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Watch Your Words, For Each of Them Creates the World
- Mom, there’s a thunderstorm over there!
- Darling, I can’t see any thunderstorm. Can you show me where it is?
- Outside! - said my daughter pointing at the balcony door in her room - I’m afraid of the thunderstorm…
We’ve had this exact same conversation for 7 evenings in a row. I’m still not quite sure what my daughter is pointing at. The first time she said she’s afraid, she couldn’t quite put into words what was the source of her distress. The best description she could find was “a strange light outside”.
- A strange light? - I helpfully asked - Like a thunderstorm?
I only said this word just once, but it was enough. She’s telling me about thunderstorms ever since.
What could be the real cause of her distress? The first thing that came to my mind were the lamps in her room reflecting in the balcony door. But even when I close the blinds halfway so that the reflections are no longer visible, she asks me to cover every little gap so that “the thunderstorm” doesn’t shine through. There are other tall apartment blocks visible through that door, and their lights often reflect in our glazed balcony. Could this possibly be what she is pointing at? One thing is certain: I’ve only seen a single lightning so far this year, and she was peacefully napping for this whole time.
My daughter can tell me certain stories multiple times a day. It’s usually things that made a huge impression on her. The house on fire we saw through our window was one of them, the donkeys that tried to eat the toy bucket she wouldn’t let go from her hand were another. She might even tell me about stuff she hasn’t personally experienced but finds important for some reason, like that time our dog started howling along to the tune of the ambulance passing by. Now she won’t stop talking about the thunderstorm. To her it clearly must be some kind of a huge deal.
I explain hundreds of things to my daughter every day. How many of my explanations are equally accurate? It’s easy to notice a misunderstanding like this when talking about natural phenomena, but what about emotions or subjective sensations? How many times have I suggested she’s feeling something or doing things for a certain reason and she took it at face value because she didn’t know better?
“You’re very tired and should go to bed soon”. “You’ve had too much TV and it made you feel anxious”. “You’re upset with me because I took your tablet away while you still wanted to watch some more”. “You’re heartbroken because you couldn’t meet your friends for so many days, and these cartoons were your main consolation in this time”. Which is the correct interpretation? One of these? All of these? How could I possibly know?
Other people might have different ideas of what happened there. “You’re being disrespectful shouting at me like this”. “You’re disobedient and deserve a punishment”. “You hate me because I’m a terrible mother”. “You’re deeply traumatized by staying without your friends for so long”. All we can give at this stage are wild guesses and interpretations based on our personal experience and understanding of the world. A two year old hardly has tools to refute any statement like this.
It’s a bit scary that I get to be the one to tell my daughter how she’s feeling or what her experience means. I’d so much prefer her to tell me this herself, without any wild assumptions on my part. But she doesn’t have the words for any of this yet, and whatever words I will use to describe the situation she has to take as her own. Whatever I say, however I react to everything that is happening, will be her default unconscious interpretation too.
Does she keep telling me about the thunderstorm because of my initial reaction? If I told her it’s just the light of another building outside she might have forgotten about it fast. But I was clearly as surprised as her, if only with her choice of words. Could this mean that what she saw must be some kind of a big deal? If even mom seems shocked with it, it must be some terrifying stuff.
Years ago I did an adverse childhood experiences test and scored 2 out of 10 on it. At first I was appalled, how could they say my childhood was actually pretty chill when I suffered so much through it? Only later I realized that it wasn’t the events in my life but rather the interpretations and tools I’ve been given to deal with them that left me feeling terrified and paralyzed. I was never in real danger, but I got to believe that I was, all the time.
Knowing this, all I can do is surround my baby girl with as many wise people as I possibly can, hopefully different than I am in some important ways. We’re all biased, but each of us is biased differently, and so we can all give her different explanations or tools to deal with whatever life is throwing at her. As she grows up, she’ll be able to review everything she’s been given and evaluate which of these she’ll want to keep forever in her toolbox. Just knowing that there are many possible ways to look at every situation can sometimes go a long way.
- Thunderstorm! It’s over there! - said my daughter again today as we were sitting at the balcony. I looked in that direction, in bright daylight at last.
- That thing over there? It’s a construction site. Some men are building a new house for other people to live in. They can definitely make some strange things or noises while doing that!
- Construction site… Men are building a new house. - My daughter repeated, as if she was trying to memorize.
Will this interpretation stick with her, or will she still feel afraid of mysterious thunderstorms? Guess we’ll have to wait until the evening to find out.
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