Recently, I had an experience with my daughter that really reminded me of the power of the mindful parenting model in repairing relationships after a rupture has occurred. It is not easy to stay present or grounded when your child is having a meltdown, but on those occasions when you are able to do so, it creates a powerful opportunity to understand your child more deeply and for the attachment between the two of you to strengthen and blossom.
Usually my daughter is a spritely four year old, good natured and relatively easy going. Of course she has the odd meltdown here and there, but nothing out of the ordinary. However, for a few weeks recently, her personality has shifted; she has been melting down regularly and even started hitting out of frustration. Various factors have been at play, such as a gnarly virus that we all got, changes in my workload, and spring break. With all these ups and downs, I hadn’t been spending as much time with her as either of us would have liked.
Once her virus cleared, we decided to go out for lunch together. We were eating our meal when she started getting very irritated by people talking too loudly. She demanded that I fix this “problem,” and when I let her know I couldn’t, her irritation quickly escalated; she grew angry and started hitting me. I decided to take her out of the restaurant to a quiet space since she was clearly not going to calm down any time soon, and her big feelings were disturbing everyone around us. As I carried her out she grew even more upset and was now pinching and scratching me, really trying to hurt me. I saw clearly in that moment that she was really struggling with some deep feelings and was not open to reasoning or logic. Somehow, knowing this enabled me to not feel triggered by her behavior, and I made a conscious decision to keep my cool. Finally, we made it to the car and I set her down, relieved to be away from prying eyes and out of her reach as I blocked her flailing arms. I said to her calmly, “I’m not going to let you hurt my body.” As she registered my words I got the sense that behind her anger was covering a much deeper emotion that was overwhelming her. I tuned into my own feelings in that moment and noticed I felt sad and a little helpless. Taking a chance that my mirror neurons were working well and she might be feeling something similar, I finally said, “Sweetheart, you just seem really, really sad to me.” As if I unlocked a door waiting to burst open, she broke down in a flood of tears and threw herself into my arms, sobbing. I held her in relief for some time while she let it all out and I calmed my own heart, which I noticed had been racing. When she came up for air I asked her what she was feeling so sad about. Without pausing she sobbed, “Mommy, you aren’t spending enough time with me.”
The realization in that moment hit me (excuse the pun) that she was right; I hadn’t been present for a while and she felt it. As I reflected her words back to her, I validated her feelings so she would know that being honest with me was a risk worth taking. She elaborated on all the things that had been hurting her feelings and I took it all in. At this point I was conscious that we were in the all-important repair process that is so essential in relationships. She needed me to listen and not rationalize or make excuses. Rather, she simply needed me to understand her perspective and not judge or teach. There would be a time to help her work on her impulse control later, but that time was not now.
Once she had finished telling me her feelings, I let her know that I understood and wanted to see how to make things better, that in the future I would try to be more mindful of her and would work on having more special time with her. Conscious of my increased workload, I didn’t want to make a promise I couldn’t keep by offering more time necessarily, but rather a better quality of time when we are together. I knew in that moment that I would need to discipline myself to be present around her and to not be constantly on my phone or let her watch TV as a distraction tool.
After discussing it with her we decided together that instead of watching TV we would read books or play. I was amazed at how readily she agreed to this idea. Over the next two weeks I noticed my impulse to turn the TV on for her arise when I felt tired or needed a break, but remembering our important agreement, I was able to push past it. During those times when I needed a break I would explain to her that she could play by herself while I rested/cooked/checked my email etc. Because we were spending more quality time together she was more willing to let me have my breaks, and because she was watching less TV she was able to develop her imaginative play more and knew how to occupy herself. She had a few more moments of hitting out of frustration, but with the help of some great library books and encouragement to use her words, we finally got back to normal. The interesting thing for me is that since we stopped the TV watching she hasn’t asked for it even one time; I believe this is because she feels more “filled up” from spending her time playing, being creative, or being with me.
Some of the obvious reminders for me here are that our children are deeply sensitive beings and react when there are big changes in their routine. They usually let us know they are not coping well by acting out, so it is crucial to look beneath the surface of the undesirable behavior to the deeper unexpressed feelings. When a child is acting out consistently over a period time, it is usually evidence of a systemic problem that the family needs to address.
Some of the less obvious reminders are that when a rupture happens in relationship to your child, or indeed any relationship, their needs to be a deliberate moment of repair where both parties come together and acknowledge the feelings involved. Taking the time to do so conveys the all-important message that their experience matters to you and you will try your best to consider their feelings. This ultimately leads to a deep sense of security in the child, setting up an expectation for their future relationships of how they should be treated, and how they should treat others as well. As my daughter gives me the gift of reminding me, relationships don’t do well when hurt feelings remain ignored, and the opportunity for repair is always just a conversation away.
You may recall the headlines about Charlize Theron trying to contain her son Jackson’s tantrum in a parking lot littered with paparazzi. Since the pictures emerged of her “dragging” her son to the car, she has been disparagingly labeled “Monster Mom” and judged harshly online for her ability to parent. For the record I am pretty sure that if pictures were taken of anyone trying to contain a tantrum in a parking lot they would look alarming. First off a parking lot is not a safe place to let a child writhe and flail around, for obvious reasons. Secondly she had her baby in the car and I imagine would have been feeling an immense amount of pressure to contain the situation, especially given the cameras snapping away.
Judging her on this isolated incident is certainly not a compassionate way to view parents in general. Instead we could be empathizing with her struggle in that moment and thinking about our own responses to similarly stressful situations with our kids. Supporting each other and acknowledging that we are not perfect, nor should we be, is the way towards gaining the respect that we deserve for the job we re doing. Perhaps if we stopped judging ourselves so harshly we would judge others less?
4 Things To Remember About "Monster Mom" Feelings:
1) All kids have tantrums in the toddler years, it doesn’t matter how many parenting classes you take you will not be able to avoid them.
2) At times you will have to contain their bodies to prevent them from getting hurt and to help them regulate. In my Keep Calm And Discipline With Love Workshops I call it the ‘loving hold’, where you hold the child from behind in your lap and wrap your arms around theirs until they calm down. However, if you are in a car park and have a second child in tow, you may want to get your child in the car to make it safe. This will not look so elegant most of the time!
3) Kids cannot talk about their feelings in the midst of a tantrum because their brains are unable to process the verbal information. Wait until they have fully calmed down before trying to reason with them, this will avoid escalating the situation.
4) The tantrum will end! Brave yourself and ride it out without distracting the child if the situation is safe and you are feeling up to it. If you don’t feel you can stay calm and support your child then distraction may be the best method in that moment. It is still important to talk about what happened with your child, in as neutral way as possible, once everyone is calm.