The Power of the Letter

To send a letter is a good way to go somewhere without moving anything but your heart.  –Phyllis Theroux

Yesterday, after sitting in beginning circle time with my preschooler, I attempted to say goodbye to my little love and go to work. I had a training scheduled, and, as I was the trainer, I had to be there. The first time I tried to leave, my son said in his little newly articulate voice, “I’m not ready, Mama.” The second time I tried to say goodbye, he clung to me saying “I don’t want you to leave,” while starting to cry. I tried to engage him in the play dough with his new friends, remind him of his safe attachment figures right nearby that could rock him (teacher, Grandmother helper) and hand him over. He continued to cry and cling. I had to go to work, so I handed over my crying child to the Grandmother helper while seeing him wail and reach for me. This pretty much ripped out my heart, which I left there as I went to go give a training at work, all the while teacher assuring me that she would call if the crying lasted more than 10 minutes. No call was received and so I was able to compartmentalize and show up for the training. Three hours later I returned. My boy was happily playing in the yard and I received this letter in my school mailbox, which his teacher had taken dictation from him to write:


(He dictated the words and how many kisses to put at the bottom. He also put the tape on 😉 and attached the picture)

Heather Shumaker in her new book, It’s Ok Not To Share and Other Renegade Rules, writes about the power of the letter and “taking dictation from your tot:”

“Letter writing with young children is a powerful tool for harnessing intense feelings. It’s a tried and true method that captures their exact feelings and helps kids move on…Letters sum up and validate the emotional moment. The very act of dictation helps kids get out their mad-lonely-scared feelings. Letters also make feelings tangible, your child can learn to touch and hold the paper, knowing his feelings are summed up right there.”

I remember starting preschool myself. I kicked the teacher in the face. As you can imagine, this was not received well. I was angry, and, under that, hurt, scared, and afraid of my Mom leaving, but did not yet have the ability to, as all adults are encouraging of toddlers and preschoolers “use my words.” Since I was in Piaget’s Preoperational stage, I most certainly did not have the capacity to see another’s perspective (for example: Mom has to go but it is not your fault; the teacher is not thrilled about having her face kicked, so her ability to be compassionate with you at the moment is challenged, you are feeling angry right now, but you will probably feel happy in a couple of minutes).

(For a summary of Piaget’s Preoperational developmental stage, click here:

I am grateful, as a parent, that the play-based emotional-awareness preschool my son is in encourages (appropriate, non face-kicking) expression of feelings. I don’t hold the illusion that my son will not suffer and that I will not fail him as a parent in some ways. However, if I can help him learn that all feelings are ok and Mama comes back (therefore on some fundamental level the world is safe), I hope that I am providing him with a “good enough” base.

I am hoping, when he approaches adulthood, he won’t need drug, alcohol, or eating disorder treatment to learn how to identifying and tolerate feelings without medicating them. That is the work I do as a therapist. It is also the work I did in MY early recovery from an eating disorder. It is repairing that early child place that my son still inhabits- when he runs in and out of the ocean waves and yells “I happy Mama!;” when he looks at a solitary dinosaur in his book and says “He’s lonely;” when he throws his blocks on the floor and says “Stop it bocks!” (We’re still working on the “I’m angry” one). But you know, if he does need treatment later, he does. I don’t get to control his future. I get to be present now. And today, just for today, I am taking off work so I can be with him at preschool. So I can build the experience of just for today Mama doesn’t leave. Then we’re going to make a transition object for him to bring to school to remember this: All feelings are ok, you can write about them in a letter, it will be seen and validated, and when Mama leaves, she always comes back.

If your child is having separation anxiety with school, Dr Laura Markham has just written a great blog on ideas to help:

4 responses

  1. Hi Linda, Thanks for sharing! I look forward to a play date with our sons sometime. My son will be 3 in January. We all still love the beautiful butterflies, sun, moon and stars on his bedroom wall. Much love to you and your family, Wendy
    P.S. We’re off to Washington to meet our newest granddaughter – born August 16th!

    1. Thank you Wendy. Time flies (the days are long but the years are short). I am glad the painting is still being loved and Many Blessings on your new granddaughter!

  2. Sweet yet incisive, just like you…to have such a conscious mother is a tremendous blessing for him.

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