We have been programmed to respond to our baby’s tears with a solution. That’s what a good mother does. We try with food, fresh diapers, an embrace or a pleasant environment that should help them sleep.
Even small babies will have episodes of unbearable, helpless cries that no milk and no nap can fix.
At first, their cries will point towards physiological needs:
- Physical discomfort related to temperature, pain, or how full their diaper is.
As their emotional selves grow, so does the complexity of reasons why tears are flowing:
- Resistance to change
...and much more.
And when these start, especially as new parents, we will feel like failures.
These emotions that arise in us will be directly linked to our history—how our parents and mentors responded to us when we cried—and how advanced we are in our empathy.
If we are in a stable frame of soul, when our own needs of love and belonging are met, we are much more likely to receive our children’s cries—if they are not caused by reasons we can fix, such as hunger, thirst or tiredness—with compassion and understanding. We are much more likely to listen attentively, reflect their feelings, and comfort with our presence rather than our actions.
I am now in the middle of a fascinating time called “the terrible twos,” which appear to be lasting at least six months before and two years past my child’s second birthday.
Over time, I’ve had different reactions to my children, based on how I judged their tears.
With my first child, I was razor focused on problem solving. But there were times when she couldn’t pinpoint a specific issue, or when her focus of frustration and demands moved from one topic to the next.
She would start the cries wanting a stuffed dog, then the center of grief transferred to the color of her doll’s hair, then a request to obtain a new truck from the shop right now!, then asking for a snack, then another, and then another.
Here was how I was rolling:
I would immediately execute the delivery of the stuffed dog, then promise a new doll with a different hair color, a trip to the store in the very near future, then offer her the requested snack, a second, a third and a fourth option, and then give up and lose my patience when none of the tears stopped.
I blamed myself for not knowing how to make my child happy, then I blamed her for being so difficult, and then I blamed my husband—who wasn’t even aware of these small incidents or my feelings around them—for transmitting such flawed genes to our offspring.
When I was done blaming my parents for not teaching me how to cope with my own moods, I then, finally, blamed the lady on the bus for looking at me with what I perceived to be judgment.
It’s been years since, and I am now in the position to do it again. And this time, with double the dose. As I have educated myself in regards to expression of emotion, and I’ve done the hard work of mindfulness and paying attention without engaging, I have a different approach.
And this is what it looks like.
Let’s assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the scenario is the same. It starts with frustrated tears, usually accompanied by a snappish tone of voice.
“I want the stuffed dog!”
I offer the stuffed dog, tears continue.
I now recognize that this conversation has nothing to do with stuffed animals. If my kid wants a toy, he knows he can get it himself.
I know that he needs to unload whatever big feelings he doesn’t understand or he is unable to have words for.
“I want a doll with rainbow hair.”
“I know, honey; I’m so sorry that this one only has brown hair.”
More tears, more passionate display of emotion.
“I wanna go to the store and buy a new truck.”
“ I know you do.”
More tears, this time with hiccups.
“I want a cookie.”
“We will eat a bit later.”
More tears, more helplessness.
“I want an apple.”
“I know, baby.”
“I wanna go eat ice cream.”
“I know you do.”
And so I’m there, in the middle of the meltdown, knowing that it has nothing to do with dogs, dolls, trucks, cookies, apples or ice cream. I know it has to do perhaps with the fact that he has just started school, or possibly because his sibling has been sick and received more attention.
There are many reasons why we can feel this way, and we don’t always know how to behave gracefully through these emotions.
What every single human being craves is the non-negotiable feeling that they are loved, accepted, and that they belong. And, if they don’t belong in our arms, especially when their soul hurts, where else should they go?
So next time you’re in the middle of a parental struggle, with your child demanding stuff, consider for a second that the only thing they might need is just an excuse to unload their feelings.
What do you need to do for yourself so you can hold that space for them?