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Failure to Communicate

2011 April 19
by MushBrain

Communication is the bedrock of all relationships, in my opinion. Once you can communicate effectively, all the other important elements of a relationship just become second nature.

Since before Lilly could speak I have put great effort into making sure that we could effectively communicate. I began teaching her American Sign Language when she was about 7 months old and she began using it very effectively before her first birthday. Signing was crucial to easing the lack-of-language barrier between us before she began speaking and became a wonderful aid to understanding when her early speech was not otherwise decipherable.

Now at almost 33 months, we use signing only occasionally — with the exception of “I love you”, which we sign several times a day — and mostly for fun. Lilly is a little chatterbox and rarely has difficulty saying what she wants to say. The problem is that what she wants to say is filtered through a toddler brain and does not always compute with an adult mushbrain.

Then again, communication goes both ways, so she has to want to tell me things in order for me to understand. And as a former young girl, I know that telling your mom things is often just as hard as her trying to understand. So I decided I’ll be diligent. I’ll read between the lines. I’m all over this communication thing.

Still despite my best efforts, I admit I’ve missed a few things – a mispronounced request here and there, the occasional call for help camouflaged as whining. Little things. Things that are remedied within a few seconds and of no real significance. And those are so few compared to the hundreds of times a day Lilly says something that would leave outsiders scratching their heads, but I get it. I know where her head’s at.

So my mommy radar had been buzzing over the last few months as Lilly was becoming increasingly anxious at bedtime. Of course, all kids hate bedtime, but Lilly seemed more fearful than simply unwilling. So I really tried to understand what was scaring her and to help calm her fears. Afraid that I would plant fears in her mind if I asked whether x or y was scaring her, I tried to get her to explain what she was thinking about when she was getting worked up at bedtime. When that failed, I had to resort to direct questions.

“Is something scaring you?”

“The ceiling.”

Huh, ok. There are lots of shadows on the ceiling since her night light is low to the floor. And she does sleep on her back staring up at them. Makes sense. So on at least a weekly basis, I would stay in her room after all the lights were out and demonstrate how every shadow on the ceiling got there.

“This one’s from the crib rail.” [Run my hand along the rail casting a shadow.]

“This one’s from the curtain.” [Wiggle the curtain.]

“This one’s from the butterflies on your mobile.” [Spin the mobile.]

It never really seemed to help. I felt like I was missing something, but she was being pretty clear: the ceiling is scary. Not too many ways to interpret that, right?

During the day Lilly was talking more and more about shadows and seemed to understand where they came from, but it didn’t seem to provide any comfort when she was alone in her room at night. I started to wonder if I was only adding to her anxiety by talking so much about shadows. So I laid off that for a bit, but she was still upset at bedtime and complaining about the ceiling.

I tried more light in her room, less light, closing the door, leaving it open, giving her comfort items, playing music. We even considered getting her a goldfish so she would have company all night long. (Elliott ultimately vetoed that plan when I admitted I would buy identical replacement goldfish for the next 10 years.) Nothing seemed to help and her anxiety was getting worse with more intense meltdowns at bedtime each night. It was killing us to leave her crying at bedtime when we knew she was scared, but what else could we do? I can’t make the the ceiling go away!

Then after one particularly emotional bedtime, I stayed in her room a little longer determined to solve The Mystery of the Ceiling. Once again we went through each shadow. Again I started moving things to change or eliminate the shadows when Lilly pointed to her mobile and said, “Mommy, will you move that?” Of course, I agreed, gave it a slow spin and showed her for the millionth time the shadows cast by her mobile and all its shapes. But this time, Lilly pointed out the door and said, “Move it there.”

OOhhhhhhh! Move it out of the room!

Somehow this had never occurred to me in all the times she had asked me to move her mobile. I called Elliott back up to the room because, as Lilly says, “he’s good at reaching high things.” Within seconds, Elliott had taken the mobile down and left with it.

“Better?” I asked. But before she even answered I could see a wave of relief wash over her body. Her face relaxed. Her body relaxed. She smiled and just said: “Yes.”  She immediately told me she was ready for bed and, for the first time in months, she let me say good night and just walk out the door. No crying. No begging. Not a peep for the rest of the night.

How could we have missed this? She’d had that mobile since she was probably 6 months old. I have no idea how long it was terrifying her! And I couldn’t believe that in all these months it had never occurred to me to move the mobile out of the room. How dense could I be?!

That night, Elliott and I just stared at each other dumbfounded by how simple a solution we had missed. I mean there were only two things actually on the ceiling — a fan and a mobile. She knows the word for fan. We felt horrible. Our little girl had been living in fear for months and we somehow had missed the simple request to take down her mobile. So much for reading between the lines.

On the bright side, it’s been a couple weeks now that Lilly has been sleeping mobile-less and, wow, what a difference at bedtime! And the other day she pointed out a butterfly mobile in a store and asked if she could have it. So I guess she’s not completely traumatized by our failure to communicate. What a relief! Mother Nature is apparently so kind as to give us a few more years (or months?) to practice before we start making therapy-worthy mistakes. Thank God for small favors.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”  ~ George Bernard Shaw

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The Failure to Communicate by MushBrain, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Terms and conditions beyond the scope of this license may be available at

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