Filling in the Picture
While Andy continues to play at the table, I talk quietly with his mom to fill in the gaps. She and Andy moved to town only a few months before. Andy started in a new daycare while mom went to work as a nurse in the local hospital. She’s been able to arrange a four-day work week so Andy isn’t in daycare every day. Andy has never known his dad. It’s always been just the two of them.
“What about a social life for you two?” I ask. Mom laughs ruefully. With moving, establishing Andy in daycare, and starting a new job, it’s been all his mom could do to get settled. She’s met some of the other parents at the daycare center but she hasn’t yet had the time to get to know anyone. Mostly, she counts on her sister who lives in town for company. She’s glad that Andy has kids at daycare to play with. Before the move, he was taken care of by a sitter with only one other child.
She gives me permission to talk to the daycare center to get more information. I give her lots of support for how well she is handling such big life changes and suggest that this week, she just work on praising Andy whenever he isn’t chewing. She agrees that she can emphasize the positive while I find out more about her son.
The next day, I manage to connect with his daycare teacher. She confirms that Andy is an exceptionally smart little boy. He has a vivid imagination and the vocabulary of a much older child. At only 3 ½ he seems to be on the edge of learning to read. His teachers love his precocious insights and his polite manners.
“How is he doing with the other kids?” I ask. That’s another story. “He’s adjusting,” the teacher replies. “He tends to want to direct much more elaborate play than the other kids can follow, so they move away from him. It doesn’t seem to bother him, though. It’s as if he doesn’t notice when the kids drift away because he’s so deeply involved in some imaginary situation.”
“Does he chew on his shirt?” I ask. “Oh yes. It’s a habit he has,” she replies. “We’ll work on that when he is more comfortable.” I like this woman. She focuses on strengths and is taking things one step at a time.
This little boy has been sending out signals that he is having a harder time than the adults might think. Bright and creative, he has handled the stress of so much change in his life by withdrawing into his imaginary world. My guess is that sucking on his clothes is another way he soothes himself. Maybe it’s a holdover from the days of having a pacifier. Maybe it’s something that he just stumbled on one day as a way to distract himself and he found that it gave him some comfort. It works for him. It works so well that he hasn’t been able to give it up even though it displeases his mom. It’s to her credit that she reached out for some support and advice instead of getting more and more upset with her son for ruining his clothes or with herself for not being able to help him stop.
The next step is to meet Andy’s mom and his daycare teacher. Both think my theory may have merit. Together we come up with a plan. The teacher identifies a couple of kids who are also particularly imaginative in their play and agrees to set up some activities to help Andy know them better. She also asks her staff to be more active in helping Andy figure out ways to be one of the gang instead of hanging out with the teachers or being off in his own world. We both encourage his mom to linger at pickup time so that she and her son can get acquainted with other families.
Play dates soon followed, with both mother and son becoming more involved, and at ease, in their new community. Over the next few months, Andy gradually stopped chewing on his wrist or his clothes. Oh, every once in awhile he’d nibble but it was no longer a big deal. “I’m actually sort of glad Andy was eating his shirts,” his mom told me during a followup call. “If it hadn’t been for that, I wouldn’t have known he was upset. Things might have gotten much worse for him at daycare. Truth is, I would probably still be so caught up with all the details of my life that I wouldn’t have started to make new friends for myself either.”