Psalm 18:16 He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me.
I have recently begun to view HOLDING my children as so much more than just physically carrying them. Holding has become something that is physical, emotional, and psychological.
Two summers ago for about 2 hours my son thought that he was dead! It was a beautiful day. My wife and I took our family to a community swimming area, we were able to relax and watch our kids swim with their older cousins. Near the end of our time at the lake two of our sons approached us in the water. The older one appeared completely calm and said, “Dad I was freaking out!” The other was literally freaking out; he was yelling, screaming, and crying. Apparently one of his siblings had taken a water toy from him and he was very upset. My wife and I both gravitated to the screaming child. We acknowledged the older one but picked up, consoled, and helped to manage the screaming one. Both children moved on and we left the lake a short time later. As we arrived home my wife and I remarked to each other how enjoyable the day had been and what a fun time we had had.
The older cousins joined us at our house and we settled the children downstairs to watch a movie. As my wife and I discussed the enjoyable afternoon, our older son came upstairs noticeably upset. He was in tears and could hardly speak through his emotions. He climbed into my lap and I attempted to understand what was going on. He explained in short tearful phrases that he was afraid he had died. Slowly the story of his “freaking out” emerged. He explained that he was playing on the floatilla of fun in the deep end of the lake. He saw an older kid with no life-jacket on swim underneath an inflatable “bridge” that was about 3 feet wide. We had told him previously to never swim under this bridge. As he saw the older kid do it with such ease however, he decided to give it a try. In his attempt to swim under the bridge he plunged his head under the water and swam with all his might expecting to resurface on the other side. His life jacket forced him to the surface earlier than anticipated and became caught on a seam of the rubber floatilla. In realizing he was not going to make it he freaked out and attempted to return from where he had come. He said that he had to swim as hard as he could to release himself from the bridge before he popped up above the surface gasping for air.
I was shocked by his story and confused by his concern about being dead. It seemed that although he had escaped drowning he was afraid that what he was now experiencing was death. I was freaking out and feeling overwhelmed at the outcome that could have devastated this beautiful day. I had failed at this moment to physically protect him and it was now time to emotionally and psychologically HOLD him.
I stumbled about attempting to elicit his entire story while simultaneously working to maintain my composure. Praise the Lord he was safe! But what is a parent to do?
After two years of on and off again reflection regarding this very scary experience I have deciphered what has become my way of HOLDING to protect from harm.
My son climbed up into my lap to tell his story, he desired physical closeness as well as strength to contain the convulsions and shakes of his emotionally charged body. Physical proximity during times of fear and pain can be very comforting to children. The natural rhythms of a parents breathing, heartbeat and voice serves to calm and regulate. I have learned to become more open to physical contact. Whether it’s holding hands, scratching a back, or applying sunscreen holding touch is a crucial ingredient in protecting a child from present and future harm.
My son was overwhelmed with emotion. He could not contain his feelings of fear, and uncertainty. He needed a parent to be a container for these overflowing emotions. As emotion pours out of a child and into the parent he needs to feel that the parent can handle it. The parent can manage his own emotions in the face of the child’s very powerful emotions. My son was also confused about what had happened. Emotional holding helps a child to make sense of confusing emotions and circumstances. Emotional holding seeks to fully understand the experience of the child without judgment. For the child telling the story enables him to make sense of the experience.
In the weeks following this incident I began to wonder if it might impact him long term. He loved to swim, but would he refuse to get back in the water? Would he have nightmares, irrational fears, or ongoing questions about death? I continued to talk about the situation hoping to communicate that it was ‘ok’ to talk about and that recurring thoughts were normal. At one point he stated that he thought about it often, so I wondered about his thoughts and even consulted a therapist. Psychological holding is being your child’s therapist. It is knowing when to talk and when to listen. It is knowing when to seek outside help for your child and possibly for yourself. Psychological holding is a parent’s ability to know a child in their mind, and heart. It is the ability to mentalize the child’s inner experience and respond appropriately.
My son is OK, we talk about this day every once in a while but mostly it is just part of his story. As his parent I am reminded that I cannot protect him from every danger, but that HOLDING him can help him to get through the scary things he encounters in life. I can be his secure base to which to return when times get rough and life is difficult.
What scary/painful things have your kids experienced and how did you help them through it? What was the hardest part about helping them through this difficult time?