“We all have tough days.” I say this to my kids, as they watch another kid melting down in the waiting room. They nod, but stare anyway. I say it so that the child’s parent or grandparent can hear it too, whose frustration is likely part exasperation at the behavior, part embarrassment in front of all the other adults whose kids are not acting this way. I know, because I’ve been there. I also say it for myself, as a reminder that all of the thoughts and impulses I’m going to experience during this hour in the therapy waiting room need compassionate reactions from my judgmental self. This is a different place than a playground, church, school, or other public spaces. Here we can escape comparing ourselves and our children against the elusive ideal of “typical” as much as we might everywhere else. Or not. It largely depends on the company.
Most of us have been here regularly enough, and have been frequent guests in other similar ones too. This is a waiting room for occupational (OT) and physical therapy (PT), so the kids who come through here may be working on anything from rehabbing from a physical injury, to working longer-term on coordination, muscle control, sensory-processing issues, social or behavioral skills. We are complicated human beings, and some of the causes of our difficulties may never be fully uncovered, but therapies seem like well-informed experiments with an array of methods that have helped others, to see what could be helpful to us.
It’s not the playground, but my brain cannot help assessing those around me for comparisons. Some days I admit to feeling relief, that my kid doesn’t have the challenge I observe in another. Some days the twinge is probably envy, because I see a child smaller than my own working on something and I wish we were at that point. Other days it’s hope and inspiration as I witness a high-five because it’s somebody else’s last day.
Then one day, my child is the one having the meltdown. Not the child who is here for therapy, mind you, the other one. Her tantrum is not related to anything other than being a kid; her precocious little voice I sometimes hear other parents chuckling over in that waiting room has given way to incoherent screaming. And of course we’re late for our appointment. It is equalizing. The same calm way the therapists and receptionists talk to the other kids’ parents, they then speak to me, getting all the information we need to exchange, over my child’s wails. We all have tough days.
Sometimes parents melt down in the waiting room too, or come close. I am simultaneously impressed and irritated by the young adult nanny who brings one child, because she seems so well-regulated – this kid can’t push her buttons like a parent. The nanny regularly uses the techniques we’ve all learned but just have trouble implementing in the heat of the moment, talking calmly but firmly about the steps they need to take or explaining why we don’t do something that could get us hurt (instead of giving orders). The 5 minutes after a session, when kids are getting out and others are coming for the next hour, is like the Olympics of self-control for parents. The kids know they have us in a bind. They are hyped up by the transition, seeing their siblings again, showing us a sticker – all during that critical time we need to hear the report of the therapist and get instructions for activities to practice at home. They get in our faces, or chase each other around the room. They do not get their shoes on to leave. Ignoring them does not make the disruptive behaviors dissipate, but neither does interrupting this critical conversation to bark orders, threaten consequences, or be like that exemplary nanny. Usually the session after this exiting behavior has been particularly raucous, I remember to talk about expectations ahead of time, before we get to the appointment. Sometimes that works. Finally, we leave the therapy waiting room.
Part of being a healthy parent is admitting when we need help. That’s why we spend so much time here. But maybe what we (I) need most is someone to talk me through it. We all have a complex tangle of emotions, just like our kids, and some issues with self-regulation of our behavior. The solidarity of others who get it is always welcome, especially in the waiting room.