Last night, my daughter Katy was upset. Really, really upset. A while back, I would have said she’d had a huge “temper-tantrum” or “meltdown”. You know what that looks like, right? Katy was throwing and kicking things, lashing out physically at anybody who tried to get near her, screaming and crying. And this went on for more than an hour.
Let me give you a little background before I continue the story…
In the past, when my kids had moments like these, I was extremely anxious. My three oldest kids are all highly spirited, intensely emotional children. It’s part of what makes them amazing people. But it also means that their reactions to intense emotions are pretty intense as well. Coming from a special education background, I used to really worry. Was something terribly wrong; permanently, intrinsically wrong with my child? Would I be bailing her out of a jail cell, or visiting her in a padded room someday? My future-based fears caused me to shift my focus away from my children in that moment.
Along with fear, I felt extremely distressed. With toys whipping past my head and screams seeming to actually puncture my eardrums, I felt under siege. All that emotion releasing itself was alarming to experience. Largely for my own sake, I wanted it to STOP! Not to mention the images I had from certain t.v. shows and parenting experts which made it clear that children should never be allowed to indulge in a tantrum. That is “unacceptable”. And if I, as a parent, couldn’t or wouldn’t put a stop to it, well then, I must not be doing my job.
But I’m learning to see things from another perspective. I’ve learned that children are entitled to feel the entire range of their emotions without us labeling them as good, bad or unacceptable. Without us even labeling them as “tantrums” or “meltdowns”. (Really, that’s just the golden rule: when I’m upset, I certainly don’t want my husband to tell me to stop having a temper tantrum. Neither do kids.)
Most importantly, I learned that when I stop focusing on the behaviors, or my worry about what the behaviors might mean in the future, then I am available to be present with my child in that moment.
Back to the last night:
So Katy was very upset. We couldn’t figure out why, and she wasn’t telling us. My husband and I were trying to stay calmly centered as we supported Katy through the emotions that were overwhelming her. Here’s where it gets interesting. You know how on t.v., when people have a choice to make two opposing little figures appear, one on each side of their heads, and give voice to the different sides? Well, as I sat there, suddenly this little voice popped into my head (if you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ll know that this is a pretty common occurrence!)
It was a crisp, no-nonsense voice, with a hint of a British accent. And it was appalled at what was going on. In a shocked stage whisper, it said, “She’s out of control. You can’t let her get away with that. You’re her mum. It’s up to you to stop that behavior.”
As a plastic block went whizzing past, I considered. Yes, it was unpleasant. I didn’t want dents in our walls, or bruises on myself. What to do?
“Tell her she can stop it now, or go to the naughty spot. And if that doesn’t work, take away privileges. She really enjoyed cooking camp this morning. Start with that one,” the Brit commanded. She certainly sounded like she knew what she was talking about. And yet…
Just then, another voice chimed in. This one sounded calm and confident. It reminded me that there was much more to what was going on than just the behavior. That big emotions were at play, and that Katy was handling them in the only way she could at the moment. That trashing our house wasn’t okay, but neither was focusing solely on stopping it.
“Katy, you can’t hit us with the blocks, and you can’t hurt our house either,” I ventured. Amazingly, she toned it down. She was still plenty upset. But blocks were now tossed or punted in a restrained way. As she continued crying and tossing, the British voice spoke up.
“Are you really just going to sit there and watch her? You’re giving her attention, which is exactly what she wants. You’ve got to make it clear that you won’t give her attention when she misbehaves. Leave the room, and tell her that when she’s ready to talk calmly you’ll come back.”
Now, a few minutes earlier – just before the Brit showed up – Ted had left the room to check on the baby. Although I was still there, Katy became near hysterical. Once he returned, she was better. Still extremely upset, but more controlled. It was just the ammo the other voice needed. “That’s absolutely right,” it countered, “she wants attention right now, from both of her parents. So why on earth withdraw that from her? Katy’s doing the best she can. If she were able to be calmer right now, she would.”
Good point, I thought. When I’m over the edge about something, I want my husband to pay attention, whether I’m whipping my shoes across the room or not. If he ever told me he’d come back when I was calmer, I’d probably pop him one.
The Brit tried another tack. “Maybe this isn’t misbehavior after all. Maybe you’re dealing with an emotionally disturbed child here. Once this is over, you’d better ask your pediatrician for the number of a child psychiatrist. You’ve got to get this kind of thing diagnosed and treated as early as possible.”
Just as I expected, the other voice piped up, calm and confident as ever. “She is not emotionally disturbed. She is upset. Sit with her. Be present. She needs you right now, not a psychiatric diagnosis.” So we sat.
A few minutes later, so did Katy. I thought about her day, and hazarded a few guesses. When I mentioned a misunderstanding she’d had earlier with an elderly neighbor whom Katy adores, it was clear I’d nailed it. She launched herself into Ted’s arms and sobbed out the whole story and her interpretation of its outcome: that this neighbor didn’t like her anymore. What pain that had caused her! What anguish! She curled in Ted’s arms, her cries sounding like a wounded little animal. Ted rocked her as we empathized with and consoled her.
And just like that it was over. The storm of her emotions had passed. She had named her pain, experienced it, and moved through it to a place of calm. Ted carried her to her bed, where she fell asleep instantly. As I waited for his return, I thought about the incredible opportunity this had been. What a privilege for us, to be an “eye of calm” in her hurricane of painful emotion. What a gift for her, to have the two most essential people in her world come alongside her during that storm. What a bond for the three of us, to have experienced that together.
I imagined what we would have missed if the Brit had had her way. Sure, the blocks would have stayed on the floor, and the screaming would have been silenced. But the cost would have been high. We would have taught our little girl that her actions are more important to us than her feelings. That our attention, maybe even our love, is conditional. That she’s got to behave if she wants it.
I blessed that other voice for its wisdom. For showing us a different way. Then I politely informed the Brit that her services were no longer needed, and went to kiss my sleeping girl goodnight.