Angel goes to a Steiner school. She was in a regular state primary until half way through Year Three when she announced she would ‘rather die than go back to school’ after the Christmas holidays. I figure when a 7 year old tells you they would rather die than go to school you know it's time to try something different.
We thought at the time she was dyslexic and that this was what was causing her such massive anxiety. We realise now that actually she just wasn't ready for focused academic work. Since going to Steiner, where they work in a much slower, more child-centered and holistic way, she is doing really well and we realise she isn't dyslexic at all. She has gone from throwing a book across the room because she felt so stupid and frustrated to happily reading. Part of what Steiner does so well is create rituals and traditions throughout the school year which really hold the child. One of these is St. John’s Fire, which is a celebration of midsummer in which the whole school gathers in an outdoor setting to sing songs, tell stories and at the culmination, jump over a fire. Each class has a log to put on the fire with a chink for each child to place a note of something they want to let go of.
Angel wrote on her note, ‘I want to stop feeling like an f word stupid girl’. Well actually, on the first note she just wrote ‘I want to stop like an f word stupid girl’ and I did wonder for a minute if she was trying to say something completely different about not wanting to be a ‘girl’! Thankfully (as we could do without any additional complication), she had just left out the word ‘feeling’.
It reminded me to say to her that not only did I think it was a brilliant thing to let go of by burning on the fire, but also to remember that when she is feeling like that, it is just a feeling. It is not who she is. Who she is, is pure gold, brilliant and fantastic. She looked very serious and listened carefully when I said this and then smiled as I touched her heart.
After the fire jump there is a picnic and a whole school game of ‘Capture the Flag’ and then the kids just run around and play. With my new ‘lean in even more’ approach (see my last blog entry), I went over to where she was to check in with her. She came away from the kids to talk to me and said that another bigger kid had taken her green golf ball. The field we were on is adjacent to a golf course and hence there were a lot of golf balls. She already had a collection of white ones and I definitely knew she did not bring a green one from home, as she was claiming. Knowing not to call her out on the lie as this would only lead to toxic shame and flat denial, I simply said, ‘I don't think you brought one from home but if you really want it, we could see if he wants to swap it for one of your white ones’. She went off in a huff muttering about me not believing her and back to the kids she had been playing with. I went back to gather our picnic things and say to hubby it was time to go, as I could see a meltdown coming. In the car she turned away from me, even when I sat in the back to be next to her. I put my hand on her leg.
Me - You really wanted that green ball huh?’
Angel - It's not that, everyone is still playing, it's not fair.
Me - Everyone is gathering their stuff to go and lots of people have already gone. I know it's hard when you have been having fun for the day to end.
I realise now that actually what she was saying when I went over was:
‘Something I want and need is missing and I want you to help me get it back.’
That ‘something’ was her attachment to me and hubby which had been interrupted by being around lots of kids who, whilst fun, were never going to be able to meet her attachment needs.
I’m not even sure what I could have done better knowing this? Maybe entice her away by saying, let's go see if we can find another green ball together? It’s so hard to recognise all the cues and get it right all the time but I do know that the more we are able to, the happier Angel is and the easier all of our lives. I think the real key is making sure that interactions with lots of kids without close adult supervision are kept short and sweet so that the attachment break doesn't happen.
It's funny because she has been talking about how much she likes wet play at school, which is when they play in the classroom rather than going outside. I suddenly understand this is because adult supervision is stronger and she has very good attachments to her teachers at school so this makes her feel safe. In fact in Steiner, they have the same class teacher all the way through their school life so you can imagine how strong the attachment becomes. It's like light bulbs going on all the time in terms of seeing how much attachment interruptions are Angel's biggest difficulty.
It’s Sunday night. We are back reading ‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ and one of the characters says, ‘everyone is a bit scared’.
Angel - That's how I feel all the time
Me - That must feel horrible. When did you feel like that?
Angel - When I moved here
Me - Yes that must have been really scary for you
Angel - And today, all day
Me - Do you know what you are scared of?
Angel - That everything will change
Me - Do you mean like you will have to move again?
Angel - Yes, because I moved so much when I was little.
A few tears escape down her cheeks. She looks at me.
Angel - Are you crying too?
Me - Yes, I always cry a bit when you cry
Angel - I know
Angel - I feel better for crying. That's what I wanted to do all day
I find it deeply upsetting to think I didn't notice her holding all that worry and upset when I felt we had a lovely day. Then I think of all the times when one tricky incident becomes a terrible day because of how her brain is wired. Ahh, another lightbulb goes on. I had received a stressful phone call in the afternoon and Angel had wanted to know what was going on. I was sharp and said it wasn't appropriate for her to know but that it wasn't anything she had done wrong. I could see her withdraw then. Later, once I had gathered myself, I thought better of it and explained what was going on and she slowly came back. I think it was that period when she felt afraid, not the whole day. I am relieved but also rocked by the reminder of the extent of her sensitivity. I know her fight or flight response is heightened by her early losses but it's so easy to lose sight of just how much it impacts her, even on a good day.
I guess it's back to acknowledging the feelings while also trying to train the brain to hold onto and accentuate the good stuff. Life lesson for us all (-:
‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ by Charlie Mackesy