Let me hold the crying child
There’s never been a church calling I’ve had that I’ve loved as much as the one I have now: the nursery. At first I loved it because it was easy and comfortable. I was right in my comfort zone and I didn’t have to sit still during that portion of church. The children are adorable, and I wish I had enough lap space to accommodate them all. But what makes me truly love nursery is not the easy or the fun stuff. I love it when there is a challenge or a crisis. Does that sound strange?
The biggest crisis is when a child is dropped off in nursery and starts to cry. For whatever reason, they are feeling insecure in that environment. This most often happens when a child is new to the nursery, but it may also be that there is some big transitional change in their life, such as a new sibling, or that they are feeling unwell and the parent didn’t realize it, or some other stress in their life that we could never guess.
I always want to hold the crying child. Sometimes I wish there were more than one of me though. I was overwhelmed a few months ago when we suddenly had several new children come into the nursery, and there wasn’t enough of me to go around. But why me? Why can’t the other nursery workers hold them?
They do, when I’m not available. But it’s hard for me to watch helplessly as the child cries, and the nursery worker attempts to distract the child with toys and books. Sometimes this angers the child. Sometimes it works, but only temporarily. Distracting the child, in my opinion, does not help the child feel safe. The child always ends up crying again.
If I get to hold the child, I always validate his or her feelings. “Are you upset? It’s hard to be in here. Do you miss your mom/dad?” I try to gage what the child is feeling. Nearly every time, the child will look at me with his or her teary eyes, as though to say, “You understand?” I will continue to hold the child. In almost every case, the child will eventually relax, put his or her head on my shoulder, and I will sway and rub their back. I may have to hold the child for a long time, but regardless of how heavy that child might be (sometimes they are quite heavy!), I do not put them down until they are ready. (If the child never calms down, I take them to their parents, figuring they are unwilling to be comforted by a someone they don’t know well). When they are ready to be put down, they will happily play, and I am their new best friend. That child knows that he or she can come back to me for anything they need. When I do this—when I validate their feelings, allow them to cry, and hold them as long as they need it—they acclimate to the nursery fairly quickly. Usually just one or two weeks.
If the child is feeling unwell, I can tell the difference. Sometimes they will tell me. If the child is having a dispute with another child, they will come to me for comfort and tell me what is going on. Sometimes a child has gotten into nursery without having a chance to develop an attachment to one of the adults, and in this case it is trickier. Play is a good way to connect with them, but I still find that the bond is stronger when they’ve had a chance to cry in my arms.
There was one such case many months ago. This little girl was acting out on other children, and when I asked her to stop she threw herself down on the floor and started to kick her legs. I stayed with her. She cried. I let her know I was there for her. She cried some more. After that, she started to come to me with her problems, and she started to play with me. She finally had an adult in the nursery that she felt connected to, and if she was having a bad day, I would hold her and let her cry. She was finally letting her emotions out instead of taking out her anger on the other children.
There was one little girl who didn’t cry on her first day in nursery, but she was angry. She threw her water at me. The next few weeks her mom stayed in the nursery with her. Then her mom decided not to stay one week. She was trying to kick her way out of another nursery workers arms. I took her. She was so angry, thrashing about so violently that it wasn’t safe to let her do it on the floor. So I held her. I validated her feelings. “You’re angry. Are you mad that you got left in here?” In her little two-year-old way, she said that she was. She screamed, and then cried, and then sobbed. She put her head down on my shoulder and became very relaxed and quiet. And then, she fell asleep. Forty-five minutes later, she was happy and playing, and she never had any problems after that. And she always smiles at me.
Today a boy came to nursery for the first time. I was late getting there, so the nursery leader had him. He was crying, and I didn’t see how it was handled, but at some point he was by himself. I was setting up the snack in the other room, which is separated by a gate. He came to the gate, and I talked to him. He acted like he was trying to give me a doll, but when I took it, he tugged on my sleeve and asked to be picked up. He cried. It was like he somehow knew I was the one to go to for comfort. I did what I always do–I validated his feelings, which by the way, often gets them to cry harder for a moment, and then I just held him and rubbed his back. We was attached to me for the rest of church. I didn’t mind one bit, except when the nursery leader insisted on extracting him from me so I could give a short lesson, which I would have happily done with him on my lap. She eagerly returned him to me later when he refused to have snack with her. No problem with me!
This has happened so many times since I started in the nursery last March. It can’t be a coincidence. The children want to be heard and held comfortingly—not be distracted. Not left alone. Even if they act like they want to be left alone, they usually don’t. They want to be understood, and they need to be allowed to cry in a way that gives them a sense of security. I only wish there was more of me. For as soon as they are acclimated, it seems I have little time for them anymore as I am busy comforting another child! The ones that I never got to hold because either I was absent or I had another child to care for…the ones that got past my waiting arms…they still don’t seem happy in there. I think they are acclimating, but very slowly. Perhaps it’s because they don’t have a bond with any of the nursery workers? Because no one has taken the time to listen to their cries? Will I ever get the chance to break through the ice with them?
If only I could hold them all…