The Power of Negative Suggestion


Our household has the flu because our son never forgets a prohibited act.

Two weeks ago, we discussed his impending annual physical. Since his pediatrician’s waiting room is divided into “sick” and “well” areas, he became preoccupied with the specifics of each designation.

He quizzed me about the admittance criteria for each half of the office.

T: “Mama, if you have diarrhea, what side of the office do you go to?”

M: “The sick side.”

T: “What if you have only a little bit of diarrhea?”

M: “Then you don’t go to the doctor.”

T: “What percent diarrhea do you have to have to go to the doctor?”

M: “Uhh, 60%.”

T: “How much diarrhea is 60%? Do you measure by time on the potty or cupfuls?”

And so on.

Levels and percentages help Liev process his anxiety over doctor visits.  A grid, a map of steps and predictions make the experience palatable.  I answered question after question as he scribbled data and drew boxes.

Nevertheless, after thirty minutes of diarrhea, influenza, and strep throat percentages, I interrupted:

“Look, Liev, going to the doctor’s office is safe. The children on the well side are safe; the children on the sick side are safe. Unless you lick the stair railings, doorknobs and light switches, you won’t get sick. It will be okay.”

This silenced him. His marker hung in midair as he collected his thoughts. “Okay, Mama. Let’s do GUM (gross motor)!”

Liev’s physical was the first appointment of the day. We arrived ten minutes early and since the office was not open yet, we loitered near the stairwell. Liev jabbered about his schedule breathlessly, trouncing up and down the stairs. A moment of silence descended upon us. My gaze drifted lovingly to him, admiring his composure as he waited.

Suddenly, as if gripped by a paroxysm, he mashed his nose to the stair railing and gave it a long, slurpy lick. I gasped. Without looking at me, he took three sideways hops and repeated the action on the other rail.

Flabbergasted, I scrambled for the proper reaction.

I know my son. He remembered last week’s conversation and could not help himself.

Lectures and anger do not work—in fact, they will guarantee that he will need a muzzle for future doctor’s office visits. Anxiety and negative reinforcement escalate compulsions. I ignored the behavior and asked him to calculate his “wellness level percentage.” Invigorated, he quoted wellness levels for several minutes.

At 8:20, a nurse let us in the lobby. Liev’s eyes darted to the nearest light switch. Envisioning the nurse’s horror over an attack of switch slurping, I touched his shoulder. It broke the compulsive spell. He hopped to the sign in sheet and fondled the poinsettia topped pens instead.

The preposterousness of Liev’s’ behavior shocks and scandalizes, yet it possesses a certain purity. Negative thoughts preoccupy many of us.  Some brains are wired more anxiously, more obsessively, more prone to giddy loops of negative “what-ifs.”  No parent stuffed me full of anxiety; I popped out of the womb with an enduring cry of fretfulness.

Persistent negative thoughts entice me into spells of self-absorption. Ironically, I fight fire with fire, redirecting my hyper-focus to things I love–art, writing, organizing.   The same applies to my son.

We share the dizzy downhill ride of bad thoughts without brakes. Liev shows me that I have built-in brakes I never considered and brakes I have learned to apply over the years.

Be grateful for the privilege of control. Point those who struggle in other, happier directions so they can twist the worry back on itself. Even a gentle touch can alter one’s course.

14 thoughts on “The Power of Negative Suggestion

  1. Bravo! I used to say Teddy didn’t come with a pause button, so it was my job to install an after-market one. It worked. A single, simple pause, through a touch on the shoulder or a redirection has magical powers on our children! 🙂

    p.s. I know your horror about the licking of the stair rail. One day in Target Meg was eating a bag of M&M’s. She dropped one and picked it up and ate it. She was, oh, 12, and I was like, “Meg, I can’t believe you just did that! Good grief girl, I’ll buy you another bag before you eat another M&M off of Target’s floor!!!”

    Ah children, you just gotta roll with the punches!

    1. Thank you so much! My spoons are about used up for today, but that bit of encouragement sent me immediately to the comment zone to thank you for your good humor and support.

  2. Oopsie, I see that posted twice. Please disregard the second, but this does give me a chance to say, love the artwork as always. As It was downloading in my reader I was saying to myself, “Oh, I love that graphic!” Then I saw it was you and thought, “Of course it’s Lori!” 🙂

  3. Lori – I just love your blog. I had to (compulsively) say that. I just love it. I love the way you write, I love the way you think, I love your art work, I love this blog. And your depiction of Ty is drawn so beautifully and with such humor and grace it’s impossible not to adore the two of you. Here’s to a speedy recovery. Sending love and admiration from afar….

    1. Ariane,

      Thank you so much for your continued encouragement and kind words. As usual it takes me time to compose myself. Such sweetness makes me giddy for days. I adore that you adore us and our little world.

      It’s jolly to wake up in the morning and think of people who like you, even though you’ve never met.


  4. Oh Lori,
    So, so beautiful.
    When I read the bit about not licking the stair rails… I thought ‘well now he has to lick the stair rails’
    Isaac would for sure.
    I love that you find it in yourself to react with such grace and humility.
    I always think of my little one as being a scientist, if I make a hypothesis he wants to test all of it’s limits, but once he understands them, he doesn’t need to test them anymore.

    1. My little brains feel rather frazzled, but I want to express how insightful it is of you to see your son as a little scientist. All of the questions and behaviors do seem like data-gathering for some vast inexplicable experiment–life.

      My son is a labeler. One he can tape a word or designation on something it dissovlves anxiety. The rooms on our house are labeled and he refers to them as such. Quaint, curious, adorable.

      Thank you for visiting!

  5. Another great post! I do not know how you do it, but you managed to make even anxiety into a positive. Love it!!

    You do have such a calming quality that I wish I was able to find for myself to help redirect in better ways. I just adore the way you fill my mind with these comedic visuals that make me smile. Daniel and I have anxiety parties, I believe. 🙂

    I am working on it, I have been trying to redirect my anxieties into poetry and writing. It has given me better redirecting skills with Daniel.

    Your post gives me hope! Thank you for sharing!

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