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.