I open my eyes from a deep, long Sunday afternoon nap and watch my little girl sleeping peacefully on the couch across from me.  An oversized beach towel covers the couch cushions and the  blue bucket sits on another  towel beside the couch, just in case.   My girl, teddy bear perched next to her blonde head, is fighting her second-round of a stomach bug in the past week.  Along with encouraging lots of rest, we have been plying her with crackers and Gatorade, and, when she is up to it, providing some quiet entertainment in between bouts of sickness and sleep.  One particular day this week, I sat beside my girl on the blue towel and guided her little fingers as she sewed her first stitches.  A bookmark bearing bits of ribbons and buttons.

When our children are physically sick, we seem to intuitively know how to comfort our little ones amidst the chills and aches.  We clear our schedules, gently tuck them  into bed or settle them onto the couch, and speak in loving, calm voices to let them know that everything will be okay.  At that moment, our children receive our full-attention.  We slow-down.  But, how do we treat a case of soul fever?  That sickness that comes in the form of stressed-out, weary spirits? Instead of bodily aches and pains, we begin to notice other symptoms.  Frequent outbursts, irritability, excessive anxiety and clinginess.

We know how to treat a physical illness, but how do we rehabilitate the soul of a child?  I asked this question when my little girl, between the ages of 3 and 4, began to exhibit extreme anxiety and controlling behaviors  at a time when most of her peers were growing in confidence and independence.  Childhood is supposed to be happy, for the most part, at least.  Why was my girl so nervous and irritable?  Perhaps I was a bit overly concerned, knowing that her brother was diagnosed with autism just a little shy of turning three;  however, that mommy instinct continued to gnaw away at my insides until  I decided to seek professional advice.

After spending nearly a year and a half or so working with two different counselors and an occupational therapist, I am convinced that my girl experienced a serious case of soul fever, a term described by family consultant Kim Payne, M.ED, as being overwhelmed and at odds with the world and their truest selves.  In my little one’s case, genetics were definitely not on her side, as anxiety is prevalent in our family; however, beyond the anxiety itself, I look back and wonder if the chronic stress of autism on our family during her first years of life accrued to the point where what might have been an anxious tendency turned into a full-blown disorder.

Almost two years later, I am relieved to say, that through a combination of learned coping skills and the use of medication, my little girl is now able to be her truest self, vibrant, active, and yes, still a bit sassy.  At the same time, I feel strongly that learning to simplify our family environment has been a crucial step towards allowing both our girl and boy to fully experience childhood in all its glory – exploring nature, creating art, reading books and figuring-out what to play and how to play with others.  If we want them to become their truest selves, then we need to allow time for these types of play to occur.

My little ones are both in elementary school now. The intense schedules of driving long distances back and forth to special schools and therapies across town are behind us and we have intentionally chosen to leave the spaces around the school days open.  Aside from children’s choir on Wednesday evenings and church on the weekends, there are no dance or karate practices, no baseball or soccer leagues, just time to decompress.  Time to play and be a kid.  Without the constant shuttling and  meeting of schedules, we are all better able to breathe  and relax in each others’ presence.

Now, there may come a time when we decide to carefully add a few more extra-curricular activities back into our family life, but for now, simplicity works for us.  The soul fevers come and go, but with much less frequency and intensity.  And, now, when a case of soul fever does surface, I know how to treat it.  I slow-down, connect with my children, and create space for their truest selves to breathe.

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