that she has to clean up her toys. It sucks that we can’t eat dessert all the time. It sucks that her sister didn’t listen to her words.
A simple reflection has the potential to deescalate a situation. Only after the situation deescalates can the real learning occur. It isn’t a comprehensive fix. We still have a lot to learn about how to interact with each other in a healthy way. But I am hopeful that by acknowledging the moments when life sucks, she will feel less lonely. And once she feels less lonely, we can work together on a solution.