For the Child’s Sake

by Elouise

Recently D and I found ourselves witnessing an adult’s meltdown. We got involved. The emergency situation went on for several hours. Were we ready? Sort of. So for my sake if nothing else, here are some thoughts about showing up when things aren’t going well, especially when a child is involved.

Show up for the child’s sake.
Of course the adult’s wellbeing is crucial. However, no child or young person can bear in him or herself the weight of witnessing a parental or caretaker meltdown.

When this happens, shame deepens. The need to keep secrets is magnified a thousand times over. Danger escalates for everyone involved.

It doesn’t matter whether the child is weeping and terrified, or calm and collected. The child needs a witness for him or herself. Show up for the child’s sake, not just for the adult’s sake.

So what does this look like?
It didn’t matter whether we, D and I, knew exactly how the situation came to be. It was right there, in front of us. Begging for us to ‘do something.’

Every emergency situation is different. Playing it by ear is to be expected. Feeling lost and fumbling around is also normal. At the same time, some things are necessary:

  • Ask questions and look for medical alerts the adult might be wearing (chain necklace, wristband, etc.)
  • Ask followup questions.
  • Don’t stop asking questions because I or anyone else gets uncomfortable.
  • Ask about alcohol, drugs, pain killers and other prescription drugs. What, when, on an empty stomach?
  • When did you last eat and drink, and what?
  • Determine whether I need to call the emergency number or a family doctor. If so, do it as a concerned friend, neighbor or passerby.
  • Don’t give in to the adult or child’s insistence that I take or not take a certain course of action.
  • Do what I need to do to be safe myself.

What about the child?
It’s normal to focus on the adult. The child, however, also needs emergency care from me. Stay connected to the child. Reassure him or her that asking for help, and cooperating to get help is the right thing to do. Comfort him or her and don’t tell the child to stop crying or shaking. Let the child know I’m there to help.

At the same time,

  • Avoid telling the child everything will be all right. I don’t know that.
  • Tell the child more than once how glad I am that he or she was worried and asked for help.
  • Tell the child I know you’re embarrassed right now. It’s appropriate to be embarrassed when you’re out of control.
  • Tell the child it’s OK to ask me for help at any time, day or night, and make sure he or she knows how to reach me and vice versa.
  • Don’t leave the child alone with the parent or caretaker until the immediate crisis is over.
  • Ensure the immediate safety of the child. Ask the child what would feel safe to him or her. Don’t assume I already know the answer. Do what I can to accommodate the child’s needs. I might sit on the porch with him or her until help comes. I might agree to keep the child overnight.

Talk with a trusted person about what happened, and what I might do differently next time.

Talk with the adult afterwards. Tell him or her what I saw and experienced, how dangerous it was for the adult and any children involved, what I’ll do if it happens again, and how devastating that could be for everyone involved.

Offer to give the adult the names and numbers of people or organizations that might be able to help in any way.

And say this to myself:  “Elouise, it’s wonderful that you and D stepped up—especially for the child. Every child needs at least one witness to what’s going on.”

No child deserves to feel isolated and scared. I know exactly what this feels like, as do many of you, my dear Readers.

Let’s do it for the sake of the child.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 17 June 2015