She’s eight years old, starting third grade this week. She’ll be nine in November. But this summer was too much for her, I know it, I can see it.
I told her dad today that I thought we’d screwed up, that we should have listened better to her when she said she wasn’t ready for sleepaway camp. She’d rallied, not wanting to let anyone down, I think. But it took a toll on her. There’s just no pretending that it didn’t. It took all she had to keep it together for one week of camp, and her coping resources were maxed out. Her reserves are empty, and it may be some time before she can fill them again.
Since coming home from the camp experience, she’s been glued to me, as close as she can get, whenever I have her. On a recent vacation to the shore, an annual trip she loves, bedtime reduced her to tears every night. No bed was right, nothing would do — except sleeping with me, which wasn’t an option this time around.
Before we’d left for our beach trip, she and I had had a talk. I told her I thought I’d made a not-so-great choice when she came home from camp seeming so fragile. I’d let her sleep with me a few nights here and there. It was summer, after all, and she seemed to need snuggling desperately. But instead of putting her back at ease, it had the opposite effect. No amount of time with me was enough. She wanted more and more still. So I explained to her that we have to work together to help her find her independence at bedtime again. But, I explained, it’s up to her, in the end, to find a routine that allows her to comfort herself, instead of her relying on me to do the job for her.
Tonight: more tears. No backrub is long enough. No book is long enough. Her mind is full of worry, she says. She doesn’t want to talk to a therapist, because that scares her, she says. “You can be my therapist,” she tells me.
“I can’t, my sweet,” is what I say. I can’t. I can’t explain why in a way that satisfies her. “This is either you and your bravest self, or you, your bravest self and a new grownup who knows about this kind of stuff. There’s nothing wrong with talking to someone when you’re looking for answers to something hard.”
She shakes her head, and the tears come. Last night, her father said, she dreamed of beetles and spiders and woke up screaming at his house. She is afraid the beetles and spiders will come again, tonight.
I kiss her and hug her, but get up to leave. She starts to object, and panics, her eyes wide and terrified.
I feel helpless.
“Maybe you just need to let the tears come,” I say. “There’s no shame in getting the tears out, honey. Let it go, okay? I’m going to take a shower and go to bed now. I love you. We’re all here. This is the room you’ve been in since you were born. Nothing can hurt you here. Cry, then let the worry go.”
She nods and begins bawling. I force myself to walk calmly to the shower, to bathe and breathe while she sobs. I have no idea if I am doing the right thing. This feels right-er than coddling, which hasn’t worked at all. And sometimes, we do need someone else to tell us it’s okay, more than okay, to cry.
When I turn off the shower, I listen. Silence. I put on a robe and tiptoe to her room. She is asleep, at the edge of her bed, her baby blanket wrapped over her shoulders — her amulet.
The hardest thing is to know when to walk away, and when to let them cry. I don’t dare go in and pull up her sheets. I let her be. I must learn to let her be.
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