Pulling the Plug

I was hanging out with a father and his one-year-old daughter the other day. She looked scared and unhappy, and he said she'd been having a hard week. When he disengaged her from his shoulder, she stuck the fingers of one hand into her mouth, pulled on her ear with the other, closed her eyes, and, to all intents and purposes, vacated this world.

When he encouraged her to look at him, and to take her fingers out of her mouth, she opened her eyes and cried hard. When he stopped, the fingers went back in her mouth, and she was still. The fingers stopped the flow of feelings just exactly like a plug.

Now there are advantages to having plugs. They keep things from leaking--or pouring--out, and sometimes leaks and spills can be a problem. If there's no space to let out your feelings, then plugging them up makes sense. Children have figured out lots of ways to do it--thumb, "blankies", special stuffed animals. Parents may be ambivalent, or embarrassed, about what their children choose. But there are times for all of us when we don't want to hear the feelings. If our children haven't figured out a way of bottling them up, we may offer the plug of adult choice--the pacifier.

A problem with plugs, however, is that they're hard to keep in when pressure builds up. They can pop--causing an explosion and an even bigger mess. Or, probably more common, they just require a lot of energy to keep in place under pressure, leaving less available for all the rest of life. This little girl was able to keep her feelings contained--but at the price of being unable to do anything else.

Her father sounded smart to me. He said, "You know, it's good that you have those fingers. They comfort you and there are times when nothing else is available for comfort. But right now you have me. And I'd be glad to listen to how you're feeling."

He eased her fingers out of her mouth, and she cried--hard and long. It looked as if a week's worth of frustrations, hard times and fears were just pouring out of her. And then--this is the part that seems like such magic was done, and all ready to play. A little later, when he had to leave for ten minutes, she neither cried nor used the finger plug. She went right on playing--fully and happily engaged with the pleasures of the present.

I think we would do well to notice the plugs. What do our children use? What do we use? (I remember a friend who was driving me to a conference discovering that he was lost. "We're lost", he said. "I hate it when that happens. I need a smoke." An adult plug.) What are the feelings that are being bottled in? What will happen when the pressure builds up? And, perhaps most important, how can we help our children--and ourselves--find good places to pull the plug, and let those feelings pour out?