Sitting with Pain

My daughter, 5, fell on a sidewalk and skidded her knee pretty bad. It was a deep, painful cut. And before it healed, she put pants on. These clotted to the cut, such that getting them back off was painful and totally terrifying to her. This story is about what this taught me about helping her sit through pain.

So my husband wanted to get her pants off. He was worried that it would make the cut worse. If you saw how absolutely terrified my daughter was to take her pants off, you would know why I (and he) resisted from doing this.

We tried. We sat her down. We talked about her feelings. We offered to let her watch a movie. On that very first try, I saw how this was potentially a lesson on sitting with pain. We had wanted to try cutting where the dead skin clung to her pants, which wouldn’t hurt her. My husband went to get the scissors. As I watched my daughter distraught, I thought to myself about how facing life’s problems is an instinct deep in us to cultivate. She has it in her, I know it. So on a whim, based on intuition, I told her, “Emily, there will be many times in life when you are in a lot of pain. Sometimes you have to just bear it and wait until the pain is over. But things WILL get better. You just have to have hope.” To my surprise, she seemed to understand. She did not get further upset. Then I thought of her imaginary friend “Alex.” Alex is evil and kills people. But every now and then Alex kills Emily’s “enemies” for her. So I asked if Alex could come out and cut this dead skin. I think Alex represents her latent bravery, which, for whatever reason, she has decided is “evil.” Ultimately, it was a “no” in this situation. Alex was evil. We tried to get her pants off and to cut the scrape. We really couldn’t. If you saw how defiant she was, you would understand that it felt like we were all but raping her to get her pants off. We backed off. We aren’t going to do that to our daughter.

I felt that she might shimmy the pants off when she was ready. I wanted to wait for a day, even a few, to see what happened. I didn’t want to hang over her, “We HAVE to do this. You’ll eventually HAVE to face this.” What does this do? It puts fear in her. It’s not something happening in the now. Bravery is for the now. You face things as they are happening.

We tried a few times over the next few days. It went terribly. You can argue all day long that the cut will get worse in the pants, and it just doesn’t matter. Totally terrorizing my daughter has its own set of complications too, including if this cut will actually heal. The pants seemed to act as their own bandage for her. And I could visibly see where the cut was clotted to the pants. It kept getting smaller every day.

I asked to massage her leg every night. I wanted my presence to feel comfortable and trustworthy. I went up her leg one night all the way to the cut. I put my hand right on it, and it didn’t hurt her. I thought maybe it was time to get the pants off.

It got to the point where we had to take the pants off, because we otherwise couldn’t go to the pool. The pants were also ripping, and she had wore the same underwear day after day by now. As I knew the cut no longer hurt her and I saw the clot visibly shrinking, I decided it was time. I also felt, as a motherly instinct, that it was really time for her to face some of her fears. She is an extreme empath and tends to totally fall apart at the seams sometimes. Read: she whines. And whines. And it’s not my goal to “toughen her up.” But I know, I KNOW there is something deep in her that needs to find its way to the surface.

So I told my husband, “It’s time.” I asked him to hold her and I would get her pants off. At first I tried shimmying down the parts that weren’t near the cut. This was terrifying her. Again: fear is not something to be delayed. Bravery is meant for the now. So instead of prolonging it, I quickly ripped off her pants where the cut was. She didn’t even know it happened. Then I was happily able to tell her, “It’s done.”

She was shocked. And, I think, a little happy. Unfortunately, it was a very, very deep cut. So blood starting gushing out of her. This scared the crap out of her. She screamed, “I’M GOING TO DIE.” I know most parents reaction in this situation. They would lecture the child, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO DIE.” They argue rationally with the child. But I saw it so clearly in the moment for what it was: a lesson on sitting with pain. As blood gushed, I sat with her, and my husband went to get a towel. And all you really have to do is sit with the child. You need to hold that space for them while they endure the pain–and they see, in the end, everything works out fine. It’s a powerful lesson. And if I could just totally club parents over the head who try to interfere with it by admonishing the child, “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO DIE,” I would. Just shut up. It’s all you have to do. Just hold on. Let them feel the feels while they work through this process.

We got a band aid for her. Really, I wish we had done that from the very beginning–just in case she put pants on, I guess. She cried through most of the ordeal, “WHY DID I HAVE TO PUT PANTS ON !?” She wanted a time machine to go back and not put pants on. After getting her pants off, the cut wasn’t bad. It hadn’t gotten infected or anything–and we had gone in a creek with it. But being exposed to the air did help heal it quickly. We let her just be for a day before pressing her to do anything. But the next day, we did go to the pool. She was exclaiming she was NOT gong to go in. I told my husband, “Don’t say anything. I bet she gets in.” She totally did. She marveled that it didn’t hurt too bad to get in the pool. She watched as the cut dramatically shrunk in size over night. And she exclaimed to us, “I’m so glad I took my pants off!” I was thrilled to hear this, because it was such an ordeal, and I had pushed the issue. I asked her why, and she said “Because now I can wear something other than pants!” The girl is a fashion diva.

Her brave instinct. It was in there. I knew it.

Leave a Reply