I picked up a very soggy and sad little girl at preschool last friday. She and her friend had been playing chase when she lost her footing and "took a dive" as she put it, into a very large, very deep, and very cold puddle of mud. Her teacher brought her inside and dried her off as best she could, changed her clothes, gave her some warm tea to drink. Despite the fact that L loves mud more than anyone I know (including me)-this was a pretty big bummer. She was really upset.
It reminded me of a time when I was very young, at preschool, and a girl swept her whole arm across the grimy plastic turtle pond and splashed me in the face with fetid water. I was mortified. I remember being whisked inside, the teachers reacting with horror as they helped me dry my face and hair. I remember feeling sick to my stomach every time I saw the turtle pond after that-getting splashed was just too scary and had freaked me out too much. But I didn't talk to anyone about it. Something about those teachers and the way they acted made me feel ashamed. I had gotten so dirty, the water was yucky, and I stank. From then on, I was terrified of that girl, Maude, who had splashed me.
L told me the story of her "dive" twice during the short drive home from school. Later I heard her telling J the story a third time. Apart from this, she was quiet for much of the afternoon. She hadn't been hurt during the fall, apart from a scrape on the palm of her hand. I don't think "her ego was bruised" as one particularly, er, obtuse relative has suggested. Over the course of the weekend, I have overheard her retelling this story to four other people. She's not "looking for attention" (yes, same relative)--I think she's really just taking her time to process this event.
And you know? Losing your balance and falling into a puddle is a pretty big deal when you're such a small girl. And when that puddle is cold, muddy, and deep, it's an even bigger deal. But I think my role here is not to place value on the experience (as good, bad, scary, whatever)--I think my role is just to be a space where she can re-tell, and sort out her many feelings about the event. I'm not casually passing it off as a minor thing, nor am I blowing it up to traumatic scale. I'm trying to just listen. She tells me it was scary, I ask her what she did to feel better. She tells me it was cold, I ask her how she warmed up. She shows me the muddy stains on her jacket. I nod and we talk a little more.
It was an unexpected, startling and, for her, scary thing. And she's working it out. She needs to keep talking about it, keep replaying that experience over and over through retelling, needs to keep showing us her "owie." At some point, this will no longer be necessary, but until then, I'll keep listening.