Comforting the Emotionally Challenged Child

From the time they were very young, my kids have been drawn to soft fabrics. Christopher wears his footie pajamas on the hottest summer nights. Sarah’s retinue of stuffed animals requires so much space I often find her hanging off the bed at night. (Getting her to sleep under the covers is a chore because, like the Princess and the Pea, she is hypersensitive to anything scratchy or binding.)

If you have a child with special emotional needs, such as autism or trauma or attachment issues, you’ve likely experienced frustration over the many outbursts and unexpected meltdowns brought on by an unexpected trigger (like a goose down feather end poking through some muslin). On an intuitive level, you understand that the comforting sense of touch and closeness is indispensable to the parent-child relationship.

In reality, this kind of connection can feel tenuous, and is frequently a source of frustration and dissatisfaction. This is especially true if, as mothers, our weaknesses and limitations collide with those of our children. It isn’t easy to hold a snot-spewing, red-faced tyrant . . . and it’s even harder when your own “inner tyrant” takes over. Yes, darling child, you WILL mind “She Who Is to Be Obeyed Without Question.” Or you will spend the rest of your natural life in your room.

What I’ve had to learn the hard way is that there comes a time when what the child most needs . . . is what, on a natural level, the opposite of what her behavior indicates. Not an etiquette lesson, but a laugh. Not a wagging finger, but a hug. Not a time-out, but a silly romp together on the rug. I’ve learned that more misbehavior (including inattentiveness and screeching) stems from anxiety and fear than from insolence.

One of the greatest answers to prayer I have ever received came this summer when the wife of a co-worker offered to watch my daughter Sarah. Meghann – a stay-at-home mother of four, including two special-needs children and a baby – became my hero overnight. Over the summer, I watched Sarah grow about two feet (on the inside) because of her role as “mother’s helper.” Under Meghann’s care, she blossomed. And as I watched her mothering style, I realized the reason why: Her primary role was not “keeper of the house” or even “teacher of the classroom.” It was “provider of what each child needs most to feel secure.”

In this week’s Gospel, from Mark 13, Jesus admonishes us to “learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” Of course, reading the context, you soon realize that the tender shoots and sprouts are harbingers of something far less than warm-and-fuzzy: Saint Michael, poised to assist the Prince of Peace in a final showdown between good and evil.

So it is with us. If we do not do the hard work in the spring of our love, the winter ahead will be hard and cold indeed. In our domestic showdowns, we must always remember that the comfort we provide our children, even when we ourselves are stretched beyond measure, has a purpose: We are fortifying their souls for hard times ahead, and pointing to a love that is “stronger than death” (Song of Songs 8:6).

This kind of comforting presence is not coddling or passive, not indulgent or overly sentimental. It beckons, drawing the heart into an intimate exchange that will point them to an even greater exchange with the One who made us. By providing the comforts they need (often when we are least inclined to give them), we have an opportunity to nurture the unseen bonds of love in our children, both between us and between themselves and their Creator.

If you have a special-needs child (or merely a strong-tempered one), please weigh in: What are some of the techniques you’ve found helpful in re-directing emotional outbursts and tantrums? What are some of the most effective ways you’ve found to help your child feel safe and secure?

Heidi Hess Saxton, new Editorial Director at Ascension Press,  is the author of Raising Up Mommy and My Big Book of Catholic Bible Stories. Heidi blogs at A Rosary for my GPS, an online resource for mothers of adopted, fostered, and special needs children. She and her husband foster-adopted their two children in 2002.