This is Tess. She is now 7 years old. Tess is a Congenital Heart Disease Warrior, having lived through two complex open heart surgeries. She had a major heart surgery on her 2nd birthday, and again at the age of 4 years, 2 months. Those surgeries each came with difficult recoveries. Tess is incredibly verbal, and around the age of 3 she began to say things that led me to believe that she was experiencing some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) related anxiety.
Yoga had provided me a great coping mechanism for anxiety when I was working through my own medical trauma. I was hoping it would do the same for Tess. Tess began her own yoga practice shortly before her 3rd birthday. She fell in love. In fact, her 4th birthday was spent in the Yoga Studio, celebrating with all her fellow yogis.
She loved it so much that she was able to tell us that her only wish for her birthday was to share some yoga with Bowen and Cate. Daddy came along too.
Yoga introduced her to mindfulness. So did her local school district. During the year that Tess attended 4-year-old Kindergarten (4K), the Kindness Curriculum was used. This curriculum uses mindfulness practices to help preschool/young elementary aged kiddos learn to emotionally self-regulate. The curriculum is available to you here.
The ideas that I saw Tess coming home with dovetailed beautifully with some of the ideas that I had learned in nursing school to help my tiniest patients work through painful procedures. In nursing school, I had been offered the opportunity to attend a 12 hour training session to learn how to lead children in Guided Imagery. I embraced it and immediately saw its benefits. Anytime I placed an IV or an NG tube, I would ask a few questions about where the child wanted to go and we would let their imagination guide them there. This distraction was key in helping their body relax and rid itself of some of the anxiety that came with these procedures. This did not replace medication to help with anxiety, it was merely another tool in the toolbox.
I had already begun using Guided Imagery with Tess. When she was anxious, we would ride unicorns through the clouds. We would take a trip to the Magic Kingdom in Disney World, on a day when NO one else was allowed to attend. Her and I, alone, skipping down Main Street. This was so helpful for Tess.
Tess was given a small, smooth, pink, heart-shaped crystal by a wife of a beloved teacher who practices Reiki. That crystal was in Tess’s hand the entire time she lay in the Cardiac Intensive care Unit (CICU) recovering from her second open heart surgery and subsequent cardiac arrest. It is always in her hand as she relaxes to fall asleep at night. It is part of her practice.
Tess has a 5-year-old sister, Cate, who is built entirely differently than she is. Tess is a serious, empathetic, intentional, thinker. Cate is a silly, wild, fun-loving, energetic, fast-mover. Tess compares herself to Beezus and Cate to Ramona, the beloved characters of Beverly Cleary’s ‘Ramona Quimby’ series. That is a very accurate literary parallel.
Tess, Cate, and now their 6-year-old sister, Gigi, all share a bedroom. While Tess craves quiet and relaxation as she falls asleep, Cate has sensory needs that make it so she needs something aside from that to help her go to sleep. That ‘something else’ became constant chattering, jumping on her bed, swinging from the bottom of Tess’s lofted bed. Cate could not settle. Gigi is Deaf. She simply removes her Cochlear Implant processor, rolls over, and ignores Cate. Tess can’t. Cate stresses Tess out.
Cate attends a preschool I own, where emotional self-regulation through mindfulness is a huge part of the curriculum. Before rest time, the teacher in the room leads the children through a story that focuses on Guided Imagery/Meditation. She is teaching them to find their own ability to practice mindfulness. Cate told Tess that during these moments, she pictures a giant, purple dog in her head. She rides that dog all around, not in a relaxed fashion, but in a wild way, she and her purple dog jumped over furniture, cavort through the grass. They have the kind of adventure that Cate needs.
Tess seized on this. She now talks Cate through her purple dog adventure. I hear her doing this for Cate, helping her to relax as she and her dog visit our local park, running all around the playground, sliding down the slide together, becoming exhausted, and then slowly laying down in the grass.
Cate breathes in the grass, and she falls asleep.
I asked Tess about this, about how she learned it, about how she became so wonderfully effective at leading other kids through it. This was her answer to me. “I don’t know, everyone just did it with me. My yoga instructor did it on my mat when she wrapped me up and rubbed my feet. My 4K teacher did it when we had our belly buddies and we lay in a circle, watching them go up and down as we took belly breaths. You did it in the Echo (Echocardiogram) Room, when they had to take pictures, but I was scared about my heart.”
She’s right. Everyone in her life has taught her that this is a great way to cope with anxiety. I am so proud that she is now able to help others cope.
A note: I wouldn’t hesitate to have Tess seen by a mental health provider, and to have her use medication if that becomes necessary. And, it may. I am a huge advocate for using ALL the tools in your tool box to help your child feel better. Mindfulness is a tool. So is medication. Please don’t mistake my words here for either/or. This is not. It can be both/and.
–FullPlateMom, who is going to do a tutorial on turning a Beanie Baby into a ‘Belly Buddy.’ But, it will be the stuff of Pinterest, so, consider yourself warned.