We’ve all heard it. Children can be either “well-behaved” or “naughty”. Ever noticed that? Well-behaved children don’t have meltdowns, they don’t exaggerate, they don’t cry over every little thing and they don’t yell.
My son Filip has reached the age when he’s ruled by his emotions. Some people might say he’s entering the “terrible twos.” There are days when he throws himself on the floor and starts screaming, just because I don’t let him, say, lick the trash can.
And since he’s screaming bloody murder, people passing by like to make helpful remarks like: “Just found out you’re not the center of the universe, huh?” In their tone of voice I can hear them saying: “Nice parenting skills!”
On the other hand, when he’s quietly sitting in his stroller, smiling at everyone, people gush over what a handsome and well-behaved boy he is. So I subconsciously came to believe that
child in the grip of emotion = my failure.
That a child should be well-behaved and content. Anything less is unacceptable.
“Come here, pumpkin, I will comfort the socks off you.”
So every time my son got angry or started crying for no apparent reason, I would run to him, give him a hug and talk to him. I would push him into one solution after another. Distract him, offer more ways to keep him entertained, and explain why it’s not as bad he might think.
(“Don’t cry, sweetie pie! Everything will be fine. We’ll go outside again tomorrow, and you can ride your tricycle. Calm down, it’s not the end of the world... Look, you can play with your dump truck at home!”)
Filip bawled and fought me, completely overwhelmed by his emotions and anger. I needed to calm him down quickly, so I would keep talking over him despite everything that was going on. Just to make things right again already.
Both of us were alone in this situation. Both unhappy.
Not being able to help him was a sign of my own failure. Doubts kept nagging me – was it normal for a child to be thrown off kilter by the slightest things?
The magic of understanding: we’re in the same boat
One day, Filip was determined to create a masterpiece using yogurt, a glass of water, a piece of bread, his own body and a few crayons. He was having a blast.
The moment he decided to include my pants in his artwork, I stopped him, apologized and took him to the shower. He looked about ready to explode with anger. I muttered to myself: “Good grief, it was just some finger painting. In a minute you’ll find something else to keep yourself busy.”
Later that day, while making dinner, I was doing too many things at once and forgot to salt the meat. I was furious! I had pictured my husband coming home from work and salivating over the pork roast I made. Instead, he’ll be getting tasteless meat or maybe even a grilled cheese sandwich. The horror! I felt like crying.
Such a little thing, and it totally threw me off my game. Just like Filip, when things didn’t go the way he wanted them to.
And my husband’s response? “It’s okay, honey! I love grilled cheese. It’s just a dinner. There’s no reason to stress over it.”
Why do we think our reasons to be angry or unhappy are “better” than those of our children?
Could it be that we just don’t scream as much as they do? But that’s only because we have words. Grown-ups are rational: They don’t throw themselves on the kitchen floor crying because they don’t want to go to work. (Although sometimes they might feel like doing exactly that. ;))
Still, when I hear the terrible things adults say to others when they’re upset, it doesn’t seem any better than a child’s tantrum. It’s even worse. “Is it really so hard for you to help me with the kids for once?” “For goodness sake, stop being such a drama queen!”
Right, so his emotions are no different from mine. But what to do about it?
If both me and my child are going through the same things, what if we can also take the same way out?
I remember one day, I was just devastated about something, so I went and poured my heart out to a friend. She just listened and didn’t say a word. I complained to her and sniffled my way to a decision on what I had to do. I felt so much better.
Another time I tried to confide in a different friend, but he kept showering me with advice and barely let me finish what I was saying. He wanted to fix the problem. But he didn’t really help me at all.
And that’s when it clicked.
When I’m emotional, I don’t need advice. I can find a solution later. In that moment, I just need to feel accepted.
I need someone to understand me and to love me, no matter how obnoxious I might be right then.
This helps me feel secure, and my crisis blows over pretty quickly.
Stop talking. Start communicating.
So I gave it a try.
The next time he burst into tears, I just sat down next to him and didn’t say a word. I didn’t tell him to stop crying.
Granted, we were at home, and I didn’t have to deal with pointed stares from strangers silently accusing me of torturing my screaming child. Keeping your cool outside the house? That takes practice. :)
Once I stopped concentrating on when it’s going to be over, I was finally able to hear and see what was troubling him.
Okay, he’s not waving the glass bowl around for no reason. He just wants to cook like I do. He doesn’t want to fall down the stairs on his tricycle. He just wants a place to ride it. Late in the evening, he’s not crying for the fun of it. He is just overtired and can’t fall asleep.
I asked what would make him feel better, and I listened. Of course I had to watch him, too, because the vocabulary of a 15-month-old is a bit limited. :)
Although he’s not talking, he can show me exactly what he needs.
He can ride his tricycle at home. Now we have an awesome obstacle course in our living room. A plastic bowl and whisk are the perfect utensils for tiny cooks. When he’s really exhausted, a little cuddle, a sip of water or falling asleep with daddy usually helps. We now only do diaper changes standing up. Sometimes even at a run.
I don’t need to put pressure on him. He’s capable of figuring it out on his own.
Suddenly, instead of a “naughty” child, you have one that’s tired, sad or disappointed. And that’s something you can work with.
The power of silence reaches even further when it comes to older kids
Every now and then, when we grown-ups stop being busy and important and just sit down on the floor next to our children, we get a chance to find out lots of very interesting things.
And if we listen long enough, without assessing and judging, they might even share their deepest secrets with us – secrets they might otherwise keep to themselves. (For instance, about the toy they ‘borrowed’ from preschool, or about the new teacher that can be really mean sometimes.)
Plus, if we stop talking for a moment and start listening, we can hear them say the same things we don’t even realize come out of our own mouths during the daily hustle and bustle. And they sound a lot harsher in a sweet child’s voice.
“Stop that right now!” to his younger brother who’s singing a bit too loud.
“Did you hear what I said?!”
When they hold the mirror up to us, it can be a rather unpleasant sight. But if we hear it, we can do something about it. And that’s way better than not knowing, isn’t it?
Bonus: when you start listening, the kids will too
And not only because they’re copying us. They might be sick and tired of our constant talking, lecturing, barking orders and long-winded explanations. Once we start, they tend to “turn off”.
We can talk until we’re blue in the face, and it won’t change a thing. Everyone is frustrated – the overwhelmed children as well as the hoarse parents.
Let’s see what happens if you give the silent day a try. Your vocal cords will get a break, and you might discover a lot of new things.
Once you find out everything you need to know, you and the kids can calmly talk about what needs to change.