Thursday, May 13, 2010

Handling Emotions

In my last post I said:
"However, I was still not being very open to allowing her to express those emotions, sending her to her room or getting angry about "temper tantrums." (That is another whole post in itself!)"
So here's that post!

I remember one time very vividly, when E was right around 2 years old, that she was screaming and crying over something. I don't remember what started it, but I was convinced that allowing that kind of temper tantrum would turn her into a complete brat for the rest of her life. It was completely unacceptable to me for her to scream when she was angry or really for her to be angry at all. I would say "she can do it, but not around me. If she wants to scream, she can go in her room." I played that parenting card called "consistency" and every time she would scream about something I would put her in her room and tell her she could come out when she was done. Well, this time that I remember so well, she was far from being "done." In fact, she just kept getting more and more upset and the screaming turned to hysterical crying. She kept trying to come out of her room and I kept putting her back in. Finally at some point I realized that she was not going to be able to stop on her own. It was no longer about whatever had made her angry in the first place. Now she was so hysterical that she couldn't stop even though she wanted to.

I don't know if I realized it right then or soon after, but it dawned on me that her own anger and sadness were scary for her. They were SO BIG and taking over her whole body and she didn't know what they were or what they were called or what to do with them. And I was telling her that I didn't know either! Her feelings were too big for me to handle! Me, the grownup, the person in her life who was supposed to protect her and help her was just as scared of her feelings as she was. On top of that, I was basically saying that I only wanted to be around her if she was happy. That my love and acceptance was contingent on her behavior and emotions.

Right around that time I joined the Gentle Christian Mothers message board, and started learning about age appropriate behavior and normal childhood development and what might be going on in her 2 year old mind. I realized then and it has become more and more clear to me since then that my desire, my NEED to push her away when she was upset was more about my feelings than hers. Watching someone else's emotions is extremely uncomfortable for someone who doesn't know how to handle their own. I had all these messages that I had told myself "suck it up," "don't be weak," "only girly girls cry" running around in my head and I projected them onto her. I masked it with some vague discipline philosophy about not letting kids get their way or they would be disobedient brats. But really, it was about my own comfort levels, fear and insecurity. And I had set up such an adversarial relationship that once I had made a decision I had to "win." It was a battleground and I could not accept defeat.

After doing a lot of reading, learning and praying, I started changing how I view her emotions. I slowly started dealing with her tantrums better and better and started learning to deal with my own as well. I remember another time not long after L was born, when E was 2 1/2. I was at DMV with both girls and we had been waiting a long time. Again, I don't remember exactly what started it (besides being tired, bored and maybe hungry), but E started melting down. I had L in the wrap, sleeping on my chest and I was trying to calm down a kicking, screaming toddler. For the first time ever, I didn't feel that flash of rage (which of course is really just fear) wash over me. Even though everyone in the place was looking at me, probably thinking what a brat my kid was or what a bad mom I was, I didn't care. My priority was my child.

She kept trying to get out of my arms and I couldn't hold her with L on my chest, so I took us all to the bathroom. I sat down on the floor and let her go. She raged and raged. She screamed that she wanted out, that she wanted daddy. She kept hitting the door and trying to hit me. For the first time, I was just present with her, feeling her pain with her. Not trying to fight her or win a battle or keep up appearances. I offered to hold her and nurse her when she was ready. I let her know I understood how she felt, I *heard* what she was saying. I was bigger than her fear and anger and sadness. We were in there for 10 or 15 minutes before she finally let me nurse her and calmed down. When we came out of the bathroom, I knew that everyone in the room had heard her screaming and of course they had all seen me take her to the bathroom. I don't know if they thought I was spanking her in there or what, but I got plenty of dirty looks. I didn't care, because it was my first success at not letting my own fear dictate my response to her.

E has always been a very emotional, intense child. She was colicky as a newborn, fussy as a baby, and threw frequent temper tantrums as a toddler. Now at 4, she still feels everything to the extreme. When she's happy, she's overjoyed, blissful, on cloud 9 over the slightest things. When she's sad or angry, she plummets to the depths of this dark, deep pit and looks like she's fighting dragons trying finding her way out. I didn't realize just how intense she is until L was born. In a lot of ways they are similar, but L is the much more laid back version. Part of it is personality, but part of it is that L has not had to go through the things E went through as a baby, like the nursing issues I talked about in the last post or having an emotionally unavailable and often angry mother like I was for E's first 2 years. Or the stress of moving several times and other situations.

Since that day at DMV I have had complete successes, complete failures and everything in between with how I have handled E's emotions. I'm getting better and better every day at learning how to just BE with her and see *her* not the behavior. I'm learning how help her identify her emotions and find healthy ways to work through them. I'm learning to balance that with helping her learn what is socially acceptable and not letting her emotional expression cross other people's boundaries. I am giving her tools (usually right as I learn them myself!) to work through emotions. Deep breathing, prayer, meditation, throwing stuffed animals since they won't break like toys, screaming into a pillow, identifying and acknowledging feelings, accepting them and holding them with care until they inevitably pass.

This evening, D took her to play outside. After they came in, she was very upset and started screaming and crying. I held her on my lap and she screamed at the top of her lungs. I knew it wasn't at me and I knew it wasn't all about going outside. After a few good stress releasing screams, she relaxed into me and sobbed and sobbed on my chest. She gulped out how she was having fun outside with a friend and she missed that friend and didn't want to stop playing. I didn't try to change her mind or convince her that it was all ok. I just reflected back to her what she was saying. She let out all the stress of the past few busy days and missing her daddy who has been away from home more lately. Then she asked me to rock her, so I stood up, cradled her in my arms, turned out the lights and rocked her back and forth. Then we laid down in bed and she laid on my chest. I told her she used to sleep on my chest like that all the time when she was a baby. We snuggled for a long time.

The myth is that if parents let their kids scream and cry and be dramatic that they will *always* act that way and *never* learn that it's not socially acceptable in public. I don't believe that anymore. She is 4, practically still a baby, and still needs me to be her anchor in the middle of her storm. In fact, who doesn't need someone else to be an anchor now and then?! I am so glad that when I need a good cry, D doesn't tell me to take it somewhere else, he doesn't push me away or scold me or tell me to suck it up. He just holds me and lets me get it all out and lets me know he understands.

I don't want my kids to be in their 20's before they learn that it's ok to cry in front of the people who love you and care about you. I don't want them to have 20 years worth of tears to cry at that point either. In order for something to heal, it has to be acknowledged and accepted and then dealt with. I want them to be able to work through that process on a daily basis over things small and large. I want them to reach for healing as naturally and quickly as they would reach for a salve for a burn. And when they have kids of their own, they won't feel uncomfortable or afraid in the face of their children's fear.

1 comment:

  1. This is a pretty dang profound post, and the fact that I saw it first through "TopHat's Shared Items" further reiterates the fact!! Congratulations!!