Kathy and her ex-husband are in the middle of a very contentious divorce. Every time 3-year-old Andy returns from visits with his father, he brings Kathy a pebble, and proudly presents it to her: “Here, this is for you.” Kathy says thank you and puts the stone “in a special safe place,” a box in a kitchen drawer. She’s hoping Andy will forget about it, just as he has with previous rocks he brought her after seeing his dad.
Kathy tells her domestic violence support group about this, and says “I keep a calm, straight face, and a happy voice so he won’t know how much this upsets me.” She reminds the group that her ex-husband seemed like a great guy, but after they married and she became pregnant, he became a bully, berating her for imagined failures.
When Andy was born, he refused to let her hold or feed him because she would “ruin him.” Kathy now has full legal and physical custody of Andy, who sees his father a few hours a month supervised by a social worker.
What should Kathy make of Andy’s gifts? She tells the group she feels like the pebbles are almost like poisoned apples from a wicked witch, an invasion by her ex into her safe sanctuary with Andy. That’s why she puts them in a box. Kathy admits this she is making a big deal out of a small rock, but the terror she feels when Andy gives her this pebble is real enough.
The support group validated Kathy’s fears. After what she had been through with Andy’s dad, it didn’t take much – just the fact of visitation and the tangible object of a little pebble – to activate her PTSD. They commended her on keeping her cool with her 3-year-old and thought the special box idea was a creative solution for her reaction.
But they also noted she was losing an opportunity to connect with her son during these transitions from visits with Dad because of her fear. Before she stored the pebble for safekeeping, what if she opened a conversation with Andy, saying something like “Oh, look, you brought me a stone,” and left a space to see what Andy would say?
Kathy was surprised. It had never occurred to her to be curious about what was going on with Andy. “It could be he’s picking up a pebble so he can bring me a present. ” Or, the pebble could be something he wants to save to play with later, or….
THE MORAL OF THIS STORY:
We don’t get to find out what the pebble means to Andy, or for that matter, how he makes sense of his time with Dad. But now that Kathy has some support for her reaction, she can make time when the next pebble arrives to find out what Andy has to say. He can experience bringing these parts of his life together, and he and his mother can build a connection that will benefit them both.
Life with children moves very fast; it’s full of things that need to get done. But, when possible, making space to check in with what a child is seeing, hearing, feeling and worrying about makes a positive contribution to that child’s life and sets the stage for future communication.
Read the 20-page series “Helping Children Cope…” which includes this page. Download the free PDF to read, print, and distribute.