My son has been so much from the day he was born. That's always been the word we've used: much. He's always been high energy and on the go, even as a baby. I had so many ideas about who I would be as a mother before he was born—like we all do—but as soon as I met this little human, they all flew out the window.
The emotion he immediately latched onto was mad. It was like he knew nothing else. "I'm so mad, Mommy," he'd always say, even if he was crying about something that was clearly making him sad or tired or even hungry. Maybe his sister took a toy away, or he scraped his knee. It could be anything, absolutely anything, but the emotion he attached to it was always anger.
His tantrums were big screaming fits long past the point where most children had grown out of them. I had run out of patience with them. I wanted to be gentle, but I didn't know how to be with a child that had such big feelings, bigger than any other child I'd ever met (and I'd met a lot of them).
I admit now that I was so frustrated by it.
Eventually, after endless afternoons complaining to my own mother on the phone and nights spent tossing and turning, wondering if I had done something to make him feel too much—is that possible?—I found that the best way to deal with my frustration was to recognize it.
As mothers, there is often guilt surrounding anything we perceive to be selfish, whether it be self-care or sleeping in on a Saturday morning so someone else can get up with the kids or taking the last slice of bacon. This, for me, included feeling selfish when I felt frustrated with my son's outbursts, but pushing those feelings away didn't help either of us actually deal with the problem at hand.
It was at that point that I realized we were both so deeply frustrated with each other that I was causing nearly as much tension as he was. Gentle parenting had always been something my husband and I aimed for and somehow it had gotten lost in all of the friction.
So suddenly, I was Googling deep breathing techniques and trying to figure out how I could keep my head while also still disciplining my child. I couldn't just let him run wild, could I? It became my number one concern that he would suddenly become a complete wild child, though I was pretty sure he wasn't too far off from that already, so I didn't have too much to lose.
It was in the middle of one of his tantrums while I was breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth and he was crying and screaming that it hit me: If these things are working for me, why not him?
So I got down on my knees and asked him, "Will you take a few deep breaths with me?"
Obviously, he wasn't interested the first few times, but he began to notice that I was doing the deep-breathing whenever I was frustrated. So he started doing it too.
After that, I started using specific phrases I wanted him to use as well, hoping he would pick up on them. He would say "Go away," so I would use the more appropriate "Can I please have some space right now?" He picked up on it quickly and started using it.
I tried to be sly about it. Anything too obvious and head-on was met with resistance from my headstrong boy. He likes to think that things are his own idea, so I let him think that.
But what I believe truly cemented the change was teaching him more about his feelings. We started talking about his feelings all the time, even when he was happy. I would ask him casually how he was feeling, we bought books and posters, and we named all kinds of different feelings. Suddenly, he wasn't just mad. He was sad. He was frustrated. He was silly. He felt so many things that he now knew how to name.
I won't pretend that tantrums disappeared. I'm no child-whisperer. But they dwindled to the point that they were so few and far between, I didn't mind them so much when they happened. I was gentle and understanding and downright loving when one came along. I could see it in his eyes: he was grateful for my change in attitude.
He could feel the shift. Our home is now filled with less tension and more love, fewer fights and more laughs. And I feel hopeful for the future of my bright, wild, big-feelings boy.