My boy is sick today. He has lost his appetite and is battling a raging fever. Whenever one of my children is unwell, I can’t help but think of Kim John Payne’s book, Simplicity Parenting: Using the Extraordinary Power of Less to Raise Calmer, Happier, and More Secure Kids, and his comparison of a physical fever to a ‘soul fever’.
Payne coined the term soul fever or emotional fever to describe the state of a child who is completely overwhelmed, at odds with the world and, most importantly, at odds with his ‘true self’.
So what do we do when children are soul-fevered? According to Payne, we need to recognize when their systems are out of sync and take the following five steps to help them strengthen their ‘emotional immune systems’ or their resiliency.
The first step then, toward taking care of our child’s soul fever, just as with a physical fever, is noticing it. And there will be times when just that – our noticing – will be enough for a child to feel bolstered, supported, understood. - Kim John Payne
When my son woke up this morning, I could see right away that he wasn’t well. He wasn’t interested in eating, he was hot to the touch and his eyes were vacant and dull. He didn’t have the energy to play and chose instead to rest quietly on the couch. A parent knows when her child is unwell…the signs of physical fever are unmistakable.
With soul fever we generally need to see a few symptoms to be able to identify it. It is more than a bad mood or a tantrum; it extends beyond that and it lasts longer. And it looks different for every child; some children will become quiet and withdrawn, while others will lash out with anger and blame. The developmental age of the child will also affect the way soul fever presents. For instance, the younger the child, the more obvious they will make their feelings of overwhelm known.
Our parental instincts should and can tell us when our child is experiencing a soul fever, but sometimes when we are overwhelmed ourselves, we forget what we already know. Interestingly, we can reawaken our ability to recognize soul fever in our children by doing exactly what relieves a soul fever in the first place -- simplifying.
By simplifying we take clear, consistent steps to provide our child what they need -- time, ease, and compassion – to process what is bothering them. – Kim John Payne
When I realized that my son was unwell, my husband and I did what many parents need to do; we began figuring out who would stay home from work with him. We called the school to let them know he wouldn’t be there, and we made a comfy place for him on the couch, where he was still present with the family, but not having to engage in the normal flow of activities.
Coincidently, this is precisely what we need to do when our children are running a soul fever. We need to provide a break in the normal routine, a quiet time to rest and reset their emotional clock. By simplifying their daily rhythm and schedule, we offer them space to work through what is difficult. We are also modeling an invaluable life skill: recognizing when we need to slow things down to care of ourselves.
3. Bring Them Close
My boy stayed in his pajamas all day. We read lots of books, and we played a little but mostly he just slept. The housework got put on the backburner – dishes piled up and the laundry didn’t get finished. It was a gorgeous day outside so I put the picnic blanket down in the backyard and we laid there together until he fell back to sleep. He didn’t need much from me; he just needed to be close. And instinctually, that’s what parents most often do when our children are fevered – we bring them close. We know that comforting is an essential part of getting better.
However, when children are at their less-than-best-emotional-selves, we often do just the opposite. Rather than draw them near, popular parenting strategies encourage us to use punishment and time-outs to stop unwanted behaviour, inadvertently pushing our children away and threatening our relationship. Payne urges us to look beyond the behaviour, drawing our soul-fevered children close and slowing things down, just as we would if they were physically fevered.
4. Let It Run Its Course
Aside from simplifying the rhythm and routine of his day, and making him more comfortable, I couldn’t do much to make my boy feel better. Just as I was unable stop my son’s virus from making him unwell, we can’t control or ‘fix’ a soul fever. Like a virus, it needs to run its course. We simplify not to bypass the child’s upset but rather to offer them support as they move through it.
Nobody gets to skip the soul fevers and growing pains of life. In order to learn who they are, and what feels right to them, a child must grapple with these emotional upsets. It’s all part of self-regulation. – Kim John Payne
5. Monitor the Slow, Strong Return
As the evening grew to a close, my son was slowly beginning to seem more like his happy, curious, energetic self. His appetite improved and so we introduced some sliced bananas, wanting something easy on his tummy. His fever reduced and his energy began to improve as we eased into bedtime routines. Ahhh, the signs of recovery!
This idea of easing back into regular life also holds true when our children are recovering from soul fever. We watch closely as they begin to return to their normal rhythms and routines. We may also notice a change in our children after passing through a soul fever. Maybe they seem a little bit stronger, a little more optimistic knowing that things do get better. After all, this is where resiliency is built.
We don’t ‘make our kids better’ when they are sick, yet our care and connection allows them the rest, space and security to recover. When our children are overwhelmed and emotionally fevered, we can offer them the same care and support. As Payne so eloquently puts it, “Above all, you notice. And simplify. You draw them near, while affording them the time and space to work through their own issues.”
Imagine how different the world would be if we responded to our struggling, soul-fevered children in this way; the way we do when they are physically fevered, with care and compassion rather than anger and impatience.
This article is an expanded version of an Instagram post I wrote a few weeks back. I received so many messages about it that I decided to make it a full-length piece for the blog. I hope you find value in it.