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When a Child is Inconsolable: Stay Near

At the moment of inconsolability all we can do is to stay near, so that the child knows that we care, and when the crying is finished, we can be together.
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I am speaking of an experience that does not necessarily dominate a child’s life, but that needs special consideration. Babies and children have many different cries—whining or screaming in hunger, fussing in boredom, raging in a temper tantrum when frustrated, squealing in pain, or shrieking in terror. We can usually help the baby in these circumstances: We can provide food for the hungry child; we can change the position of the baby who is bored—lifting the infant to a shoulder for a new view of the world, or taking the baby to a different room to see something new. We can remove the cause of the pain or offer comfort with soothing massage, patting or rocking or if the child is old enough to understand, “Mommy will kiss it and make it well” that ritual can help. (We know now that endorphins in the nervous system actually act like morphine and can be stimulated by loving attention.) We can reassure the frightened baby by holding him or her close and talking in quiet tones.

But there is another cry that is hard for us to understand, and often there seems to be no way to help—a cry of woe, sobbing inconsolably, seemingly flooded with grief. There is nothing demanding, or irritable, or angry in this cry.

A woman offers comfort to a crying child.
Years ago I felt helpless when I saw a little boy of two sobbing his heart out, leaning with his face against a screen door of his house where I was visiting. I tried to console him but he pushed me away as if nothing I could do could help. Sometimes a child in this despair seeks solitude behind a curtain or a tree; sometimes by lying face down on the floor. In our nursery school years ago, a little boy hid in the empty fireplace, unreachable, broken-hearted, overwhelmed on his first day away from his mother—two years old, not understanding that she would return.

That first little boy is a man now, gifted, sensitive, perceptive. When I recalled that incident when he sobbed, unreachable, and said that I felt that the inconsolable child needs to be understood he agreed and wrote me a letter about his reflections:

The inconsolable state of grief, or what feels like an intolerable level of loss or disappointment, is a very important point where the child begins to deal with our most fundamental relations—call it existential despair, or call it, ‘damn it, don’t you understand, this tragedy is unfixable!’. If a precious toy is lost, or a trust betrayed, or some such tragedy, it may evoke the feeling that this is not something I will be negotiated out of. I won’t be seduced by offers of warmth or food or entertainment. This is non-negotiable. (Is this what is known as integrity?)

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“Somehow it feels as though what we ask for in that inconsolable state is the acknowledgment that, ‘yes, it is unfixable. No, nothing could be worse than this.’

“What prevents the so-called adult from being able to truly BE with the inconsolable child? I mean the child seems to know exactly what to do and how to do it. It wails and moans with great stamina. What about the adult, though? Do adults experience the exact same level of inconsolability? What has really changed in ‘growing up?’ What has changed is that the adult has acquired a learned ability to deny, and negotiate the unnegotiable tragedy. We are considered grown up when we no longer behave childishly, but the really vital question is whether we have faced the unfixable tragedy of life. Have we faced it, or have we negotiated it into a managed state? Doesn’t the child show us exactly where we stopped in growing up ourselves? The impulse is to calm the child, to make things better. But the scream comes back, ‘Don’t even try to calm me down!’ whether in words or equivalent. Why is this so unnerving? Doesn’t it evoke all the fear, resentment, frustration, which hasn’t really changed at all since our own childhood? And isn’t the impulse to get the child calmed down, by any means possible, an impulse to stifle this Pandora’s box? It’s an enormous challenge to really be with the child in its inconsolable state.

“That child is ourself. We want love, which is always going to turn out to be less dependable than the infinite we hoped for. We want psychological security and it will never be enough. We want physical security. We want to continue as me forever. Our wants, and perceived needs come up bang against the wall of aloneness which wanting and hoping and grasping creates. Then, can we be with the sadness this evokes? Can we feel it, the impulse to run away from it, the absoluteness of it, the non-negotiable nature of our predicament as a vulnerable, scared human being? Perhaps if we truly perceive the fact that there is nothing I can do, then the child/adult may for the first time be free from an enormous burden of managing the unmanageable.

“The notion that I, as an ‘adult’, should know what to do with the inconsolable child is a myth which can only add pressure and fear when I realize I don’t know what to do. As soon as there is a formula of how to deal with inconsolability, then I am the adult raising the child. But in truth, the child and I are both trying to grow up together. Why should I know what to do? And he or she has something to remind me of here.

“You say to stay near. I agree. What ideas, fears and so on separate us from the child? Whether it’s the child or ourselves, it’s the same pain, isn’t it? Whether we are 2 years old, 32 years old, 92 years old, we face the same fear of the unknown, and the same unnegotiable grief when someone or something we love isn’t available. Can we openly not know the answer?”

“Doesn’t such a state of openness communicate itself?—to a child, to a dog or a cat, or to the people we live with?”

I was grateful for my young friend’s suggestions that it is not just the infant or child who has inconsolable moments. I remembered exactly that kind of inconsolable crying when at the age of thirteen the time came to leave a happy fortnight at camp when I would have to return to a very difficult school situation. I wanted camp to go on forever, and it could not. Again, when much later three dear friends died of a heart attack and cancer one after the other—they could not be replaced. The tragedies “could not be fixed” as the letter said.

With the baby or young child, the feeling that it can’t be fixed, that the loss is unbearable, yields in time to discrimination between those losses that can’t be fixed and those that can. But at the moment of inconsolability all we can do is to stay near, so that the child knows that we care, and when the crying is finished, we can be together.

This article was edited from the Zero to Three Journal, December 1988.

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