When "Go Away" means "I want you"

A recently-divorced young mother that I know had brought her three-year-old son to a play group. He ran off immediately to join the other children, but some little upset brought him back to his mother's arms. She held on, knowing that this was a hard time for him in general and wanting to offer comfort, but he struggled to get free and broke away. He ran to the middle of the room, then stopped, looking forlorn and desolate. He had asserted his independence and gained freedom, but not happiness.

It's a scene that many of us have experienced. We know our children are hurting, and ache to comfort them, yet they don't come to us, or push us away when we offer help. By adolescence, that situation has often become the norm. They seem to want to be alone with their hurt, and our accumulated feelings of inadequacy and rejection keep us away.

This wasn't always the case. When our children were babies we knew that they were counting on us. Even when they were screaming and arching away, even if we had no idea of what was going on for them, we stayed close and tried to help. We couldn't easily abandon them when they were feeling that bad.

With the development of language, however, we get more confused. When the crying is accompanied by struggle and words like "Let me go," "Go away," "You're hurting me," or "I don't want your help," we can't help but respond to those words. Since they come in our language, we assume we know what they mean. It can be a devastating feeling: "The light of my life, for whom I would give anything, has no use for me any more."

But what if those words mean something entirely different, and we're missing out on a call for help? After all, what do we really mean when we're feeling bad and push away offers of help? "I'm ashamed of feeling this way and don't want to show it to you." "I doubt if you can really help me." "I'm afraid of exposing how much I want your help." "I'm so used to doing this alone that I don't know how to use another person." Who among us wouldn't welcome the kind of help that was free of worry, doubt, or blame, and came with no strings attached? Who among us wouldn't be happy, under those circumstances, to have our protests pushed warmly but firmly aside?

I tried it out that morning at the play group, scooping up that forlorn, desolate-looking boy and depositing him back in his mother's arms. He started struggling and crying, "Let me go!" I got close and offered possible translations: "I think that means, 'Please don't leave me all alone.'" He cried, "You're hurting me!" I said, "I think he's saying, 'I'm hurting--please help me.'" He cried, I don't want to be with you!" I offered, "I want you and I'm scared."

He cried and protested while his mother held him close and told him how much she loved him and what a wonderful child he was. After a while he stopped struggling, nestled deep into her arms, and rested. She and I looked at each other and knew that something was very right.

He'd been struggling to keep all those hard feelings inside and just go for a good time, but what a hard job it was, and what a relief to have a warm, loving mom hold him close enough to be able to get those feelings out of his system! What a relief to have somebody understand what he really meant. What if we could remember that our children always want us, just as we want them, no matter how they're feeling or what words they use? What if we could translate all the "Go away" messages (from three-year-old tantrums to the sullen isolation of teenagers) into calls for help and not get confused if they use us for targets as they unload all the hurts and anger that keeps them from enjoying their lives fully and feeling fully close to us? What a gift that would be for us all.