In preparation for a workshop I gave last week for the crisis nursery project, I was reading about coping strategies that people use when they feel under threat. It’s interesting to think about how we develop some strategies as young children that carry over into adulthood. And some strategies that were helpful when we were young are not helpful as an adult and yet we keep trying them.
We’re all pretty familiar with the “fight vs. flight” mechanism when facing a threatening situation – and it doesn’t even have to be the black bear that was wondering the city neighborhood last week. Less well known is the “freeze” aspect of coping in which the individual takes no action – not always helpful for a bear sighting, but interestingly, this is the strategy that first develops in the young child and infant. This makes sense since the baby can’t get up and walk away (or run) and has no strength to fight….but if under tremendous or constant stress, this style becomes an ingrained coping mechanism.
Last Monday morning, I sat in the waiting room at the hospital’s dental clinic for Seth’s appointment. He played happily watching the fish swim from one tank to the next, knocking himself silly for not ducking under the connecting tube, or tripping over the slight ramp. I did my usual – people watching….always fascinating. Sometimes I even watched my own kid to be sure he was still in the general area and hadn’t knocked himself unconscious yet.
After watching numerous people emerge from the clinic area and talk with waiting relatives or on the phone, I had this sense of “gosh, these people are real grumps. Is it a Monday morning problem or do they have really poor coping mechanisms? Such negativity….” (very judgmental of me sitting there…)
Well, fifteen minutes after being called in….I was one of those grumpy, not coping well people. The dental resident saw Seth for 1.5 minutes, said “yep, tooth’s got to come out” (very good – this was my third professional opinion) and “too bad he ate breakfast or I could have done it now since I have an opening.” Right…turns out very bad. Little did I know when walking happily out of the exam room that my sense of homeostasis was about to be challenged when I was offered an appointment TWO MONTHS later to pull his tooth!
I did a bit of the “freeze” mechanism….or was that shock? And then spent the next 2 days in “fight” mode. There was no way I was going to let my 2-year-old walk around for 2 months with a broken front tooth. I called other dentists. I called the insurance company. I called the head of the hospital dental department. In the midst of this, there was a cancellation and Seth was on the schedule for extraction on Friday. All went smoothly and he has a cute little hole in the front when he smiles.
But I did not have a smooth week at all. It’s amazing how much energy being a “grumpy, unhappy parent” consumes. Yet, there really wasn’t any other option than to keep pursuing the issue. Seth certainly had no ability to say “gosh, mom, this broken tooth is a bit annoying and occasionally painful….and you can keep saying I’m clumsy and grumpy and tired from the vacation….but you don’t really know what’s bothering me, do you? (despite what your blog says last week!!)” And so – I carry his stress within my heart.
Hmmm….I was about to type that the “freeze” is about his only coping mechanism – but that is not actually true. He’s very good at the “fight” – crosses his arms in front of his body, stamps his foot and says “bad” in a most grumpy tone. He’s pretty good at flight too if I mention the word “diaper.” I’d have to say he’s quite well-rounded in developing his coping styles – but it’s not really helping him in the world yet. To navigate the broken tooth, to manage the hygiene, to access his nourishment, to dress, to travel….all that still requires me. No wonder two-year-olds are so frustrated and so frustrating!
So he and I are ready to face another week. I’m going to work on managing my coping strategies, he’s going to work on developing some new ones, and we are going to continue to hug and kiss and say “I wuv you, Mommy.”
PS – a snapshot of Seth this month would make you shake your head. So pathetic looking. His left eye squints in the sunshine (strabismus), his left front tooth is gone, and his left knee has 3 scrapes now and dried-on, now-blackened geometric patterns where the band-aids used to be…Just makes you pick him up and say “poor baby!” But the Tooth Fairy did leave him a toothless bunny (since cousin Ryan reminded me that the Tooth Fairy always leaves a present for the first tooth!).