Bracing for Frustration

Two kids. Two sets of palate expanders at the orthodontist today.

Two very different responses.

I know that orthodontists appointments can be uncomfortable, all that poking and prodding, ouch! Plus, it’s not too easy on me either. Watching my babies in discomfort and also footing the bill. The cost of braces isn’t exactly cheap but I’d pay anything for great oral hygiene and structure and to see my babies smile.

Boo went first. I knew he was apprehensive about it but he seemed relaxed and not-stressed as we walked into the orthodontist’s office. At the end of the visit, he opened his mouth wide to show me the green and orange appliance on the roof of his mouth, wires wrapped around teeth, and back to school, we went. He was quiet in the car, and I assured him that he would be fine. To be patient with himself. That these expanders weren’t uncommon for fourth graders, and many of his friends had them and spoke fine once they adapted to them. Did I mention patience? There isn’t much of that in this house, to begin with.

At school, I swapped kids and returned with child #2. Where Boo was hesitant, Miss M was rather excited about getting her palate expander. Forget the complications that she knew she would encounter in adjusting to it – excess saliva, affected speech, difficulty eating – she just wanted to get it because it was pinky-purple. With multicolored sparkles. Of course. (Everything is better with glitter!)

She listened intently to the directions given to her by the dental assistant, particularly to leaving the appliance IN her mouth all the time (“you can’t lose it if it is in your head”) and reading aloud after school to practice speaking, in fact, to speak as much as she can. (Not that it should be a problem – I don’t think she stopped talking for her entire appointment, as it were.)

As I drove away from the school after dropping her off, I sadly predicted that despite putting up a good front, Boo would be frustrated and in tears at day’s end, and Miss M would be her normal chatterbox self.

Disappointingly, I was right.

Miss M talked, and talked, and talked…and as she did, we discussed the words and sounds she was having difficulty with, and she would repeat them – always more clearly the second time around, speaking carefully and with intent. Her eyes gleamed with pride. Her day had been good, only one boy teased her speech (and she sorted him out, telling her best guy pal to let that other boy know that he shouldn’t make fun of her. The comments stopped.) She conceded that she was a bit drooly, but the dentist said it would be better tomorrow – so it would be better. Done and dusted. She read aloud for an hour, and as she spoke I heard her pronunciation improve by leaps and bounds.

But Boo. He confessed, angrily, guiltily, that he took out the appliance to eat his lunch – he just can’t chew. When he bites, the appliance shifts. Wiping away a tear, I inspected his bite, and he concern was spot on – none of his teeth touched when he bit down, and one does need some kind of bite in order to eat. I put in a call to the ortho to have it looked at tomorrow, and tried to calm him down. “I couldn’t even eat a chip, Mom. I choked on it, and the spit in my mouth”.

Once he started talking, it all came pouring out. “They made fun of me, Mom. They said I sounded like an idiot. I can’t eat. I sound stupid. And no, I don’t need to read aloud.”

Nothing stirs up Mama Bear more than mean kids and the word “idiot” (other than the word “stupid”).

My head spun with questions and frustration. Why must children be so mean? Where is the acceptance? Why must my lovely, kind, sensitive, practical boy take such words to heart? What happened to my light-hearted toddler and where did this less-than-optimistic attitude come from?

While they both got ready for bed, I sat at the kitchen island, frustrated. How do you teach a child optimism? How do you teach someone to value himself? Can you teach perseverance? I’m thin-skinned myself, regrettably, and so I have no idea where to start teaching him how to be thicker-skinned. Can it even be taught, or do we need to come by it on our own? I don’t have the answers, and this was one of those situations where parenting sucks.

Later I sat with him on his bed, in the dark, which I find more conducive to conversation. We talked about expectations – if he expected that it would get better, and made an effort to speak more (by reading aloud, or even singing) – his speech would get better, and how if you expect it not to work, well, it won’t – because which person is making an effort, and which is going through the motions?

We talked about the things the kids were saying to him, about him. Obviously, he is not stupid (look at your test scores and grades!). He is not a dork. (Much.) He is funny and kind. He is a natural leader. The kids that made fun of him – are they boys he would even want as friends? As in – do their opinions really matter? (A silly question, in the end. As much as we know in our hearts not to believe what people say, even as adults, we know unkind words wound.) The trick is to be strong enough in your sense of self to shake off the nonsense – but just how do you build that? I wish I could be the Cyrano to his Christian, whispering just the right retorts to put those mean boys in their places…but I cannot.

As I encouraged him to talk, other frustrations seeped out. In the transition from a small school to the big one, he doesn’t feel like he has as many close friends as he did before. One of his teachers STILL can’t remember his name, and despite being in his class daily, for months. He discovered that the dentist took Miss M’s picture for the “new smile” wall, but overlooked him. To add a final insult to injury, the darn expander wasn’t even in the colors he picked out. All small things, one at a time, but added together they left him feeling insignificant. The past year has been such a struggle on every front, and getting the palate expander, well, it just added a few more hills to climb.

Oh, my heart.

As we talked, he sank further into his bed, and eventually he calmed. He said it could be worse – they could have pulled a bunch of teeth (like they did with me.) I pulled out a photo from when I first got braces (and the dreaded headgear) in fourth grade – and glasses – and he marveled at how awkward THOSE were. Times have changed since then though and you can now get braces that actually fit into your mouth, like the ones that my children are having. Yeah, my children just laughed at how silly I looked with the braces that I had.

He turned out his bedside light and picked up the issue of Sports Illustrated Kids that he had been reading when I walked in and began out words that had sounded funny when he spoke them aloud. Laughing, as he repeated them oddly, but eventually more clearly. Encouraging him to keep going, joining in, I gave him trickier words to say, and we laughed together at the oddly sounding “r’s” and “f’s” and “g’s” – hoping that being able to laugh at himself would be the first step in defusing the harsh remarks he had heard.

Hoping that his frustration would lessen, and his confidence would return. And he would soar.

Oh, my heart.



  1. tara pittman says

    Thanks for the insight. My 7 year old has been told he needs a expander as his mouth is not big enough for his teeth to grow into. Sounds like you a doing a great job helping your kids through this tough time.

    • Thanks, Tara. You know, we had some pretty big hesitations when the first orthodontist we visited presented it but are more comfortable with it now that they have removable appliances as suggested by the orthodontist we saw for a second opinion. (The ones that are cemented in look medieval!)

      I’m also trying to make the issue with speech fun – last night, we tried a bunch of tongue twisters and ended up with the giggles. (No one speaks properly with tongue twisters.) Parenting is a never-ending learning process, isn’t it?

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