Friday, March 2, 2012

Speaking of Gordon Neufeld... of the things Gordon Neufeld talks about in his various courses is helping a child fully experience the sadness of things that s/he cannot change.  He refers to the experience as leading a child to Tears of Futility.

Let me give an example.  A parent says to a child that she is not allowed cookie just before dinner.  The child promises that she will still be hungry at dinner time so could she pleeaaase have just one cookie before dinner.  The parents says no again.  The child, becoming frustrated, continues to plead, or demand a cookie.  The parent remains steadfast.  Eventually, moving beyond tears of frustration/anger, the child's cry changes and becomes one of sadness - she simply cannot change the outcome regardless of how hard she tries and there is not a thing she can do to effect the decision.  Her tears of sadness are for the futility of her situation.

That experience of utter futility, whether in such a small example or a large one, is what leads to adaptation.  It's what enables a child to change, to truly adapt.  Note, though, that most people think that children are adaptable as a result of being forced to deal with change (premature separation from a parent; an earthquake hits and the child is forced to cope with the aftermath and the change that comes along with it; it could be the separation that happens when a child is sent to school too early and is required to be independent before s/he is ready).  That kind of adaptation is actually not adaptation - it is a defendedness, when the child simply hardens her/himself in order to be able to deal with circumstances beyond his/her control - it's a survival instinct that forces us to deal with what's been thrust upon us.  That's not to say, incidentally, that people who've been through an earthquake can't genuinely adapt to the change that has been forced upon them; there can be genuine adaptation in this circumstance, but not unless/until they first go through a process of finding and working through the sadness in the futility of their circumstances.

In Neufeld's course on Transplanted Children (for foster and adopted children), he talks about breaking down the defendedness that most such children come to us projecting; he seeks to soften the child's heart so that they are able to experience real, emergent growth on a number of fronts.  When I was listening to his audio class on Transplanted Children a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of how important a role I can play by helping Seth and Lizzie (and Matthew, for that matter, but I'm talking specifically about my own transplanted kids) find their tears of futility...thus helping them become more genuinely adaptable to their new lives.  One way of touching upon this area of futility, Neufeld suggests, is to become the child's comforter and source of security when a circumstance happens not of my making that leads the child to tears of futility.  You might want to read that last sentence again - at least, I know I've had to think that one through.

Just days after listening to that and being reminded of that, I experienced quite a moment with Seth, where I became his comforter as a result of his experiencing a circumstance not of my making.  Let me tell you about it.

I was in the kitchen, cleaning up breakfast.  I heard him thundering down the stairs and knew he was coming.  Sure enough, moments later Seth came tearing into the room carrying a palm-sized little teddy that had been in his backpack for months.  I'd seen it in his backpack for a long time and, even though I knew it was actually Matthew's little stuffie, I hadn't done anything about it.  So when I saw Seth barrelling in to the room, I knew something was up.  Sure enough, seconds later, Matthew appeared as well, arriving at full speed.

"Give it back to me, Seth!" Matthew demanded.  "That's my teddy."

Seth: "But it in my backpack. Long time."

Here I wanted to jump in and help...but thankfully I kept my big mouth shut to see what would happen.

Matthew: "Well, I don't know how it got there, but it's mine, and I want it back.  Now."

At this point Seth's hand started shaking and he lifted the teddy to eye level to stare at it lovingly.  He so wanted to keep that little guy, and I could see the war going on in his head because he knew that it was Matthew's.

"Seth, give it back now," Matthew insisted again.

I caught Matthew's eye and lifted a single finger.  I very quietly said: "Give him a minute, Matt."

Seth's hand was still shaking, and I could see tears at the edges of his eyes.  I so wanted to jump in and help....just make the situation go away, maybe by telling Matthew that he had way more teddies than Seth and begging him to just let Seth have this little wee thing that probably came with a fast food kid's meal years ago and that Matthew hadn't even noticed was missing.

I said nothing of this.  Just watched.

Finally, Seth ever-so-slowly reached out his shaking hand towards Matthew and opened up his palm, releasing the teddy to Matthew.  Matthew said "thanks Seth" and ran off with it.  The teddy probably got stuffed in behind something on his jammed shelves.

Seth stood there for a second and I could see his lip trembling and his eyes full to the brim with tears.  Before he could turn and run away somewhere to hide (so he wouldn't be too vulnerable by exposing his tears), I gently put a hand on his shoulder.  I don't even think he realized that I was standing there beside him because he spun around and looked at me for a split second.  I knew he was about to bolt so I acted immediately - I scooped him up and held him.

He struggled and was stiff as a little board against me and it was clear as day that he did not want to cry. In fact, he looked furious.  Mutinous.  I rubbed his ramrod straight back and murmured some sad words with a sad tone:  "Seth, that was so hard. I'm so sorry you had to give the teddy back."

He stayed stiff in my arms and so I kept sadly talking every few seconds:  "You loved that little guy, I know."  "You must feel so sad, Seth."  "He was in your backpack for so long already and now you had to give him up."

Finally, I said "Seth, that must feel so unfair."

Those were the 'magic' words.  The dam burst.  Seth melted against me in every way, body and heart; he  buried his face deep into my shoulder and neck.  He sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.  For twenty minutes that boy cried hard with the feel and sound of grief.  About waaay more than losing a stuffie might warrant.  But he's a boy with lots to cry about - he's carrying a load with him, that one.  And that's one of the points of having tears of futility:  they lead us to feel the sadness of all of those things we have to feel sad about but haven't necessarily moved on from - the things that sit in our hearts that take us far beyond the precipitating event.  And those tears (the sadness...needn't be actual tears) of the moment help us to deal with the grief of it all, and to come to a peace about everything that's gone wrong.  Have you ever cried over a Hallmark commercial that you never thought you should shed a tear about?  Probably it's just the straw that broke the camel's back and you just had so much to cry about...the Hallmark commercial is just the excuse you needed to 'get your sad out.'

It would have been so easy, while Seth was crying, to offer comfort, to say something like:  "Seth, you have so many other teddies" or "Seth we'll find a different one for you" or "Seth it's going to be ok" or something else similar.  So many such words were right there, on my tongue.

But another key to enabling a child to experience the futility of the moment is to not try to make it better.  Try to hold them there in that moment for as long as possible; let them work it out and feel the sadness; don't try to help them think their way through it because you want them to just feel and to soften their hearts.  You want them to use not their brains but their hearts to get through the experience.  So my words were like this:  "oh, that's so hard." "that's sooo sad, Seth."  "you wanted that teddy so badly" "i'm so sorry you have to go through this."  "i'm here for you Seth and I love you."  "this sucks - it's just so hard."  Over and over, feeling a little silly, I just very quietly mumbled those words into his ear while he wept.

That was a perfect example of a circumstance of futility being created by someone other than me, where I could then step in as the comforter.  Surely it must be one of the best attachment builders out there.

And a sort of miracle happened.  After about 20 minutes of sobbing his little heart out, Seth just lay against my shoulder, absorbing my comfort.  Limp.  Tired.  I just let him gradually recover himself and silently thanked God that Matthew and Lizzie had been upstairs the whole time without fighting (a miracle in itself, let me assure you).  And then, for the next 3-4 hours my middle child was inseparable from me.  Seth was either on my hip, on my lap, on my shoulders, lying on top of me, holding my hand, looking up at my face, listening to (and obeying) what I said with ease.  It was amazing!  My tough little soldier had simply melted towards me in every way and he was able to experience a huge jump in his attachment to me and in his ability to adapt to change in a deep and meaningful way.

Since that day, about ten days ago, Seth has turned to me for comfort numerous times - even in some really hard moments, he has come running for me.  Running.  It has been a distinct change.  Two days ago, he even vetoed an idea that he and Matthew had come up, and his reason was that "Mommy might get hurt" - he was caring about me and looking out for my best interests!

For a transplanted boy of six years, Seth has come such a long way.  And the softer his heart becomes: the more he is able to experience the moments of futility that lead to genuine adaptation; the more I see behaviours changing; the more I see his ability to learn changing; the more I see him deepening in his attachment to us.  It's going to be ok.  He's going to be ok.  More than ok - amazing.  I feel it in my bones.


  1. Love love love this post...and your picture of your beautiful boy...we are slowly working our way thru the same series....he is such an brilliant man. Love u

  2. What a fantastic entry! You did a fantastic job in that situation! Even though my little guy is only 1 1/2, I feel like I can take some of the experience and apply it for him--Thank you!