I could sense something was off but couldn’t quite put words to it yet. Day after day, positive reports about her school day, yet something was simmering. When it would erupt, it predictably was directed toward me or her sibling. A week later, the pot was boiling over – full tilt emotional jags lasting an hour or more.
I hadn’t read Kim John Payne’s Simplicity Parenting since she was a baby. Revisiting it nearly nine years later, I found myself nodding along. His chapter on “Soul Fever” was describing our chapter and how to meet each other during this volatile inner (and outer) time.
He describes symptoms of Soul Fever as feeling and acting “off,” more agitated than just a tough day. You might see signs of anxiety, rumination, prickliness and it has reached a point where it is affecting their behavior. “Inner turmoil extends beyond a bad mood or brief snit. It also lasts longer. A child with soul fever stays “out of sorts.” ... An introverted child may withdraw physically and emotionally, but perhaps still “snipe” or take “pot shots,” at others to announce their discomfort. An extroverted child usually manifests their unease more directly, with anger to blaming.”
He goes on saying, “they’re upset, overwhelmed, at odds with the world. And most of all, at odds with their true selves.” (pg 38) Soul fever may be a product of internal or external stressors, such as stress from an authority figure, belonging among friends, or academic expectations to name a few.
When family life is rhythmic, spacious, predictable, slow and balanced, sensing your struggling child will come more easily. When family life is overwhelmed, stressed out, flooded by media, too many activities and commitments and choices... it can be more challenging to pay attention to one another and to intuitively respond and tend to your child’s behavior and underlying needs.
With a physical fever, I wouldn’t send my child to school or soccer practice or attend a birthday party. I would cancel outward facing activities for her and me. I’d stay home, close by, watching in case things take a turn. I’d comfort her and keep things quiet. I’d expect the fever to run its course and make myself available to listen, support, and comfort her.
Kim John Payne asks us to imagine responding to soul fever the same way we would treat a physical fever. Imagine seeing your child out of sorts and sensing that this feels more intense than usual. Imagine cancelling your work commitments, even just for an afternoon, to prioritize spending time together - not watching movies or running errands or going to a play space together - just quieting down and reconnecting. Watching, listening, comforting, just being.
Simplify. Cancel activities, create space to observe and reconnect. Accept that this emotional growing pain is natural and trust that it will run its course in due time and that your child will be stronger from weathering it, as will your relationship.
Some ideas that may help as you endure the emotional tsunami…
Create space for 1:1 connection. A bedtime chat after lights are out is a quiet, open space to connect.
Talk less. Listen for the sake of understanding and connecting, rather than to fix or alleviate pain.
Don’t take grievances personally. They may be directed at you but keep the focus on the trust they are exhibiting by sharing with you. Resist any impulse to defend or explain your actions (if being blamed) or to blame them for not telling you sooner.
Trust that they will reveal what they need. If they say you don’t understand, focus your attention on understanding them now. If they say you don’t they don’t belong at school, focus your attention on creating belonging in this conversation, and later in your family activities.
Remember this is temporary. Even though it is difficult for you both, it will strengthen your child and your relationship by getting through the turmoil with compassion and calm presence.
Connect with specially selected others (a wise teacher, friend, relative, therapist, or coach) who have been down this road to affirm that this is a typical and healthy part of growing up, to hear their wisdom and stories and to receive empathy for how intense it can sometimes be.
Want more? Find KJP’s books here and check out his podcast for more ways to simplify your family and life.