Somewhere near Joliet, Illinois, my son had about all of being in the car that he could handle. By the time we reached the Mississippi, I had had about all I could take of “STOP TOUCHING ME!” So I handed him the Kindle, my daughter pulled her blanket over her eyes and I let my mind sink into quietude. Half daydreaming, half not, I whiled away the hours in reverie.
Until Des Moines. Then a desperate, “WHY?!” I glanced in the rear view mirror. Tears were welling up in Micah’s eyes. “Why? Why? Why?” came his desperate plea. And I could scarcely understand him through the sobs. Something about lava and a diamond pick ax and obsidian. He got kind of stuck on obsidian. I got kind of stuck on sobbing over a video game.
So I took a deep breath.
I’m not going to lie. Crying over video games gets to me. The emotional investment here is way too high if falling in lava while playing Minecraft is going to elicit this kind of response. My instinct is to take the game away. Force a break. Say things like, “Get it under control.“
I mean, it’s not the worst reaction. Maybe it is exactly what you would do. Maybe it is exactly what you should do. But my little monkey is struggling with Big Emotions in the wake of his father leaving and Big Frustrations with his learning disabilities. He needs to learn that it is safe to express those feelings. He needs guidance to navigate them. Most of all, he needs my patience. So I took a moment to be sure my reaction didn’t come from a place of frustration.
And let him feel what he felt.
It is hard to just watch my child struggle with anger and sadness and frustration. I oscillate between wanting to fix the problem and wanting him to just get over it. I know better. No matter how insignificant it is to me, it is significant to him. And feelings are not wrong. We can’t help how we feel. I worry sometimes that my first reaction to strong emotions — to solve the problem or squelch the reaction — does little to help him grow into an emotionally mature young man.
He needs to know that these feelings are OK and that I am here to help him through them. That only can happen if it is safe to express them around me.
Then I showed empathy.
“It’s hard when you lose something you worked hard at.”
“Yeah. And obsidian is rare. I don’t know if I’ll get it back. And I need that ax to get it.”
He was already calming down. The anger washed out of his face as soon as I spoke. The tears stopped. There was just a hint of residual sobs between his sentences. When his feelings were validated, they started to lose their strength.
Instead of telling him what to do, I asked him a question.
“Do you think you need a break, bud?”
Now, there are a lot of miles between Des Moines and home. And a lot of hours I wouldn’t normally let him play a video game. But the thing about asking him whether he needs a break is that I have to honor the answer.
“No. I’m going to try again.”
And he did. And he happily chattered away, telling me all he was accomplishing. Until he fell in lava. Again.
And he had almost the same reaction. Almost. Except this time, he cut himself short. Before I even said anything, he wiped his tears and said, “I got this mom. I’m going to build another house. It’s going to be underground …” He described all his plans to me until he was again absorbed in the game and fell silent except the occasional excited giggle when he accomplished something new.
And I think he may have learned more from this one time I bit my tongue than from all the times I told him how to react to dying in a video game.
Because he learned I am on his side, even in this.