A little bit of magic

I wish there were more magic in social work. I see it here and there…when a child really connects with an adult for the first time, or when alcohol treatment works the eighth time when it didn’t sink in after the first seven attempts. When the hopeless becomes hopeful.

Somewhere around my tenth year as a child protection social worker, I learned a skill that is as close to magic as I may ever get, and I use it in every area of my life. I tried it the first time with my middle daughter when she was just under two years old.

My kids have always been sensitive and emotional, and my Gracie is no exception. As a toddler she also developed the charming tendency to strip all of her clothes off when she was upset. She was our third child, so we thought we knew a little something about parenting by this time, but we had never dealt with angry nakedness before…at least not in a toddler.

One Saturday, we had friends visit and Gracie had a blast playing with their son, so much so that she missed her nap and was deliriously tired by the time they left early in the evening. Trying to wave goodbye dissolved into a full blown meltdown, and within minutes she was tugging at her little stretchy pants and diaper. I scooped her up and carried her to her room, telling her that our friends were leaving and it was time for bed. She was tiny but a fighter, so she got a few punches and kicks in with her spindly arms and legs. I laid her in her bed and sat in her room against the door so she couldn’t get out.

“I wanna go downstairs!” she wailed.

“I know Gracie, but it’s time for bed.”

“I wanna go downstairs!”

“I’m sorry, you can’t go downstairs.”

I also learned that day that Gracie has stamina, and for the next 40 minutes she nakedly raged around her room, throwing stuffed animals at the door, pulling at my shoulders, grabbing at the doorknob, all while screeching, “I wanna go downstairs!”

I tried everything I could think of. I tried to read her books, but she grabbed them out of my hand and threw them. I tried to distract her with toys, but she kicked them away. I was gentle, then stern. I ignored her for at least 10 of those 40 minutes, but the tantrum raged on.

“I wanna go downstairs!”

Finally, I remembered a session at a conference on validation, which is essentially the ability to communicate that the person’s thoughts and feelings are valid and legitimate. Sometimes validation can be as easy as repeating what a person feels without judgment. After 40 minutes of screaming I was ready to try anything.

“I wanna go downstairs!” she screeched with an intensity that had barely waned.

“Gracie wants to go downstairs,” I repeated.

She turned, barely three feet tall, regarded me, and sat. “I wanna go downstairs,” she whimpered.

“Yeah… Gracie wants to go downstairs.” And with that, my naked, exhausted daughter crawled into my lap and was asleep within 30 seconds.

Magic? It felt like it that day. Nothing else had worked, and she showed no sign of slowing down. But when I stopped telling her she couldn’t go downstairs and just focused on what she was trying to tell me, she stopped fighting.

So I started using the same approach at work. Most child protection clients are angry (understatement of the year), and we usually can’t get very far until we can get past the anger. So instead of arguing or justifying or rehashing the case, I let my clients vent. And then I say something like, “It makes sense that you’re mad.”

Through that lens of validation, I started seeing invalidation everywhere: “Don’t cry” “It’s not that bad” “What’s the big deal?” “Look at the bright side” “Don’t be scared” “At least you’re not…” Invalidation can be well intentioned or heartless, but anything that discounts a person’s feelings or gives the message that they shoudn’t feel that way is invalidation.

There is great power in having a positive attitude, but pushing away and discounting negative feelings isn’t the way to get there. Part of invalidation comes from our own discomfort in tolerating other people’s grief, anger or pain.

And so I have learned that trust grows when I can tolerate my clients’ (or my children’s, or my friends’) difficult emotions and not try to convince them that they shouldn’t feel that way. “Yep, this sucks,” I have said to teenagers. “Of course you’re upset,” to the mom who needs to return to inpatient treatment. It doesn’t change the situation, but it usually helps them move on. Then, depending on my role, I might give a gentle push toward looking at a situation differently or letting go.

Not exactly pulling a rabbit out of a hat, but it helps. The naked sleeping toddler in my lap was proof.