Hidden Messages

The Dentist Excerpt

The Dentist

Dori opened the curtains to the morning sun and sat on the edge of her daughter’s bed. Her usually chipper earlybird just slid deeper under the covers. “Come on, Naomi, time to get up!” Naomi groaned and announced that she wasn’t getting up today. “And why not?” Dori asked, although she was sure she knew the answer.

From somewhere under the covers came a tiny, frightened voice, one that under normal circumstances could be heard from blocks away. “I don’t want to go to the dentist. I’m scared.”

“Oh, Naomi! There’s nothing to be scared of, honey. It’s nothing to have baby teeth pulled. The dentist said that it won’t even hurt, because baby teeth don’t have much of a root at all. It will be over before you know it.” Dori tried to fight the feeling that her daughter wasn’t as strong or brave as she should be.

Naomi stalled. She groaned, she squirmed, she stretched—but in the end, Naomi finally crawled out of bed. She felt cold, despite the morning’s warmth. After getting dressed, she came into the kitchen and poured her usual Paul Bunyan-sized bowl of cereal. Dori walked in just as Naomi was about to add the milk. “Stop!” she called out. “Remember, the dentist said no breakfast this morning!”

Naomi’s bottom lip began to quiver. “It’s not fair, Mom!” she protested. “It’s bad enough I have to go to the dentist. Now I can’t even eat my own breakfast?”

Dori hurriedly scooped the cereal back into the box. “You know it’s for your own good. You need to follow the doctor’s instructions.”

“But I’m hungry!” Naomi shouted.

“Well, it doesn’t help to get all upset about it.” Dori continued in a calm and understanding voice, “Go brush your hair and your teeth and get ready to go.” An exceptionally loud clomping of feet signaled Naomi’s exit. Dori rolled her eyes.

A few minutes later, they were in the car headed toward the dentist’s office. After Naomi changed the radio station a dozen times, Dori finally reached over and turned it off. “Calm down, honey!”

“I can’t,” Naomi whined. “How long is this gonna take? What time will I get to school?”

“I’m not sure how long the procedure takes. But the dentist said you’d be taking the rest of the day off to relax and recover.”

“No way!” Naomi complained, “I’m ‘spose to meet Sara and Julia at the playground for recess! We were gonna try out the new tire swing! If I’m not there, they’ll get mad at me.”

Her mom smiled at her. “Of course, they won’t be mad at you. That would be silly. Just tell them about your teeth being pulled.”

Naomi contemplated that for a moment. Then she gathered herself, straightened her back, and matter-of-factly announced that she would not be having any teeth pulled today.

“Oh, yes you are!’ her Mom laughed.

Naomi tensed in frustration. She felt like crawling out of her skin. “It’s not funny, Mom…” Naomi’s bottom lip was quivering again, the way it did when she was a toddler confronted by something she neither understood nor felt comfortable with. “It IS gonna hurt.”

Dori took a deep breath and glanced at her daughter, “Honey, it’s okay. I really trust this dentist. He does good work. It will be over quickly, and remember, he said it probably  won’t hurt at all.”

Naomi mumbled the word, “Probably” and her shoulders hunched as she slid deeper into her seat, watching the world rush by her window. She imagined that behind every window of every house they passed was a girl with more bravery and better teeth than she had. What was wrong with her? She was worried about baby stuff. And suddenly, she felt very, very small.

The Hidden Message 

“Don’t be so foolish! The emotions you feel are silly and inappropriate. I’ll tell you how you should feel; if you don’t, then something’s wrong with you.”

Think About It  

“Stop crying, it doesn’t hurt.” “Everything will be okay.” “You have nothing to worry about—you’re just a kid.” “You’ll do fine on the test.” Such natural adult responses! But your child is very likely thinking: “But it DOES hurt!” “I AM worried!” “It’s NOT okay!” Children, like adults, do feel what they feel; telling them that they don’t just confuses and frustrates them, but doesn’t make the feeling go away. In fact, the child will feel wholly misunderstood and lonely in her fear, and the emotional monster that has been created then feeds on itself. In addition, when it comes to physical pain, every human being has a different tolerance level for pain. What “doesn’t hurt” for one person may indeed hurt another. It’s impossible to judge another persons pain—physical or emotional.

So if denying your children’s feelings doesn’t help, what about explaining away the problem or giving sage advice? Neither of these ideas helps, either. Your child is so immersed in her feelings that, while you’re busy explaining or advising, she’s busy trying to convince you of her very real concerns. The result is that you both talk at, instead of to, one another, and neither of you really hears the other.

The problem is that we view child-size concerns through adult eyes. But seeing the picture is a matter of proportion: a child’s problems are relative to her size. Remember how huge, for example, a countertop seemed when you were a kid? That’s because you were so much smaller. When you grew above that countertop, you forgot the frustration of reaching for a snack placed there for you when you couldn’t even see it. Our fears are like that. And fears of one type or another are always with us–only their scale changes. Our countertops simply grow higher as we become older and more experienced.

Changes You Can Make  

Could the answer for Dori be as simple as acknowledging her daughter’s feelings? Letting her know that her feelings are real—simply by virtue of their being felt—and that her concerns, her pain, and her worry are normal? Yes, indeed! That’s the key to the best response: validation.

Next time your child approaches you with pain, fear, or worry, stifle the urge to respond in those usual unhelpful ways, such as defying the feelings, minimizing the fear or waving away your child’s concern. What your child wants most from you at a time like that is to simply have you listen to her concerns and acknowledge her feelings. “Yes, honey, I know you’re feeling scared. Even grownups don’t like to go to the dentist.” Once her feelings are acknowledged, she’ll be much more likely to hear your words of explanation or advice which, in turn, may actually help soothe her. If you deny her feelings, she’ll feel compelled to prove to you, and to herself, that her feelings are valid to save face. If you give her feelings validity, you can then help her understand and surmount them. You can then help her develop strategies to deal with the fear or pain that she’s struggling with. The ideas you express, once she feels safe enough to express her fears, are the foundation for strategies she’ll build later in life when confronted by fears of a more adult proportion. Plus, when you help her understand and identify her emotions, you will help her better understand herself, and to trust her own perceptions about life.

There’s another important benefit from this approach, too: if she doesn’t feel ridiculed even when she expresses fears she herself may think are a little unwarranted, she’ll be more likely to come to you for the big stuff. She’ll be more likely to turn to you rather than to inappropriate, and perhaps dangerous, people and situations. You’ll be the safe port in a storm she’ll so desperately need later, a place she can go where she’s sure to be understood and comforted no matter how silly her fear seems.

Excerpted with permission by McGraw-Hill Publishing from Hidden Messages (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

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