My son, who is 8, has threatened on several occasions to call the NSPCC and tell them all about me. This is usually because I have done something fairly reasonable like closed the TV room for a specified period of time because of excessive roughhousing or insisted that he come along to the playground although he would rather stay home. Tonight, however, if he had announced that he should call the NSPCC, he would have been right.
My daughter, who just turned 6, has been a hair-twirler for years. It started with my hair, then moved on to her own hair when I cut my hair from shoulder-length to chin-length. The switch to her hair also coincided roughly with the end of breastfeeding. I have sought advice on how to cope with hair-twirling and have tried various approaches with limited success. The hair-twirling is annoying, but she has recently upped the ante, and has begun to pick at her body. She has picked her lips and the side of her lips to the extent that she now has an angry scar on one side of her mouth and she can not eat tomatoes because of the acidity. This evening at bath time she was holding one of her fingers rigidly. I asked to look at it. Her fingertip was light purple with a cut in the middle of the tip. I felt that familiar sensation of distress that I have when faced with a parenting problem that I know I am not qualified to approach.
“That finger is infected. You have got to stop picking at yourself.”
“But it wasn’t me, it was Josie!”
“What do you mean, it was Josie?”
“Josie picked at my finger!”
My anger began to rise. There have been continual problems with Josie since Nina started school a year and a half ago. “Did Josie hurt your finger?”
“You have got to tell Josie that she must absolutely not touch your body.”
“Well, maybe it wasn’t just Josie.”
“Nina… if you hurt your own finger, I will be very sad, but I would rather that you tell me the truth.”
“I did most of it. But Josie did pick at it. She picked at my lip too.”
At this point I was furious. It was bad enough that Nina was picking at her own body, but the fact that Josie was joining in put me right over the edge. I lost it.
“Do you not understand about infection? I’m going to have to take you to the doctor. Do you know what can happen if your finger is too infected?”
Oh, no, Beth, don’t do it, stop right there and you still have a chance. But the anger was swirling all through me and I didn’t listen to the tiny voice telling me to stop. “If your finger is too infected, they could have to cut off the tip.”
Nina went white. She started to cry. Sam, my son, said, sensibly echoing my own tiny voice, “Stop right there. Just stop.”
“But how long will it take to heal?” Nina implored.
I felt what people who hit their children must feel immediately after they’ve raised their hand. “I’m sorry Nina. They are not going to cut off your fingertip. That can be healed. They can give us antibiotics, and it will heal. It will maybe take a few days. I went overboard. I’m sorry. But it is true that infection is very dangerous and that you should not break your skin. Will you leave it alone when it heals?”
“I will, I will.”
What I have always wanted for Nina, more than anything else, is for her to feel good about herself. The hair-twirling and the small cuts on her arms and fingers are indications that her self-esteem is at risk. Because I am her mother, not only do I need to deal with this issue, but I also feel more than partly responsible for her having this issue at all.
I think the path that I need to travel is obvious. I need to love myself more. I need to set a better example. This includes not squeezing my pimples and trying to see my faded black cardigans as charcoal gray. It includes speaking positively of myself as often as possible.
And I need to love Nina more as well. I need to love her as bravely as I possibly can. I need to focus on her strengths and celebrate her. I need to look more at the girl, and less at the shadow. May it be so.