The campfire crackled, as we sat in a ring around it. It was twilight, and we could just make out each other’s faces as the sky darkened. Some faces were dappled by the deeper shadows of the overhanging oak trees.
It was our first time camping with USARC at Big Bear. Peter, his little brother Luke, and I had set up our tent and were waiting for the campfire introductory talk to begin. We had prepared Peter as best we could for the experience, showing him online photos of camping, describing the fun activities planned, and even setting up the tent the day before on the grass in our backyard. Peter had loved the tent, only reluctantly climbing out so we could take it down and pack it into our car. He had typed, “I think I’m ready for this adventure.”
But as the shadows lengthened, and he sat staring at the crackling fire, the monotone started to grow in pace and volume. “Papa, car ride home, bed, Papa, car ride home, bed, Papa, car ride home, bed…” Pressured speech, cold clammy hands, racing heart- I saw all the signs of a growing monster of anxiety. “Peter, I see you are getting anxious, but you will be okay. Remember how fun it was to sit in the tent? Look at all these other kids like you- they’ve all done this before, and they all came back they had so much fun. It’s new, but it will be fun.” Peter rocked back and forth in his camp chair, humming and chanting his “Papa, car ride home, bed” mantra over and over. But he did not get up to leave.
A lady with a kindly face came over and sat beside us. A USARC volunteer for many years, she quietly chatted about this and that camper and how many years he/she had been coming to camp. Then she turned to Peter, “Peter, do you want to go home?” she asked gently.
I handed Peter his iPad keyboard. As he continued to chant, “Papa, car ride, home, bed,” he typed, “Just fooling. I really appreciate being here.”
The lady looked stunned. I hastened to explain. “You know how we all have mixed feelings- you can feel excited and scared all at the same time? Well, in Peter’s case, the scared feelings tumble out automatically, and that’s what you see. But he really does want to try this adventure, and he really does appreciate everyone’s understanding.”
The lady was delighted and relieved, and continued her comforting chat with me and Peter. Peter made it through the entire campfire talk, and even enjoyed his first sticky s’more.
We still had our challenges that night- I had to kind of trick him to get him to use the bathroom by telling him that even if he wanted to go home, he would need to use the bathroom first, and at one point, he tried to repack the duffel bag into the car, but overall, he did well. He got into the tent and managed to fall asleep, with the help of a thick futon I brought along, a sleeping pill for the first night, and a great book he loved to hear me read aloud. We had an amazing adventure, sailing, fishing, and kayaking.
I’m sharing this experience because it is such an extraordinarily clear illustration of how careful we need to be when we interpret our children’s behavior. Our children are wired differently. Their upper brain, the frontal lobes, center of thinking and judgment may be underconnected to the basal ganglion that initiates movement and action. On the other hand, the lower brain’s amygdala, site of anxiety and the fight or flight response, is overactive and well connected. So whereas we handle our dichotomous feelings adroitly or less adroitly depending on the relative strength of our conflicting emotions, our children tend to automatically express the lower brain, sometimes even when the upper brain is trying its best to exert control.
So don’t be too fast to judge. Work hard to figure out the form of communication that works best for your child. Some children type much better than they can talk. For them it’s important to take the trouble to have a keyboard available for deeper conversations. And keep talking softly and reasonably to that upper brain that may be listening intently despite all the distracting noise of the lower brain expressing itself. “Understanding helps,” Peter often tells me. Not just a passive understanding, but realizing the person really is in there, and to address the person and support those higher intentions that may be hidden inside a locked-in upper brain. Your support may make all the difference in what your child is capable of experiencing, and how wide, joyful, and hopeful his world may become.
As Peter put it,
“i really love sailing.
i feel the wind on my face.
blue sky and lake,
the sound of the wind luffing the sails,
i feel fast and free among friends.”