My 9 year old and I are snuggled tightly together in a small armchair designed for one. His bare back warms me as he unconsciously presses his body into mine. Toes, knees, legs, back, shoulders tangle around me. Only his hands are his own, and they are holding my phone. His stormy face bends towards it, and his dark eyebrows draw together in concentration: he is helping me with the New York Times crossword puzzle.
We should be outside. We’ve rented a cottage for a week with friends, and everyone else is taking advantage of a beautiful day at a quiet lake. But my boy got angry earlier, and his anger is a monster that swallows his words and hardens his body. When he is angry, he often will not speak and sometimes will not even move. He curls up, hides under a soft dark blanket and refuses to engage with the world or any of the people in it. Today, this meant that he could neither explain his anger nor participate and tidying the cottage after lunch. Tidying is not negotiable, so today he got in trouble, then he screamed, and then he cried.
He stomped off to settle himself down a little bit outside, and then he returned for the sure fix: a snuggle. “Crossword?” He pleaded, oral language still almost too much for him. We have declared this week device free, but three days ago, after another frustration, he sat with me while I worked the crossword. To everyone’s shock, he loved it. Today the only crossword in this cottage is on my phone, and I relent. We snuggle together, reading the clues and guessing. “Christmas ____” is easy, and he loves the clue “suds maker.” Slowly the grid fills.
I would never have guessed that these horizontal and vertical lines, these interlinked squares with so many possibilities and so few right answers, would calm him. His breathing slows; his face lights up when he gets an answer; his body relaxes. With each completed box he puts words in their place. Slowly his world becomes more orderly. We finish the whole puzzle in less than 30 minutes.
Now he can tell me what made him upset. It was nothing, really – a typical sibling spat, easily solved. But cross words and compromises are tough for my boy. I know this, though I can’t fix it. We agree on a non-verbal cue he can use next time to ask for extra time before we try to talk to be honest, I don’t think it will work, but it’s worth a try. And I think I’ll invest in a book of crosswords.