Big Feelings and Self Punishment

conversations with hank

A Molly and Hank collaboration


Hank: (helping us unpack the groceries) Mama, what is that?

Me: (just as surprised as he is) Oh, this is great! Thanks, Alfredo.

Pai: I thought you could use that.

Hank: But what is it?

Molly: WOW! (star-struck by yogurt) mmmmmmmmmm, Yum!

Me: It is an air-pump spray bottle. It is perfect for our plants. You pump air into the canister and when you press this button (demonstrating) the air forces the water to spray. (spraying him in the face with air)

Hank: Can I see?

Me: Sure. (handing over the spray bottle and returning to the groceries)

Molly: WOW!

Hank: Come here. Ms. McGoo. Feel this on your…

Molly: (crying)

Hank: (panicked) I am so sorry! Oh, muggy!

Me: It’s okay.

Hank: (crumbing into tears, arms wrapped around his sister)

Molly: (so shocked by Hank crying she stops crying)

Pai: What happened? (picking up Molly)

Hank: (through a flood of tears) I was spraying, muggy and then I got too close and I hit her with this part (the spout).

Me: It was an accident.

Hank: (sobbing) Yes, but I hur… hurt her.

Me: (on the floor arms wrapped around Hank)

Molly: (perfectly fine, pointing to Hank) Mano (brother)?

Me: Your brother is scared he hurt you, MaGoo.

Pai: (taking her out of the kitchen) Your brother needs some space. He’s sorry.

Me: It was an accident, Hank. You’re overreacting.

Hank: (head in his hands, sobbing) But-I-hurt-her. (wailing)

Me: (rubbing his back) I understand. It is always hard to first time you accidentally hurt your baby. But you are overreacting and punishing yourself.

Hank: (sobbing)

Me: Having a little sister is a big responsibility and you’re doing a great job at being Molly’s best big brother save for one thing.

Hank: (positively purple) Punishing myself.

Me: Exactly.

Hank: I just feel so bad.

Me: I know you do, but Molly was fine after 3 seconds and you are completely overwhelmed. That is the definition of overreacting and your sister looks up to you and she…

Hank: (interrupting, calming down) She will want to be just like me and do everything I will do.

Me: And that will include self-punishment. Would you want Molly to do that?

Hank: (wiping his tears on his sleeve) Never.

Me: I know you have big feelings. I wouldn’t want to change that and I don’t want you to push your feelings away. What I would like for you is to be a bit more rational when you are hit with these big feelings that tell you to overreact and punish. What were you thinking when you accidentally bopped Molly in the face with the spray bottle?

Hank: (deep, stuttered breath) I was having fun and then I saw her little face hurting and I just felt so, so bad and I felt stupid for hurting her and I felt so bad like I was breaking.

Me: Thank you for explaining it so well. And then you let your big feelings take control, correct?

Hank: Yes.

Me: (nodding) But did you notice Molly was fine? That she only cried a little not because she was hurt but more because she was scared or startled?

Hank: Yes.

Me: But by that time your big feelings took control it was too late?

Hank: That is it, my mama.

Me: Well, now that we understand what happens we can formulate a plan to help YOU stay in control and not your big feelings. (deep breath) May I make a suggestion?

Hank: (nodding)

Me: Remember what I taught you to do when you were having a bad dream?

Hank: You taught me to say, “This is only a dream and I want to wake up,” over and over until I wake up.

Me: Why don’t the next time you want to punish yourself and let your big feelings overtake you we come up with something you can say aloud or to yourself to remind you to stay in control.

Hank: I can try.

Me: You can say, “It was only a mistake. I need to calm down.” You can count to ten. You can list your favorite colors or sing a song.

Hank: I don’t want to sing a song.

Me: Fair enough. Then why don’t you try saying, “It was an accident. I need to calm down.” And take some deep breaths.

Hank: I can do that. I don’t want Molly to punish herself. She needs me and I cannot help her if I am upset.

Me: Truth.

Pai: (holding Molly by the hand, bringing her back into the kitchen) See, he’s feeling better.

Molly: (toddling in) Oh, oh. (pointing to Hank, letting go of Pai’s hank,  wobbling over, falling into his arms happy as a clam)

Hank: I’m sorry, muggy. Let’s start over. Do you want to see this spray bottle?

Molly: (pointing to the spray bottle) Ooos At? (what’s that)

Hank: Well… (starting over)