The other day I stood in my driveway crying, with my 2-year-old daughter screaming and sobbing. All I could gather was that she didn’t like my shirt and no longer liked her car seat.
We had just had a 30-minute meltdown inside the house, too—and I was frustrated because I really needed to get to work. I was tired, with a mix of mom brain and new pregnancy hormones.
I bribed her with a sucker and threatened to take away something that I don’t even remember. It didn’t work.
I gave her hugs and gave her space and had no feedback of which was better.
Finally it became clear: My options were to connect or disconnect.
I thought about which one I would want when I feel emotional and sad. Connection. I repeated quietly to her, “I’m right here with you. I love you.” When she hit me, I stepped back a little and said, “I can’t let you hurt me. I’m still right here with you. I’m ready to help you whenever you’re ready.”
After a little while I thought, “Dang, that didn’t work, now what?” And right then, she lifted her little arms up to me and said, “I need you mommy, I’m ready.” I hugged her, we connected, and I felt like I really showed her that I would be with her through everything. I honestly felt like we’d just gotten through a hurricane and come out into the sunshine. She smiled, got in her car seat and we were on our way.
That sounds like a great ending, right? It was. But I wish that meant it always happens like that. I have no idea why sometimes that works, and sometimes the only thing that works is a sucker, or distraction or someone else taking over.
I’m not a perfect mom, or even a really amazing mom—just a regular mom who is still new and learning every day. But I do have one added bonus that has given me a different perspective: I’ve been a mental health therapist for almost five times longer than I’ve been a mom, which has taught me a lot.
1. What we say and do matters more than we know right now
Everything we say and do has an impact, especially to our children. Children’s brains operate as if they’re looking into a mirror; whatever the world shows them about themselves is what they believe to be true.
As a therapist, I mainly work with depression and trauma. I do a particular type of therapy that focuses on identifying negative cognitions (thoughts and beliefs) and then exploring and healing the root of those beliefs, whether they are from a big trauma or “little” trauma. Clients often come to therapy identifying that these beliefs stemmed from a big event, but when we really process it, they are sometimes able to identify that the very first time they felt that way was an interaction with a parent.
It could be a parent saying something like:
“You’re never going to make it in life.”
“I liked it better when you were little and didn’t talk.”
“I can’t believe you did that, I’m embarrassed that you’re my child.”
And even, “I love you, but I don’t like you right now.” (I always recommend, “I don’t like your choice right now, but I always love you.”)
If you’re a new mom gazing into your sweet baby’s eyes, you’re thinking, “I would never say those things to my child!” Let me tell you, good parents sometimes say things they don’t mean when they’re pushed to their limits. Even if you don’t mean it, those words hurt your child and sticks with them.
2. It’s never too late to make things better
That first one is kind of scary, right? So much pressure!
But wait—there’s good news! Teaching your children that you can make mistakes, take responsibility, apologize and demonstrate change is extremely important. And what better way to do that than by example? Starting when they’re little, it’s important to go back and say something like, “I yelled when I felt mad, and I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have yelled and I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
Then show by example that you’re trying. Next time you feel like yelling, it’s OK to take a parent time out, and say to your child, “I feel frustrated by _____, I’m going to take a break, and then we’ll come back and talk about this.”
Imagine how great it would be if, when they’re teens, they’re able to recognize they’re in the midst of making a bad choice, stop themselves and reach out for help from you? The goal isn’t for people to never make bad choices, it’s to be able to recognize that and make a U-turn.
3. Connection is our greatest tool
Imagine you’re having a really tough day. Maybe you made a mistake at work or someone was really mean to you. Maybe it’s huge or maybe you’re even overreacting—it doesn’t matter. You sit on the couch and cry. You can’t even help it, the tears just come out and you can hardly speak. Imagine your partner comes in, your main support person, and they tell you that you need to calm down or they’re going to leave you alone until you can calm down. They walk out of the room and leave you there alone, maybe even yell at you on the way out.
Ouch! I know for me personally, some of that sadness would turn to major hurt, resentment and anger.
“How can you leave me when I really need you? I can’t just ‘calm down,’ I need a hug!” That’s how our developed adult brains react, so imagine how a toddler’s brain reacts.
It’s scary for them to feel out of control and then all alone in that feeling. Even if it’s just because they didn’t get the blue cup—it’s real sadness and hurt in that moment for them. If we send toddlers to be by themselves and calm themselves down when they’re upset, how can we expect them to come to us as teens when they really need advice and support? It’s no wonder teenagers keep it to themselves and hide in their rooms. It’s what they’ve often been taught to do.
So, what can you do to connect and teach your children they can talk to you? Well, that’s a magic answer that really needs a whole book, but No. 4 is a good start.
4. Being able to express feelings, instead of suppress them, is a great lifelong skill
They all seem well meaning, right? But are they helpful in the long run? My opinion is no. Is it helpful for you when someone says it to you? It’s not helpful to me. Even at 2 years old, if my husband or I say to our daughter, “You’re OK,” she quickly says between tears, “No, I’m not!” And she’s right. If she were OK she wouldn’t be crying! If she could just calm down and stop crying, she probably would have done that, because she certainly isn’t enjoying feeling like that.
Pointing out to children, “It looks like you're mad because _____. That’s OK to feel mad. What can we do that will help?” teaches them to recognize emotions, label them and create a plan. This is most helpful when they’re not in full on meltdown mode, because once they get to that point they can’t come up with a solution.
In meltdown mode, establishing expectations and connections are key:
“I can’t let you hit me, but I’m right here with you when you’re ready.”
“I see you feel sad, that’s OK.”
“It’s OK to be sad and mad; it’s not OK to be mean to other people when you’re sad or mad.”
“Tell me where you want me to stay while I wait for you to be ready for help; I can sit next to you or right over here.”
These all show that you’re there with your child through everything, you see how they’re feeling, you hear them, it’s OK to feel any of those feelings, and there are still expectations for not hurting others. When we inadvertently teach our children that “it’s OK” when they actually don’t feel OK, or that they just need to quickly calm down, we are teaching them not to recognize their own feelings and actually deal with them. When those kids become adults, they often freeze or flee in tough situations because they don’t know how to be in it, feel it and move forward with a plan.
I know, this feels like a lot of pressure, and it’s so much easier said than done. Refer back to No. 2—it’s never too late to make things better.
And remember, even people who are supposed to be experts in emotions and connections sometimes just bribe their kids with a sucker or an episode of Doc McStuffins to get through the day. Take a deep breath and hang in there—I’m right there with you.