As I’ve mentioned many times before, just because I teach and write about guiding behavior, doesn’t mean we don’t have our fair share of emotional upheavals in our own home. My boys cry, fight, and throw fits. In a word, they’re “normal”.
This past weekend, my two and a half year old was being exceptionally “normal” in fact. He had become very upset about something (I think it had something to do with a sucker and a lack of sleep), and was simply falling apart over it. I’m not referring to the daily toddler tiff, this was a Grade A, top-of-the-line meltdown.
I tried to comfort him, talk to him, hold him, but every attempt seemed to simply escalate the situation. So, I scooped him up, moved him to a safer place for flailing and then stood back. I told him I was right there as soon as he wanted me and then I found a spot a few feet away and appeared to busy myself with something else.
Though it was less intense than when I was interfering, the tempest continued. Then a funny thing happened. A firetruck wailed past our open windows, startling my toddler. Suddenly, the same child who, moments ago, was shouting and pushing me away, came walking towards me. I opened my arms, and he snuggled right in.
He stayed put for quite a while (plausibly catching his breath after all that exertion) giving me some time to think through what had happened and consider a few lessons.
1. It’s Not About You. When teaching parents about child behavior, I often point out that while we tend to have a deep, emotional response to our child’s behavior, it’s really not about us. So don’t take it personally. While my toddler shouted and screamed and pushed me away, it would be easy to get offended or worry that I was a “bad mom” who couldn’t comfort her own child. But it wasn’t about me. It was about my son, his powerful emotions, and his need to get it out and reset. Keeping that perspective, “It’s not about me”, made it easier to focus on his emotional needs rather than being distracted by my own.
2. Attachment is in the return. When you look at the standard studies on attachment, the secure parent-child bond is one where the child feels safe leaving the parental base to explore and then return. It helps sometimes in the midst of a meltdown, to remember that children need that chance to go out on their own, to try to deal with and express emotions without our interference before they’re ready to return to the safety of our arms. Pushing us away doesn’t always show a lack of connection. Confidently separating and returning is one of the most healthy connections we create with our children.
3. Be there with open arms. A friend of mine once shared that often, when she didn’t know what else to do, she would simply open her arms to her children and they would almost always come running. I’ve tried that myself and learned a lot. Physical comfort is powerful and essential, but sometimes kids need the invitation. And sometimes we have to wait and be there when they’re ready, not just when we find it convenient. Presence isn’t something that always fits neatly into a daily schedule.
So while I’d gladly sign up for parenthood utopia, free from all meltdowns, it’s good to know that challenging experiences are something grown-ups and kids can both learn from.
What lessons have you learned in the trenches?
Top photo by Christianne Cox of Three Seas Photography.