Finishing the Story

When our son was 18 months old, he fell and split his forehead open. A trip to the ER resulted in 7 stitches and a scar that we lovingly called his “uh-oh”.  (Tyler didn’t have much vocabulary at 18 months old, but he could say “uh-oh” and we explained it to him that “uh-oh – he fell down and got hurt”.)  This was a pretty traumatic event in our young son’s life. Getting hurt, going to the doctor, being pinned down while stitches were placed and then going back days later for the stitches to be removed all created a strong memory.

Jeff and I really struggled with how to deal with this crisis in our son’s life.  Do we talk about it with him?  Will that make it worse? Do we ignore it and hope that he forgets about it? Will that make him internalize it and have emotional fears later?

I received insights about this situation from Tina Payne Bryson’s book, “The Whole Brain Child”. She and her partner Daniel Siegel teach about the right and left sides of the brain and how they affect our children. In Tyler’s situation, the pain and emotions of that day created a strong reaction in his right brain, the emotional and intuitive part.  Tina recommends that a key way to get through a situation like that is to integrate the emotions of the experience with the words and logic to explain it clearly to the left brain where logic and understanding rule. Bascially, she affirmed its important to address the situation and talk about it with the child and not try to ignore it.

With younger or older children, integration of both sides of the brain is key to a smooth conclusion to an emotional event. Tina calls it “finishing the story”. In Tyler’s situation, we continued to talk about the event. When it came up, we would tell the story in simple words of owies and the doctor helping make him better. We’d remind him that mommy was right there with him and how daddy came as soon as he heard to give him a big hug. The key is to take the child through the traumatic part of the event with understanding of what happened and focusing on the finish –  in our story, this was the part where Mommy and Daddy gave a hug and the doctor said he was so brave. Finishing the story allows the brain to process the event in a positive light and allows the memories formed around the event to be less scary.

Your child might not have a physical event like Tyler’s, but this integration of the right/left sides of the brain can work for many situations.  Perhaps a traumatic first day of school needs to be discussed in a positive light. Perhaps a fight with a friend needs to be talked about to allow logic to come alongside the emotions. Finding a way to come alongside your child in their emotional situation and then shift them to the logical understanding of the event is key to helping children understand and work with the events of the lives.

(And if you’re wondering – 3 years later, Tyler does still have a faint “uh-oh” scar on his forehead, but when asked he nonchalantly tells the story and offers to show you his stuffed moose that he received that day.)

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