when words break your 5-year-old’s heart

My normally exuberant, bouncy and easily-excitable 5-year-old sat crouched on her bed when it was time for preschool. When asked why, she said, “I don’t want to go to preschool!” before bursting into tears. It baffled me for about 2 seconds before I remembered what happened the day before.

Someone told my daughter, “I hate you!”

She is five. FIVE. And what stings more than hearing this from my child is feeling the weight of it with her, in reliving my own past experiences of social wounding and exclusion. No one prepares you for this part of parenting. It is one thing to deal with my own burdens of being socially excluded and rejected – the wounds now healed into scars by God’s grace (which included counseling and writing!). It is a totally different thing when those wounds are happening to your child’s heart.

It is one thing to hope for the gospel’s power to heal and restore and bring forgiveness for yourself; it is quite another thing to hope for the same gospel’s power to heal and restore and bring forgiveness to my heart as a mother aching with my child’s pain.

The shield I usually cling to is anger, first and foremost. It’s the easiest one to grasp, and I feel most powerful with it in my hands. Close behind this would be despair and pity for my child – to a point where I give way too much weight to this incident and allow her not to be brave and courageous and kind and resilient. Holding this shield close to my heart would make me hold my daughter too close for comfort and seek to protect her from all possible hurt things ever. (An impossible, and ultimately, fruitless task!) If I’d allowed this shield to win the morning, I would have coddled my daughter and told her she never had to go back to school ever again. But where would she be? That would have given too much power to the unkind words. It would have increased the shame that would linger and the fear ready in its wake. 

Instead my faith in a God who is just and loving calls me to put down my shields of anger and despair/pity, and to courageously guide my daughter through the shards of a broken world. A world where this is only the tip of the iceberg of what she’ll encounter throughout her life. A world where she, too, will say things and do actions that are unkind to others. A world where the line between “bully” and “victim” can be hours, minutes, or days apart.

To guide her through this world on that particular morning meant embracing her firmly and feeling deeply with her and for her the pain of these rejecting words. It meant telling her my own story of being hurt by others’ words, and answering her sweet question, “how many days did it hurt?” with an answer that is a prayer. “Oh, sweetie, it hurt for awhile, but Jesus healed my heart. And the best way to fight against these hurtful words is to be brave and kind to others, and to go back to school today. Otherwise, those words win. And we can’t have that! Remember you are loved and you are brave – and we are with you.”

What happens when words break your 5-year-old’s heart? You cry and protect – and ultimately choose to entrust her heart into the hands of the same God who’s loved and protected and guided you through your own journey. He is faithful, trustworthy, and the ever-present protector who takes wounds and turns them into compassion. Markers in a story that will shape who she is becoming: neither the bully who self-protects and retaliates nor the victim who is perpetually withdrawn, but the brave and kind girl who knows she’s loved more deeply than any words of hate and courageously moves into what she fears.