The Flower Girl’s Rehearsal — the choreography of empathy

Belle dancing Before there was even a date for our wedding, my daughter, who is a Planner, had purchased a whirling pink tulle dress and tiny flowered tiara – the perfect ensemble for granddaughter Belle, age four, our Flower Girl. So she was fully prepared when finally, after scores of options had been considered and tossed, the lovely little park on the bike path near Wildflower House, with its amphitheater surrounded on two sides by trees and a river, was deemed the perfect spot for the ceremony to take place, and invitations went out.

For my part, I disintegrate rapidly into disgraceful remarks when forced to shop; I did not have a dress until three weeks before The Day. This needlessly worried the groom [read: “prepared him for The Future : )”].    

If you have a four-year-old in your life, you know that these little sprites are not all that predictable [not at all predictable], which surely adds a charming bit of suspense to a carefully choreographed processional. A rehearsal, we felt, was definitely in order.

So, on the sunny Sunday before the wedding, we assembled at the park — Belle, her mommy and daddy, the bride and groom and friends. A seat was found for Mommy, doctor’s orders as Belle’s baby sister, not due for another month, was rushing the clock. That left Daddy to manage the dry run (a prescient term if ever there was one).

Three Keys to Helping an Anxious Child

Key #1: Reflect, don’t deflect, feelings.

Key #2: Tune into the whole picture, not only the feelings that are most prominent.

Key #3: Use actions as well as words to reflect a deep understanding of your child’s inner experience.

Here’s what my son-in-law fully understood about Belle. Everything he did came from being tuned into these traits, feelings and strengths:

  • Belle really wanted to be Mimi’s Flower Girl.
  • She was not yet able to tolerate making a mistake and would freeze up at the possibility.
  • She was quickly overwhelmed by the unfamiliar.
  • She was feeling the pressure of having onlookers.
  • She felt the pressure of being counted on.
  • She was intrinsically motivated; she had an inner commitment to “do it right” that felt hard to live up to.

 Helping Belle tackle this challenge would require him to reflect these feelings back to her through both his words and his actions, that is, to be a Mirror. Further he would need to stabilize her as her fears threatened to take over, and model for her what to do. Mirror, Anchor, Mentor.

Here’s how it looked.

The Rehearsal

Act I – Overwhelm

Take 1 – Refusal

Belle hides behind Mommy and refuses to come out. 

Take 2 – “Peek-a-Boo”

Daddy tunes into her fears as well as to her desire to do what she has set out to do. He changes direction completely and begins a gentle game of peek-a-boo with her. Belle emerges from behind the chair and allows herself to be taken by the hand.

Take 3 – “Follow the Leader”

Daddy walks the path that Belle will walk, scattering dried leaves from a basket as he goes. He invites Belle to follow him. Belle watches carefully and begins to walk, carrying her own basket.

Take 4 – Belle Makes No Promises

Little notice is taken of Belle as she exits the path we’ve plotted and begins cantering along the grassy risers of the amphitheater. From afar, we chuckle, and I think of her Aunt Elise making a nice hit in T-Ball and then skipping around the bases, beginning with third.

My son-in-law knows her avoidance is not refusal; her sidetracks are not shows of defiance. All of this goes on in unpressured slow motion, as if we were settling in for an all-day picnic.

Soon, he offhandedly calls her back, and they begin again. He provides positive information “That’s good, Belle,” and feedback – “Remember to scatter your leaves” — with no evidence of frustration – sort of like a game of “Marco – Polo” — letting her know whether she’s on target or straying. Each run-through is an engineered success. In each he adds a new element in a very offhand, laid-back way.

Act II – Committed

Scene 1: Belle on her own

Belle, now confident that she can do what is being requested, walks gaily along the route, scattering her leaves as she goes.

Scene 2: Belle and Mimi – not a dry eye

Belle leads the way and I follow, just as we will next week. It is a moment – a gem – as we walk the path under a blue sky, Belle scattering leaves for Mimi.

Scene 3: Belle cleans up the mess

The run-through is a victory. Belle, who has organizational skills that many adults would envy, begins at the beginning of the path and carefully picks up the leaves and replaces them in her basket. The grown-ups look on with amusement and hearts overflowing for this bundle of love called Belle.

What could have happened

You can learn a lot from what is absent in an interaction – but you have to think about it, because, by definition, what is missing is silent.

Nobody yelled, “NO, Belle!”

Nobody tried to evoke guilt: “Belle, Mimi is counting on you. Come on –“

No one told Belle she was wrong for withdrawing: “Belle – don’t hide behind mommy. Come out and say ‘hi’.”

Nobody pressured her: “Belle – everybody’s waiting –“

Nobody made her wrong for picking up the leaves: “Belle – NO! Don’t clean them up!”

In fact, Belle was never “made wrong” for anything she felt or did. If any of these things had happened, the result would have been a meltdown, completely unlike the peaceful scene that actually played out.

Empathic Mobilization– an abbreviation (action rather than words) of a complex process

You may have noticed that very little verbal interaction happened here. This is a sort of abbreviation: rather than reflect her feelings verbally, Belle’s father reflects them within his choice of actions. So – he does not say, “You’re anxious about getting it right.” Instead, he surrounds her with support and engineers success after success. This works very well with younger children who do not yet have the vocabulary or capacity to process things verbally.

Although her fears may be more prominent in the moment, her PRIMARY DRIVER is the desire to be Mimi’s Flower Girl – and he knows and trusts this. At the same time, he is aware of her discomfort with mistakes; aware that she is stressed. Knowing all of this guides his actions:

  • He does not drop her in deep water. Instead, he shows her step-by-step, at her pace, what to do.
  • Normal limits are in place; this anchors her.
  • He gives her room, literally physical space – lacey, but with boundaries.
  • He knows the task is within her capability.
  • He responds to her most salient emotion, with consideration for her secondary emotions and for her unique temperament.

His actions effectively communicate to Belle that she is understood and that her feelings are both acceptable to and accepted by him.

The Flower Girl’s Triumph

That beautiful day practicing in the park was such a gift! The day of our wedding, the blue turned to gray and the skies opened up in a massive downpour. And you know what? It was perfect. We quickly set up the chairs in Wildflower House, Belle’s daddy created a masking tape line for her to follow in these new surroundings – and Belle, now full of confidence and delight in her role, dropped rose petals all along the way.

And – she didn’t pick them back up : ).