This type of scene is a common one with my 3-year-old. She wants something sweet and can’t have it. She melts down, and I heat up. I reiterate all the reasons why she should already know she can’t have candy right now. “Why are you crying?” “You have to fill up your puff ball jar [good behavior jar] before you get a treat,” “You haven’t finished your lunch yet, anyway. Go eat that food instead.”
Then I get tired of the crying, especially because she gets more dramatic in response to what I’ve said. So then I say, “If you can’t stop crying, you’ll have to go to your bed. That’s 1; that’s 2; okay, that’s 3..time for bed.”
And so the story continues with my main goal being for her to quit crying. The result? She stuffs away her emotions to put on a fake happy face, and she’s likely feeling resentment and anger towards me all the while. Even though in my head, I thought, “Wow, I avoided anger, didn’t yell, and kept my voice even. She stopped crying. Annoying moment over. Phew”
Yet, there was no teaching or learning in those moments. There was nothing done that would help things go differently the next time.
I’ve been learning a new way of parenting that I love. My friend Kassandra told me to run to my child when I actually want to run away. That visual has stuck in my head. She also told me to get on my child’s level and to empathize rather than chastise. I’ve had to turn against my instincts here because my child is often pushing my buttons, and all I want to do is chastise.
I also found a parenting author named Dr. Laura Markham. I’ve listened to a few interviews with her and love her ideas. I signed up for her email list, and I want to read her books. She teaches about allowing a child to feel their emotions and not be shamed for them, and I realized that’s what I need even as an adult when I’m feeling negative emotions. So why would I expect my tiny child to be able to move on without that kind of support?
I especially loved Dr. Markham’s interview about sibling rivalry. She talked about how when we get involved in a sibling fight in the wrong way, we actually increase sibling rivalry. This is because we make one child feel like they’ve won and the other feel like they’ve lost.
Even if I can clearly see my son was at fault when he stole his sister’s markers, I didn’t see yesterday when my son was unjustly clobbered by my daughter. So I never truly know the complete story, and I am better off when I assume each child has a perfectly good reason for the way they are feeling.
I wish I could transcribe Dr. Markham’s whole interview here. Her specific actionable ideas and phrases to use in the middle of a sibling fight are so helpful. But the key takeaway is that my job as parent is to empathize with each upset child. I am learning to say, “Wow, I can see how that would be hard,” “You must be really upset to act like that,” “You are feeling really frustrated right now because…” “It’s hard to be the big brother…”
These simple, loving phrases that seemed so unnatural for me to say at first are making a big difference, and I think they are making me a better person overall. When anyone around me is having a tough emotion, I can meet it with understanding rather than trying to get rid of it. I can hold space for their big emotions and sit peacefully in understanding. When any of us are given the permission to lean into our emotions and really feel them… when we are given the security of someone’s love while having a tough time, then those emotions pass and we can move on.
Yesterday, I stripped my baby’s dirty clothes off in the kitchen after a messy meal. She started crying because she didn’t like the tight shirt passing over her head. My 3-year-old was there and started dancing and singing to cheer up her sister. The magic entered the room when my 3-year-old stopped trying to make the baby happy and instead put her hand on the baby’s back and said, “I know it’s hard; it’s okay.”
Time stood still for me, and I was so happy to think I taught her that. It is a skill I am still working on myself, and yet there was my daughter figuring it out. I am so excited about this new skill because, truly, if my kids and I learn that emotions should not be shamed, then we will all be much better equipped to learn from the trying experiences of life.