Little m turned 4 in February, and he ended his last day of being 3 with an epic 45-minute meltdown because he didn’t want to brush his teeth. M and I chalked it up to m being sick the few days prior, thus out of routine, and a long day of birthday party-ing and after party-ing. “Maybe he’s getting out all of the 3-year-old tantrums that he never had before he turns 4,” I joked as M and I sat in our bedroom, waiting it out and listening to little m cry in the next room.
Since that night, m has had countless tantrums and whining episodes for reasons including, but not limited to: wanting to watch TV right now, having to wait too long, not wanting to get dressed, not getting to listen to Darth Vader’s theme song for the millionth time, etc. You know, normal reasons for a 4-year-old to whine.
Except m rarely whined or threw tantrums before this. He usually listened to us after a brief time out or having some space to just cry. Then after getting it out of his system, he’d come to us and say sorry or just be ready to move on. So these consistent whining episodes and tantrums were fairly new to us.
I always tell M that our son is our gift from the universe, and not in the same way all children are gifts. By four months old, he was sleeping through the night and we didn’t have sleep issues since. He eats all his vegetables – sweet potatoes, green beans, broccoli – and loves trying new things like roasted seaweed snacks, oxtail stew, hot sauce. He doesn’t cry when he gets shots. He says please and thank you and puts his away his dishes after every meal. Every one of his babysitters has commented on how easy he is. At mommy groups, I often feel left out because everyone else is complaining about their children. I stay quiet because I don’t want to be the mom with that perfect kid.
“The universe knew we had a lot of shit to deal with,” I’d say to M. “So it gave us little m and said, ‘Look. Here’s the easiest baby in the world. He’s impossible to screw up. Just make sure he stays alive at the end of every day while you figure out your mess.'”
The moment little m was born, there was a shift in our relationship. The massive transition to parenthood was hard on us, M especially, and when placed on top of two lifetimes of not knowing how to love ourselves, we began to slowly crumble. Our son came into our lives and introduced a new kind of love, an energy so strong that it was able to hold us all together while everything else fell apart. For the most part, m made parenting easy so we could hold our family up while recovering the fallen pieces of our ourselves, our marriage, and build back our foundation.
And now, 4. M and I have reached a place where we can communicate our fears, celebrate the small wins, practice gratitude for the present moment and how far we’ve come. It is here, quite loudly, that little m is telling us he needs us – more than he ever has since his newborn days.
So we are listening. We put aside the articles and books on addiction, recovery, spirituality, marriage, and started looking for resources on child discipline.
The “counting to three and sending to time out” method had worked when m was 2, but now we are put off by the idea of sending him to be alone without addressing underlying issues. Communication has been so critical to our marriage, and we want there to be communication between all three of us. We want to find an approach that will let m know what he’s feeling is okay, and we are here for him while he struggles with difficult feelings, while not “rewarding” unacceptable behaviors by just giving him what he wants.
Not giving him what he wants. This is where I have struggled because doesn’t he want attention when he’s behaving this way? Aren’t we giving him what he wants and reinforcing his behavior by paying attention instead of sending him to his room?
I’m starting to learn that the answer is no. What he wants is more TV, or to skip brushing his teeth, or basically to just get his way. He wants control. What he needs is our attention. His whining, his crying, his meltdowns are his way of saying “I am feeling something, and I don’t understand it, and I can’t control it, and I need you to help me right now.”
Oh, sweetie. I’ve been there.
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change…
Let sadness in…
“Emotions are like waves … There are calm, rolling waters and there are storms that arrive and pass. In the boat, you’re together and you ride the waves. If you stay calm and present, you can navigate, and know the storms (intensely strong emotions) are a normal fact of being on the water, and they always pass.” // Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright, Now Say This: The Right Words to Solve Every Parenting Dilemma
This too shall pass…
As I read more and more the different ways to address children’s behavior, what resonates most are the approaches that most align with what I’ve learned in my own healing process. Surprise, surprise, right? But what does surprise me is how much they align, and the incredible timing of it all.
Trust the process…
M and I had to do our own suffering, feel our own emotions and then let them go, learn how to talk about and focus on what lies beneath rather than the behavior or reaction that might be bothering us. It’s like we’ve been training for this the past few years. And now, our recovery is steering us in the right direction so that we can connect with this little human and teach him about the love, empathy and communication from which our family now grows.