Tag Archives: emotion coaching

Clear cut parenting (Ha!)

It’s no secret that it was challenging for me to learn to trust my child’s snail-paced journey throughout years of watching him observe instead of participate. Fearing he would never move himself out of his comfort zone, we wondered if he needed a push from us. In the end, we committed to honoring his temperament and developmental pacing, which meant not forcing participation, listening to his fears and respecting his decisions. We watched in awe every time the excitement of an activity motivated him over the first hurdles. It was never our push that made him jump.

The other side of the coin is that some skills just have to be learned. Let’s start with an obvious choice, like safely crossing streets. Parents don’t let their kid run into traffic simply because that’s what lil’ Jimmy wants to do. They also don’t leave Jimmy on the other side of the road because he won’t cross with them. Jimmy’s hand will be held and his always-in-the-moment mind will be reminded a million times to “Look both ways!” until the People With Brains That Contemplate Consequences are certain he understands. Love & Logic’s “natural consequences” get thrown in front of the bus. Not Jimmy.

Other lessons are not as clear, but can feel just as critical.

Take swimming, for example. A sensitive topic in my household for a few months last summer. If Little Monkey hadn’t scared the daylight out of me with the pool-bobbing incident, I doubt I would’ve endured the initial phase of his latest swim lessons.

In the weeks after that nightmare, I signed him up for a couple private lessons through Seattle’s parks department. He participated well but continued to demonstrate the lack of fear that originally got him into trouble. Despite his inability to float, he kept trying to swim unassisted. On a few occasions he jumped in impulsively or lunged at me without warning. Obviously, at this point I was watching him like a hawk, so he was quickly scooped up. But I didn’t feel any better about his water safety by summer’s end.

Not wanting to enter next summer at the same level, we decided to take the plunge last fall and signed him up for intensive private swim lessons recommended by a friend. He dug in his heels, certain they would be “horrible!” With a little probing I learned that he believed that this swim coach would squirt him with a water gun. Ah, the rational fears of a four year old.

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With a firm promise that his coach wouldn’t shoot him, and quite possibly a pack of Pokemon cards in hand as bribery, he willingly entered the pool during his first lesson. At his request and the coach’s approval, I was in the water with him for his first two lessons. Courtesy of the most methodical, safety-oriented, and efficient swim lessons I’ve ever witnessed, Miles learned to open his eyes underwater, swim with his head under, and begin to backfloat. To get there, he was pushed farther beyond his comfort level than ever before. It was painful to watch him struggle.

The third lesson consisted of me sweating on the sidelines with my teeth grit together, trying to hide my anxieties from both the coach and Miles. He screamed and sobbed a decent portion of the lesson. The swim coach heard his complaints but did not let him give in to his fears. She kept him moving, practicing and struggling his way through each critical skill. I felt sick to my stomach.

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I spent that evening wondering if this lesson style was the right choice. DId I betray his trust by not just ending it there and calling it quits? Was he being pushed too far? Did I trust this coach and her judgment?

As I contemplated, I thought of all the parents of children with learning disabilities I interacted with when their kids came to me for evaluations and therapy. Many required months to trust me enough to follow advice or accept a diagnosis. I sympathized then, but I understand their hesitancies far better now that I’m a parent. Acknowledging that another adult may know what is best for your child is not easy to swallow, no matter the situation.

I came to believe that years of experience have taught this swim coach what children tolerate. She is not worried about their well-being as they go underwater, cough a bit, and correct themselves. At least not in the short-term. But long-term, she is absolutely concerned. She wants these kids water safe. To get there, she accepts the struggle as part of the learning process, like the countless falls toddlers take while learning to walk. She knew what my boy was capable of achieving. She knew that he needed to conquer his fears to move forward. While Miles and my brain were in fight or flight mode, hers was calm, cool and collected.

I dreaded telling Miles about lesson number four. I promised to take him to a favorite playspace afterwards. To my astonishment, that was enough to get him over the hump. Maybe he knew he needed it, like the toddler that keeps running despite scraped up knees. Maybe he found the outcome satisfying enough to account for the struggle. He entered the pool without complaint, seemingly forgetting his fears.

The reprieve didn’t last long. She asked him to stick his head underwater to retrieve a toy, and he completely broke down. In the skilled, graceful way that experienced teachers exhibit, she guided him back with ease, letting him repeat a skill that he found pleasurable and comforting until he calmed.

She moved him into snorkeling next, which was a completely new skill. “I DO NOT WANT TO SNORKEL!” he yelled and sobbed. Unaware of her motivation, I watched anxiously and questioned this choice. She introduced him to the mask by talking about its function and demonstrating its use. Then, the snorkel. She quietly put both on him. He protested throughout, but she assured him he’d be fine, and sure enough, soon he was excited to search underwater for toys. After he got the hang of it, they spent the rest of the session snorkeling around the pool to round-up tiny pumpkins. (It was October.)

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IMG_8898He was hooked. “Mama, I think I could be a scuba diver now!” He was over the hump.

I realized, yet again, that she had a clear plan and vision. The hardest skill for him to learn was how to transition from swimming forward with his head underwater to rolling over on his back to rest and breathe. With the snorkel, he could delight in swimming all around with ease. She took his biggest struggle out of the equation.

After lesson five I believed that he would have a chance at survival in a water accident. During lesson nine he took a “Clothes Test,” demonstrating the ability to fall in with clothes on, float on his back at length, swim to the closest exit, and other skills like getting his shoes off while floating. (He worked his tail off during 20+ minutes of testing.) We both walked away from this lesson stupendously pleased. Miles was thrilled with his accomplishment, and I was greatly relieved that last summer’s nightmare won’t be repeated.

I’m not sure how I’ll know when my boys need to be that far out of their comfort zone again. Right now we are contemplating decisions that could upset both of them, but we think would be for their benefit long-term. It is incredibly hard to choose between respecting their emotions and trusting in their resilience. I want them to do things of their own accord, but I also don’t want them to become paralyzed by fears. One thing I can count on: I am going to mess up a lot. I am going to error on both sides of the coin. Once I know I’ve gone too far in one direction, all I can do is apologize as we all learn from the mistake.

I’m glad I didn’t get in the way of progress this time. By learning to trust the coach, I didn’t rob my boy of these skills, nor the pride and satisfaction that resulted. Plus, how cute is a kid with snorkel gear? Sheesh.

Parenting is rarely clear cut. I couldn’t be more thankful that it comes with support staff.

(Pssst! I added a little video from one of his lessons to my facebook page. Head on over to see him in action. I always appreciate you “liking” my page while you’re there, too! Thanks!)

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Onward

Lately I’ve had several friends inquire about the current state of challenges with our youngest’s behavior. While I wrote in brevity about our fall preschool drop-off challenges and how we dealt with them, I didn’t communicate the extent to which difficulties continued.

While I am often open here, I rarely divulge the deep struggles while I’m in the midst of them with anyone beyond my husband and a few trusted friends. I generally like there to be at least hints of forward momentum before sharing that we’re tripping on a daily basis, sliding back down to the bottom of a mountain that we’re not sure we’re going to summit.

For at least six months, Little Monkey’s most common immediate response to upsetting stimuli was physical aggression. The range of triggers was wide. If he tripped and fell, SMACK! If I gave him too much verbal praise, WHACK! If big brother moved towards him and he felt threatened, POW! If I moved a toy from the place it was apparently intended to remain for eternity, BOOM! I was getting hit or kicked daily, often more than once. Frequently I steadied myself in pain, anticipating a black eye or bloody nose. Our oldest was also the recipient of many crushing blows.

We were scared.

This kid didn’t cry when he received his first shot as a newborn. His pain tolerance is unbelievably high. For his first few years of life he rarely shed a tear unless the injury involved blood. If he cried after a fall, I prepared for a trip to Urgent Care. After he dished it out, his hands and feet seemed to just experience a slight irritation. Like he’d been rubbed wrong. When he was hurt enough to cry, he often immediately lashed out at others. He would refuse comfort and hugs. He was Mini-Hulk, Super Sensitive Version.

For months his behavior seemed to only deteriorate and we questioned all our parenting methods. Worn out and desperate for change, we started to revert to ways we’d previously written off as disrespectful or humiliating, like isolating him in his room (in essence, a lonely time-out) or taking away toys unrelated to the incidents. We rarely acknowledged the emotions behind his behavior or talked through his motivation. We were caught in a downward spiral of stress, fear, anger and fatigue. We kept trying to get back on our feet and dust ourselves off to continue upward, not considering that we might need a completely new route.

I really couldn’t see straight. I told a group of friends over Christmas dinner that we were considering professional help (family counseling or child therapy). One friend asked, “What’s his currency?” and it hit me. As we talked through motivating factors for children, I realized we’d turned everything we believe to be true onto it’s back. I didn’t want toys, money or screen time to be my child’s primary “currency.” I wanted him to know himself well enough to manage his emotions without an external motivator or threats and punishment. I longed for him to inherently know that his opinions would be valued. His voice would be heard. I didn’t want him to feel alone with his sadness or anger. He needed to know that no matter how enormous his emotions felt, we would stay by his side.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I recommitted to using emotion coaching as our primary way of handling Little Monkey’s outbursts. We tried to intercept him prior to his hits and kicks. Initially, we restrained him in our arms to prevent injuries to ourselves or our oldest. We would say, “I’m holding you until we’re safe.” He quickly learned that these restraints were actually comforting, and his anger would melt into our arms as his tears took over. We don’t have to do that anymore because he now willingly runs to our arms. If we’re at our best, we speak slowly and calmly, with pauses for all the inevitable crying. “You’re so angry. You really wanted this to happen and it didn’t. You are so frustrated. It’s not ok to hit and kick, but it’s ok to feel mad. I understand. I feel mad, too, sometimes. Just don’t hurt people.” (We don’t always do our best. I’ve yelled more in the past six months than I probably have my entire time as a mom. So, plenty of apologies and restarts, too.)

If he’s still on edge and posturing aggressively after the initial talks and tears, our next step is usually, “You are welcome to stay here as long as you can play respectfully and nicely. If you need to take a break, I can come with you.” If a toy was involved in the altercation we might say, “You may play with that as long as you can use it safely. Otherwise I will take it until you’re ready to be safe.”

Thankfully, once we changed course it got noticeably better. Not overnight, but within a few weeks there was significant weight lifted off all our shoulders. Add normal developmental maturation to improved emotional regulation and his current behavior feels almost miraculous. (I had my doubts this would improve much because of how big his temper seemed.) One of the changes I didn’t anticipate was that he cries more easily now after injuries. He’s seeking us out for comfort instead of acting out physically. He’s also exhibiting much more self-control during disagreements. Like all four year olds, he has plenty of communication skills to learn, but he’s quicker to take turns or share his toys. He’s not feeling as easily threatened. In general, he just seems more stable and secure.

There is residual trauma and it’s remains a careful trek. Some of his worst behaviors reappeared at a friend’s birthday party last month, when he was exhausted after a week of spring break activities and his own birthday festivities. Leave it to the gymnastics party people to put a stamp on his feet without asking so we can all watch the house come tumbling down! Wailing, hitting, screaming. Even a piece of cake couldn’t pull him out of his misery, because it was served with a SPORK, for the love! The kid wasn’t going to deal with alternative utensils on top of all the other atrocities from the past fifteen minutes. (He tried to throw the plate with cake on it.) Nothing could get him back. We had to leave the party early, at which point my oldest (understandably) freaked out, too. Two sobbing boys for the car ride home.

(Little tangent here- Why do people put stamps or stickers on children without asking? Does this ever turn out well? Several months ago a grocery store checker asked if he wanted a sticker. After he answered affirmatively, she took it off the paper and put it ON HIS FOREHEAD. Again, without asking. He loudly yelled, “YOU STUPID!”, hit me a lot and wailed. Goodness, people. Have some respect.)

We have not hit the summit yet, but I can finally see it. All of us still brace ourselves when the road is bumpy. We trip and fall, reminded yet again that the new path requires much more careful footing and plenty of breaks for deep breathing. Once we’re standing on the peak we’ll take in the view and pat ourselves on the back for all the boulders we climbed (sometimes twice!). Then, we’ll head down the other side, inevitably beginning the next mountain.

Nurturing your three-year-old

Lately I have strayed from writing parenting advice to reflect on my own experiences instead. Sharing about communicating with young children was my original intended focus for this blog because my parenting experience was enhanced as a result of my knowledge base from Speech-Language Pathology. But, I lost motivation to write from that standpoint because I felt sensitive to people dishing out parenting advice. I don’t want to add to the “you should be doing this, you should be doing that” craze. Most of it is just plain ridiculous. One of my friends was chastised for her TWO-YEAR-OLD not yet being potty-trained. This stuff needs to end.

Not so long ago I came across this picture of Charlie and had an ah-ha! moment. At the time, Charlie was almost three-and-a-half and Miles was a few months old, nearing the height of his refusal to sleep. We were sleeping horribly, trading off bouncing and doing squats with him from 12-4am so that he wouldn’t scream and would for-the-love-of-all-things-good go back to sleep. I was so tired that I experienced auditory hallucinations. I frequently chose not to drive because I knew I wasn’t safe. I also was experiencing absence of smell and diminished taste. In general, I was a disaster. Plus, I had a three-year-old. For the first time. I was completely blindsided by what having a three-year-old means.

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I now know that the three-year-old’s highly predictably irrational behavior is a hallmark of the age. You all know that two is nothing compared to three? Right? Nothing. The sobbing, screaming, hysterical “This banana is BROKEN! I WANT A GOOD BANANA!” seemed to come overnight, and all because a banana had somehow been peeled “incorrectly”, or was completely out of the peel, or had brown on it, or was in two pieces. You either give in and get them a new banana to complain about, you eat it yourself, or you make them deal. No matter what you do, they will not be pleased. They’ll want the original banana if you eat it. They’ll want a third if you give them a second. If you give a three-year-old a banana, YOU CAN NOT WIN.

If we didn’t have friends with whom we could commiserate, we would’ve been wondering if our child was headed for lock-down. I was equally shocked by my own response to his behavior. I was raising my voice, which I had truly almost never done prior, and at least once or twice I physically carried him to his room to isolate him during a tantrum. This is necessary for some kids for safety, but for him it wasn’t. Charlie was such a sensitive little guy that me crossing this boundary of not respecting his body as his to move was a clear sign of me crossing the line. He knew it, I knew it. I needed the right skills and language to navigate both Charlie and my emotions during his challenging moments. I was feeling like an awful mom. In general, actually. I was feeling awful in general.

I read several parenting books and discovered some helpful ideas, but thought most lacked a compassionate voice. I already knew time-out, spanking and other “traditional” discipline methods weren’t for us. An “old classic” comforted me a little by normalizing behaviors for this age. “Refusing to obey is perhaps the key aspect of this turbulent, troubled period in the life of the young child. It sometimes seems to his mother that his main concern is to strengthen his will, and he strengthens this will by going against whatever is demanded of him by that still most important person in his life, his mother.”

Unfortunately, most books provided few practical tips, which made me feel powerless. “No mother of a child this age should hesitate to place the burden of daily routines on the shoulders of a sitter, who, for the time being, may be the best person for the task. Nor should the mother who needs to put her child in day care feel burdened with guilt.” Not very helpful to a stay at home mom on a budget. Thankfully, just in the nick of time, a friend lent me her copy of Gottman’s Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

Three years later, I’m scouring those pages again. I really should’ve done this months ago. I had been resorting to more “no’s” and more exasperated comments than I care to admit. Our little stroller incident gave me the kick in the butt I needed to refresh my skills. Three-year-olds are super fun and energetic, crazy horrible and wild. In equal measure. One moment you have the sweetest conversation about the colors of a leaf, the next moment they are whacking you in the face with a stick because you held the leaf wrong.

I share these ideas with you with hopes that they bring relief during such a trying developmental period. Not guilt-inducing, just thought-provoking. Not shaming, but edifying. Not polarizing, but unifying. These techniques, strategies and specific language choices have assisted my parenting and brought more peace into our household during this butt-kicking stage.

Establish positive routines and bribe the heck out them

Three year olds are all about routine, control, routine and control. They also respond well to positive reinforcement, rewards and bribes. The difference between those last three basically boils down to semantics unless you’re a behavioral therapist. Most parents will choose to call the dangling of carrots one of the three. Take your pick.

When a routine changes, three-year-olds freak out. Their expectations may be simple: graham crackers aren’t meant to be broken, plates are meant to be blue, and mamas aren’t supposed to wear gray hats (“I want the purple hat! Take that off!”). They may also be as complicated as a memory of a particular event, like “Last time we shopped here I ate those red and black things. I want those red and black things NOW! And we don’t walk THAT way, we walk THIS way to the bread!”

Some of these routines you have control of, others obviously not. When possible, try to maintain a consistent schedule so they can rely on some aspects of their life to be predictable. For situations within your reign, there is plenty to be gained by establishing new routines or making sour ones positive again. You might find them beneficial for entering the preschool door, hopping in the carseat, staying in bed, waiting in line at a store, or taking turns with toys.

Our current most successful tool has been a “Surprise Box”, aka our reward and motivator system. I fill an old shoe box with incredibly random stuff, like old race medals and therabands (Angry birds catapults, people!), and dinky toys, like stickers, sponge capsules, marbles, magnets, balloons and party favors that were long forgotten about but exciting again after a few months sight-unseen. If you wanted yours to be stuff-free, you could put in pictures of places you’d visit (parks, playgrounds, beaches) or other experiences (scavenger hunt!, dance party!). My only warning about experiences is that they should be delighted in as close to the time of success as possible for it to be salient, especially when establishing new routines.

You’ll be pleased to know that my little guy is walking into his preschool happily these days. Halloween week he even flew in, dressed as Batman. Epic. Thanks to the advice of a very wise friend, I had a picture of our family in hand that he could show teachers once he was inside, I told him he could hold my hand extra tight if that helped him feel better, and… da da da daaaaah!…. I bribed him. In the end, that was what worked. He didn’t want to take the picture inside, he didn’t want to hold my hand for long, but he desperately wanted the little dinosaur sponge capsules I promised him after preschool if he entered without screaming, hitting or kicking. I told him, “You don’t have to feel happy. You can still feel nervous and sad. But you need to walk in nicely to have the dinosaur sponges after school.” The first day, he walked in dragging his feet, with his shoulders slumped and a huge frown on his face. But he did it and was quite proud of himself when I picked him up. The next day, he scampered in happily. I “rewarded” him three times, all upon request, and he hasn’t asked for more since. Can I get an amen?

I first made a Surprise Box for Charlie when he was three because he wasn’t staying in bed at night. Harry and I would tag team to walk him back upstairs, sometimes twenty times per evening. After a week or two of nonsense, we wised up. I made a picture for him showing him the bedtime routine. (“First we snuggle in bed, then you snuggle with your animal, close your eyes and sleep. When you stay in bed until morning you get a surprise!”) A few nights of reminders followed by one success and we were pretty much done with the back and forth bedroom dance. He only needed a reminder here and there in the months to follow. (If he’d come downstairs we’d let him know, “If you stay in bed for the rest of the night, you get a surprise” and the following night we’d remind him he had to stay in bed from the get-go so as to avoid him learning that coming out once also got rewarded.) If you’ve played bedtime tag with kids, you know just how nice it is to have a peaceful routine. End of the day bliss. HEAVEN. It’s a clear case where a little extra work up front pays off with a better sleep routine (a better rested child!) and much less long-term frustration.

Since I seemed to have birthed out half of my brain with Miles, it took me forever to remember about the Surprise Box. I first thought of it when he refused to get in his car seat several days in a row. I remembered after having to force him in it, which made us both feel awful. Lo and behold, the box worked like a charm. I probably pull it out once a week now. I simply say, “If you cooperate for X, you can have a surprise!” He likes to pick his surprise first and then he almost always happily runs to do whatever is being asked. Can I get another amen? (And why didn’t I use it for preschool entry right off the bat? Who the heck knows! The other half of my brain suffered oxygen loss with chronic sleep deprivation, folks!)

I think many parents worry that these types of rewards need to last forever. With both of my boys they have been easily faded out after a routine was established. Now, with our six year old, establishing positive routines is much more of a conversation with natural, intrinsic rewards. “If you get dressed first thing in the morning, then you can play until we need to leave for school. You won’t need to rush and I won’t need to bug you.” He appreciates this and changes his pattern. And yes, he’s six going on forty.

Emotion coaching

So, even with routines established and bribes abounding, it’s not going to be easy. It will be easier, filled with plenty of wonderful moments, but there will be exorcism-worthy tantrums. Gottman’s emotion coaching has been the other critical component for all of us to manage our feelings in the midst of such intensity.

I am working hard to identify and respect emotions, empathizing with his very real feelings. I may know that a broken graham cracker is one of life’s smallest problems, but at that moment, he feels devastated. So, I choose to respect his sadness. “I’m sorry that’s so hard for you and you’re sad. You really like it when they’re whole, huh?” If he allows, I will hold him while he cries and let him sit with his emotions as long as he needs. Once he’s calm, I reassure him that I know what matters to him. “Next time I’ll try to give you one that’s not broken.” I don’t make him eat it, but I don’t get him a new one. I see this as having compassionate boundaries. (It is easy to assume that every time a three-year-old complains it’s unnecessarily ridiculous. I sometimes forget that this may not be the case, so coming from a place of compassion while simultaneously looking into the problem has revealed some “real” problems. The milk just might be sour, the nuts rancid, the fruit mealy!)

Next, I try to say yes as much as possible, saving no for when it’s absolutely necessary. I do not give him an open wallet and free reign. I soften my language so that he knows his desires have been heard and he can prepare for any delays or disappointments. Here’s an example that I hear quite regularly:

3yo: “I want to go to the science center!”

Me: “Oh, fun! That sounds great. Maybe we can go next Thursday.”

3yo: “But I want to go to the science center NOW!”

Me: “You want to go there now? Well, I wish we could go now, too, but we have to get groceries today.”

3yo: “But I wa-ant to go NOW-OOOOOOOOOW!”

Me: “I understand. You sound really mad. I’m sorry it’s disappointing for you to have to wait.”

3yo: “I’m going to hit you if you don’t take me now!”

Me: “I understand that you’re mad, but hitting me isn’t going to help. I don’t want to take you if you hit me.”

3yo: “I won’t hit you.” (Sometimes. Sometimes he hits…which often leads to the end of our playtime and having a calm time together, or alone- his choice, on his bed. His self-chosen “safe, calm” spot.)

Me: “Great. Now, let’s keep playing blocks until we go to the store and we’ll go to the science center next week!”

This same type of method can be used for just about any request. It boils down to this: First, acknowledge their desire. Then, let them know the reality of if/when it can happen. Last, acknowledge the resulting emotions. Show them that you care about what they care about.

Sleep

Lastly, I’m throwing sleep into the pile because I think it’s a decent percentage of the Three-Year-Old Problems pie chart. Most kids are transitioning out of naps at some point during this year. If they take one, they go to bed too late, aren’t rested enough for the next day and need a nap again. The cycle continues. If they don’t take a nap, they’re very challenging at the dinner hour or will fall asleep in car rides at 4:30, ruining their bedtime. We’re trying to handle this transition with a few naps every week, mostly in the stroller or car. I try to not let him nap longer than an hour or 90-minutes, so that his bedtime is preserved. If he naps and then stays up too late, I try to not have him nap the next day (or keep it really short) and get him to bed early. We’ve found that a longer nights’ sleep, with an earlier bedtime, is more important than a daytime nap for our boys to be really refreshed when they’re in this in-between period.

The difference between a refreshed three-year-old and a tired one is like the difference between Jekyll and Hyde.

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So, there it is, friends! As always, may I remind you that I fall short of these things EVERY DAY. If you’re friends with me, you get to see this in action! These are patterns I am building, striving towards, integrating into my parenting because I find them useful. When I’m not at my best, these are not the first things to happen. I am also getting good at saying sorry.

If you have any tips for this age, feel free to comment below. I’m sure we all feel like we need a storage shed filled with tools at our disposal to get through this period gracefully.

(PS- First to comment is my 100th commenter on the blog! Yay! The reward for you is intrinsic…)

In which I summon Matt Foley

I feel more and more certain that if parents all had, oh, three to five children, at least one would humble us to our knees. Increase our perspective and compassion towards other parents. Help us realize we just might fall short of the badass parents we thought we were going to be.

I have met my match. We’ve been having preschool drop-off challenges. Actually drop-off anywhere, challenges. He just doesn’t want to be separated from us. And he shows it with gusto. Hitting, kicking, screaming. The pattern has been that he calms after a few minutes and then enjoys himself, always exiting enthusiastically with lots of stories to tell. But the entrance. Oh, the entrance.

On the walk to preschool today, he was giggling like crazy as I made the stroller do crazy turns, wheelies and spins (“Oh, I just can’t help it. Whoa! It’s craaaaazy!”). We were both having a lot of fun. Then, a block or two ahead he spotted a tiny little boy wearing an adorable equally tiny backpack. I’m pretty sure that was his wake-up call. He had known where we were going, but might have conveniently forgotten during our walk.

Little Walking Reminder prompted a strong, “I don’t want to go! I want to go home!” I tried my best to be an empathetic listener. “I know you feel sad and nervous. It’s only been a few days and it’s still new to you. When I pick you up we’ll have lots of fun together at home.” “I WILL NOT GO!” He tried to hit me from the stroller. I kept walking, knowing if he got out it was going to be an epic chase. He’d run away, screaming that he’s not going to go to preschool. I’d have to catch him, hold him while he hits and kicks me, and then try to wrangle him and the stroller the next few blocks to school.

Thankfully, we made it to the landing in front of preschool despite his protests growing in volume. I tried to do more reassuring and echoing of his emotions, but he wasn’t having it. I walked a few feet away to sign him in (which is outside, so he’s stayed by the stroller). He started yelling, “I’m stuck!” I looked back to see that he had crawled part-way under the stroller. I tried to help him out but he only forced himself further in. “I’m not going!” he yelled, while in the BOTTOM OF THE STROLLER. He crawled all the way under the stroller seat, into the basket, as an attempt to hide. Quite a tactic. He’s smart, this one.  The preschool teacher came over and nicely told him all the fun things they’re going to do. He didn’t budge. “I WON’T GO!”

I simultaneously saw the hilarity of this moment and was completely tortured by it. If I didn’t hold myself together, I knew I would be laughing hysterically and a blubbering fool. I looked at the teacher, “So, I guess we should just get him out?” She helped release his hands, I pulled him out and she carried him inside while he repeatedly hit her head and screamed, “NOOOO! I don’t want to leave my mommy!”

Out of his sight, I stood outside a minute to catch my breath, tears in my eyes. He kept wailing. I walked away still hearing his cries.

There I was, alone and teary-eyed, leaving a preschool that we’re brand new to as of the past week and don’t yet know anybody attending. I needed a hug. I needed someone to tell me he’ll be fine. I needed someone to tell me he’s going to get used to it and do better. I needed someone to tell me that we didn’t create this hitting, kicking monster who surfaces out of my equally intensely wonderful child.

I quickly pushed the empty stroller past my one of my favorite coffee shops with tears still in my eyes, not wanting to see my friend who owns it, knowing that a look of compassion would open the floodgates. Once past the business section of the neighborhood, I pulled out my phone and called a lifeline. Thank goodness for friends who understand. Thank goodness I’m learning to immediately reach out when I’m sad. This boy is going to teach me a lot. Hopefully a preschool teacher or I won’t get a black eye in the meantime.

I also want to take a moment to acknowledge that a hitting, kicking, screaming young child probably doesn’t come from a hitting, kicking, screaming parent. We both raise our voices on occasion, but it is rare. We’ve never hit or kicked our kids. Nor does our oldest do this to our youngest. This is just his current skill set for fear. He is scared about change, new to an environment, and dealing with it in full fighting mode. He is intense in all ways- the good and the bad.

I’ve been reading parenting books with hopes of understanding him better and finding ideas to help us all through this transition. One passage in a very popular book really upset me. The author answered “How do you handle a child who feels that violence is the only way to solve a problem?” with,

“This question raises several more: What is going on in this child’s life? Where is this child learning violence? Too much television? Too many video games? Too much punishment? A child’s environment and the role models he encounters provide many clues about that child’s violent behavior.

As a wise person once said, if you want to understand the fruit, look at the tree. Children do indeed learn what they live, and changing angry, aggressive behavior is best accomplished through kind, firm teaching about respect, nonviolent ways of solving problems, and watching adults practice what they preach.”

I find this response fascinating and horrifying. I do believe there are children acting out physically because that’s what they’re experiencing, but I am certain that it is not usually that black and white. Isn’t it ironic that such outright parental shaming resides in a book meant to guide parents how to teach children through positive methods? The purpose of this book is to give parents alternatives to shaming kids, yet it’s shaming parents. The parents should be addressed with the same compassion.

So, that’s what I’m going to do here. I’m just going to take a moment to address myself in the way that I need. Stick with me. It’s cheesy, but I’m desperate for encouragement and laughter this morning. I’m guessing at least a few of you are, too. At the moment, I need a motivational speaker so desperately that I might not even care if he lives in a van down by the river.

“Self, this is a really rough period of development. Three and half is notoriously difficult. Plus, he has had a lot of change. He misses having his big brother around. He misses having his dad work from home. He misses being with you all the time. He feels scared about his new experiences, even though he also enjoys them. He doesn’t know how to express all these emotions yet, and for him, they are big. Huge. So, he’s expressing himself how he knows best, with his body.”

“Well, la dee frickin’ da!”

“Thanks, Matt. Anyways. Self, keep at it. Shower him with love and fun. Keep letting him know it’s alright to feel scared. Keep dropping him off. Tune in to whether he’s staying enthusiastic about his experiences because if he’s not, maybe it really isn’t a good fit.  But it’s probably just fine and this is a stage for him. A really awful one, but a period of development that will end. He is a very intense child and his current passion to not go will probably switch to a passionate desire to attend. Let’s hope for the best.”

“Otherwise, he’s going to live in a van down by the river.”

“Yes, Matt. He just might. Thank you. Anyways, it is hard to trust that he’s fine. It’s hard to not feel judged and like you’ve failed when your child is making the biggest scene and hurting people. Trust yourself. Keep calling your friends. Get support.”

(If any of my friends are worried about me after reading that very odd conversation with Matt Foley, please don’t hesitate to give me a call. I’m not so sure about myself either. But, this write-up has allowed me to funnel some of my nervous energy, while also accomplishing the goal of resting while recovering from a cold, icing my injured hip, and getting to write. Aaaah, it’s been forever- so glad to be here again. Now I return to my previously scheduled program- showering, eating and anxiously walking to pick him up and hear about how great his morning was. Or, get hit and kicked.)