It’s easy to get caught up in the next, latest, and best thing when it comes to your kids. It’s something I didn’t even realize I’d done for two decades (my daughter just started college), until a foster child came to my home for respite care. She’s a three-year old toddler who has already, in her few years, seen more pain and felt more heartache than anyone should be put through. She’s beautiful. Her oval eyes look back up at you brimming with wonder.
It had been so long since I had small child staying for any length of time at my house I rushed around trying to childproof a house full of three adults, two dogs, a cat, a giant fish tank and two guinea pigs. I started to see every cord that was dangling from the couch. I saw the electrical plugs that were empty and begging for something to be shoved into them by small fingers. I saw the lack of anything age appropriate! I had no toys, no game, no safe seating!
As soon as she got to my house, I was ready to shower her with things. I turned on the TV right away and queued up Netflix kids for her. I had already purchased several different drink options and honestly, about ten different snacks. Truth be told, I wanted to give her so much more. I thought, “Would she like a new doll? Maybe I should get her a new outfit. Would she like it if I took her to see a movie?”
Not long into our week-long adventure I sat down on the couch as I watched her take everything out of our makeshift toy box. There were puzzles, barbies, stuffed animals and balls spread out across the floor and I thought this must be making her happy. She didn’t need to fight for attention or spirit her toys away quickly so they wouldn’t get taken by other kids. Surely this was good for her. I continued to watch her as she would pick up something and turn it over in her tiny hands. She would study it, put it down and look at it on the ground. She sat staring at the toys. She was surrounded. Yet the look on her face hadn’t changed. She was lost and a little confused.
She stopped playing and looked at me. She would lay motionless and quiet. Her eyes firmly closed as if willing herself to not be seen by me or anyone else who should happen across her. My heart broke when I saw her like this. I could only assume this was her “self-defense”. What she had learned or taught herself to do when it was all too much for her.
I spoke quietly to her, stroking her back and trying to coax her back to me. I didn’t want to force her or make things worse so I just sat down near her and waited.
She watched me, seemingly studying everything about me. Perhaps she was trying to figure out what my next move was or maybe she was just taking a moment to take it all in. She came tottering over to me and said, “I hold you” as she reached out to me. I scooped her up and she quickly arranged herself on my lap. The TV was still playing but she wasn’t looking at it — she was looking at me.
We began to earnestly talk to each other. I would ask her a silly random question respond with a profound detailed answer. She would repeat whatever I said or ask me something. We went back and forth like this for a solid half-hour. I stopped to ask her if she would like a snack. She said no as she snuggled deeper into my lap. She wouldn’t let me move. If I got up I had to be holding her.
Later that day she had a full PTSD meltdown, kicking and screaming and then she shut down completely. I was in horror, unsure how to console her. I gently picked her up in my arms and carried her back over to the couch. I sat there and quietly rocked her as I hummed a tune, more to calm myself than her at that point. Then, like before, she slowly looked up at me.
Recognition flashed across her face. She was in my arms. She was safe. She whispered, “I hold you?”, so I turned her around and she wrapped her arms around my neck and buried her face in my shoulder.
This is what she needed. Not the toys. Not more snack options. She didn’t need to me run to the store for more THINGS or take her to a movie. She needed me. She needed to feel safe and loved. She wanted to know that I was going to be there. She learned that I was a safe place for her to turn. It started to click for me. My niece and nephew found joy and delight in the things I gave them because they already had love, safety and peace in spades. They didn’t want for that; they had the important things they needed already from all of us who love and care for them. This little girl had none of that! So the toys and games and movies gave her nothing. They were all hollow to her because she was missing something larger. These things had been so hard for her to come by but so simple for me to give them to her.
As the week went on her meltdowns came less frequently. By the end of the week we made it an entire day with not a single meltdown. A few times she would look sad and I would ask her if she needed a hug. I would embrace her for a few moments and then she was off again playing or singing. At the beginning of the week I was worried I wasn’t going to have enough to give her. By the end of the week I knew I had more than enough of what she needed. She only wanted a safe place to be loved.