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.
Diane Hunt says
Thanks for reminding me “it’s not about me”. 🙂 I often get my feelings hurt by the things my children say or do and I can’t help but feel like I’m failing or I’m unloved. However, it does eventually blow over and a return to a healthy relationship occurs. Still, I wonder how to teach my children that those things they say or do can be cruel and hurtful. I do still have feelings and they shouldn’t say or do those things to lash out at me, but rather figure out the problem and solve it. I’m there to help, not act as the bad guy or punching bag. Advice?
By the way, love you Mandy! You’re awesome!
Diane, it’s always so good to hear from you! I think there’s a difference between a child “pushing away” to get more space, and being overtly aggressive. When I can tell a child is just trying to get space, I ask if they want the space and tell them where I’ll be when they want me. Sometimes we end up being pushed or swatted at because we’re ignoring that need for space, trying to hard to make it about us and our control. On the other hand, when they’re being overtly disrespectful or aggressive, I use short comments in the moment, (“That hurts, it’s not OK.” or “We use kind words in our home.”), and then give space. If a child is just being grumpy, we can sometimes talk about the behavior more in depth, but in the throes of a meltdown, a child just isn’t going to hear what you’re saying. I save those talks for after calm is restored or when we’re revisiting the day at bed time talks. I think you make a good point in that children do need to know that you have feelings too and it’s OK to let them know what their actions and words do to you in an age-appropriate way. (“Words like that hurt my feelings. I love you so much, and I wouldn’t want anyone to hurt your feelings like that. I don’t want you to say things that hurt someone else’s feelings either. You can show love and respect for me and other people by the way you talk to us.”) You can also have a family lesson or discussion about the way we talk and the effect it has on people, in a neutral moment, and then simply refer back to it again when the issue arises in more heated moments. ( Mariah Bruehl’s book, Playful Learning, has a great lesson on Put-ups and Put-downs, as well as great examples for teaching problem-solving.) I’m often reminded of the fact that the best teaching and the best decision-making doesn’t often happen in the middle of a crisis. The brain is too busy being run by our emotional, Sympathetic Nervous System to do any real learning. That’s why we have to explain and prepare as much as we can in those safe, neutral moments before and after, when the brain and the child are more receptive.
By the way, did you remember that the open arms advice came from you? Thanks for sharing your own experiences with me. I’ve always looked up to you….figuratively speaking, of course. ;0)
Thank you so much, Mandy. That was very helpful. So true that in the moment, our emotions are running the show. I fear we never really outgrow that, do we? 🙂 Stop and give space, express love, and be patient. When calm has been restored, a conversation can take place. I just need to keep in the forefront thet thought that this not about me. Great points! You are helping me become a better, more patient and loving parent. Keep up the great work!
Thanks for sharing that. We are in the midst of trying to learn how to deal with toddler tantrums. I like what you said about attachment being in the return. It give me lots to think about and remember that she needs to have the opportunity to deal with her emotions herself (without me always trying to interfere). 🙂 I also remember learning in a parenting class not to take offense to young children’s outbursts, they have a lot to deal with, especially when they don’t understand their own emotions sometimes!
Megan at SortaCrunchy says
I absolutely LOVE what you said about attachment here. That is such a great insight! Even though my girls are past the toddler stage, they aren’t exempt from the occasional meltdown. It’s harder now that they are older to distract them from what they are upset about, and sometimes leaving them to work through their Big Feelings is really the only thing I can do. Thank you for the reminder that this is okay!
Thank you for reassuring me that even the experts have to endure tantrums.
I have an 8 year old who still tantrums and trying to cuddle her while she’s flailing around can be hazardous to your health. I will try the sitting nearby and reassuring her next time.
This an example of an orienting response where an unexpected stimulus in the environment must be paid attention to in case it s a potential threat (based in our evolution). It is an oft used strategy when managing behavior, allowing you to stop the escalation. What your child did next was what he knew would soothe him after the overwhelming emotion.