The Inconsolable Child

This observation was included in an article about adult discomfort with a crying child who won’t be comforted, and what to do for the child. The answer: just stay near. The excerpt articulates what I struggle with when my child cries.

“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?)

“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?”

–Kevin Frank, When a Child is Inconsolable: Staying Near

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2 Comments on “The Inconsolable Child”

  1. gerry rosser Says:

    We went through some of this with Babycakes. I would hold her and walk with her and talk soothingly for long periods of time. She, of course, got through it, and we are incredibly close.

    I gained, too. I am extremely tolerant now of crying children on planes and other enclosed places, and sometimes, gently, offer my patience and warmth to the poor young (usually) mother who is distressed as much by feeling she is inflicting noise on people as she is by her child’s crying.

    It’s good to spread kindness.

  2. donna Says:

    When my youngest got old enough to actually converse with and would get in this state, I would just look at him very seriously and say, “Don’t giggle”. Inevitably, he would crack up.

    Beh-bees. They are tough. Especially very stubborn ones. Lots of time spent holding and cuddling really pays off later on, when they are so cool they can’t stand to be around you anymore. (And vice versa…)