I collected my 8-year-old daughter Little Miss H from school yesterday. “It’s been a very bad day, Mummy.”
Standing in the playground I knew it had been. I could tell by her gait, her facial expression, the purple bags under her eyes against her too pale skin, the sadness of her aura. She walked slowly towards me, scuffing her boots along the salted concrete of the playground. Her eyes downcast and her hand up to her mouth chewing her sleeve, her water bottle hanging forlornly from her other hand. I knew we were in for a tricky evening.
I suppressed the urge to say, “Stop scuffing your boots” and “Stop chewing your sleeve.” Instead I held my arms open for her. She doesn’t usually like public displays of affection, especially at school (“It’s against the rules to hug and kiss at school”) but I could see she needed some overt love.
She didn’t come into my arms for a cuddle, but she was demure and allowed me to touch her arm.
Her water bottle broke that day and she was frightened she’d be in trouble. Mostly though, she was just sad. Disproportionately heartbroken actually. Change is hard for her. Saying goodbye to things is really hard. Her “stuff” keeps her grounded. To have a piece of it broken is like someone throwing a brick through your window. It’s devastating for her.
I reassured her the broken water bottle could be replaced.
We were due to take her sister, Tiny Miss H, to an after-school activity and this was suddenly too much. With an unexpected burst of energy, Little was confrontational. These shifts can come out of the blue. The real issue was she wanted her safe space; she wanted to hunker down after an exhausting day.
The challenge for us is enabling Tiny to maintain after-school activities while at the same time supporting Little with her needs.
We managed to make it to the car.
Chats in the car are usually the most successful; no expected eye contact, the crowd and melee of the playground has dispersed and we are away from the source of stress. That’s when she said, “It’s been a very bad day, Mummy.”
It turned out she had felt “mobbed” and crowded around in the playground and didn’t have the ability to extract herself. She didn’t know what to do, what to say, who to go to for help. She’s carried that with her all afternoon.
The physical toll it took on her was visible. She was anxious, stressed and absolutely exhausted.
This on top of the broken water bottle made it “a very bad day.”
Within the seven-minute journey home, she said it was “a very bad day” about 12 times.
This is called echolalia; repeating herself is a form of stimming. It helps her cope with anxiety.
When she has bad days we do a “Mummy squeeze” to get her from the car to the house, and once in the kitchen we have a prolonged super-tight cuddle. She is so strong sometimes it hurts; I feel like a tube of toothpaste being squeezed, I can barely breathe. I squeeze back as tight as I can. “It was a very bad day,” she mumbled into my chest.
This helped her calm down and I was able to persuade her that while Tiny attended the Rainbow’s Pajama Party, we would buy a new water bottle.
“It was a very bad day,” she muttered later as she rifled through some books.
We successfully deposited Tiny at her pajama party but forgot her cuddly toy and blanket, which did not make Tiny happy. After that, I tried to persuade Little to walk with me to the butchers before going to buy her bottle. Little is normally reluctant to walk anywhere so I expected her to say no. Instead she said. “It was a really bad day, Mummy.” She was so well-behaved in the butcher’s they gave her a fudge. She decided it had been worth walking. “Still a bad day?” I asked. She raised and eyebrow, “Mmm” she shrugged, “it’s getting better.”
At the supermarket where we were buying her bottle, I persuaded her to make a practical and useful choice that would withstand at least some playground action. We’d been playful and chatty walking through the store. Things seemed to have turned around. I was still on edge, keeping it light, keeping her happy. Then we bumped into Tiny’s class teacher who stopped to chat. Little Miss went quiet and couldn’t make eye contact. Out of the context of school, her confidence had melted away and her anxiety kicked in. To a stranger this would appear as “shyness,” but it’s different. Selective mutism is an extreme form of social anxiety that results in an inability to speak. It is involuntary and more than simple shyness. I’m proud, though, as she did manage to squeak something to me as the teacher walked away. Once we were safely alone she was chatty again.
On the way out, the cashier told us the amount and Little Miss repeated it in various voices, over and over and over again. Anxiety making her repeat all the words. Echolalia. In some ways the opposite from selective mutism. Also anxiety-driven and not necessarily “appropriate” at times. I could see the anxiety ramping up so I needed a quick distraction. Her forte is maths, so her job was to tell me how much I still owed each time I produced a coin. That busied her brain, but in between each amount, she still repeated the total in a different voice. The cashier was patient and friendly complimenting her on the maths. The fact there was no queue and no one else around at that moment helped us enormously. I didn’t feel stressed or self-conscious, and Little Miss did her thing.
Back in the car she was relaxed, so when she asked for water and I didn’t have any, I suggested she run back in to buy some. My genuine intention was to buy time while I finished putting something away in my bag before going back in myself, but to my utter astonishment she said, “OK!”
So we talked about what she would do, where she would go, how to choose what she wanted, where she would pay. We talked about the change she’d wait for, the route back to the car and that I would not move from the spot I was in. We counted the stalls where we were parked for her to reference if necessary. It was a huge amount of information we covered.
She hesitated. She took the coin. She ran. She went around the corner. I watched and watched and watched, heart hammering and holding my breath until finally she was running back with a bottle of water in her hand, a smile on her beautiful face, pride in her eyes and flushed cheeks to show for it.
She had gone round the corner to the door of the shop, walked in, turned right to the fridge and grabbed the water. She stood in the queue with two people in front of her and waited calmly, “Feeling very nervous, Mummy,” and when it was her turn the same lady recognized her and helped her through. I’m still not clear whether she actually spoke, but she waited for her change, and ran back to the door, turned left, round the corner and sprinted back to the car “seven spaces down.” She climbed in, out of breath, and asked me to open her water. “I’m so proud of you darling,” I told her. “I’m really proud of myself,” she said.
She did it. I smiled with tears streaming down my face as we drove to collect Tiny.
“It was a very bad day, Mummy,” she told me at bedtime, “but it ended well.”
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