She’s four. And I’m not, so…
We have a bit of a…situation…at home.
Lately, Piper, our lovely middle child, who will be five in a few short months, has regressed to temper tantrums.
These are not mild temper tantrums. These are knock-down, drag-out, where-is-that-box-of-wine-I-bought-at-Walgreens? tantrums that come on totally out of the blue.
One minute, she is kissing my face telling me I am the sweetest mommy in the world. The next, she is writhing on the ground, screaming, “You are the worst! This whole place is so stupid! You won’t let me do anything.”
The first few times it happened I thought I was being punked.
Because who acts that way after being told they need to wait five seconds to be handed a roll of tape?
(Just writing about it makes me want to drink some Merlot. And I never drink Merlot because room-temperature beverages feel weird on my teeth. But that is not what I want to discuss today.)
When Piper acts this way, the stern parent in me wants – and has tried – to create a list of consequences and warnings and rules and declarations and blah blah blah.
Not a single piece of this works, ever.
What actually does seem to be in full operation is a familiar cycle that goes like this:
Screaming, kicking, wailing Piper.
Manic self-talk on my part: “Don’t lose it, don’t lose, it, don’t lose it. Have patience, love her through it, have patience, love her through it …. Oh, HELL NO. F THIS.”
Me to Piper: GET UP OFF THE FLOOR RIGHT NOW YOU ARE DRIVING ME CRAZY STOP ACTING THIS WAY YOU ARE TOO OLD AND I AM A NICE MOMMY (YES I ACTUALLY SAID THIS) AND YOU KNOW BETTER WHY DO YOU DO THIS??!!
Piper: Massive, genuine tears while she blinks at me and says, “You promised not to yell and talk to me that way anymore.”
Me to self (trying to ignore large hole of guilt somewhere in chest): You are a giant a-hole for screaming at a kid who doesn’t even know why she is acting this way.
Me to Piper as she collapses into my chest: “I’m very sorry for yelling at you. I’m working on not yelling and sometimes I make mistakes. We’re going to figure this out together.”
Me to self: You cannot do that again. It will never happen again, blah, blah, blah.
Rinse and repeat daily and you get the idea.
I know I’m not alone.
This seems to be an almost laughably common pattern among my peers who are parenting.
So what’s up, you guys?
I’m no expert, but I love a good working theory based on nothing more than experience and conjecture as much as the next person.
So here’s mine:
Our generation was largely raised by parents who told us how it was and had little patience for feelings. A great many of us also had parents who doled out punishment when we did not follow orders and left little to no space for us to talk about our side of the story.
I’m not very interested anymore in whether this was right or wrong.
Probably due to my years of therapy and binge watching the Real Housewives, I’ve come to realize that parents usually do the best they can, based on the skills they were given as children. Sometimes this is a stellar job, and sometimes it’s not even close.
But either way, I believe that each generation builds on what it learned as kids and adds some contribution to move us forward a bit.
Which brings me back to us, as modern-day parents.
A good portion of us have learned since childhood to talk through feelings we couldn’t address as kids, manage emotions, etc.
Which has left us desperate to teach our children how to do the same. We are determined to raise humans who can talk about their feelings and emotions.
As people who were raised by the “You’ll respect your elders and be quiet” generation, we also carry with us a constant voice of fear that says, “But what if our parents were right?”
On a practical level, this means that every one of Piper’s tantrums evokes two voices in me:
One that wants to simply let her be and create a safe space for her to process her feelings.
And another that screams incessantly: “She should know better! She should respect what you’re saying! She is going to be a spoiled, directionless brat who reclines on the couch all day and eats bon bons (editor’s note: this sounds nice, but that’s not the point) if you let her get away with this!”
The former voice is loving and kind and feels good.
The latter voice is clearly insane and makes my body incredibly tense. Right before I yell.
Slowly, I have started to realize that it is not actually Piper’s behavior that is making me crazy.
It’s the arguing in my own head that drives me insane.
So here’s what I’ve been doing that is helping me to change the pattern (about as fast as a sloth running through peanut butter, but still…)
First, I acknowledge that the struggle is within myself, not between me and my daughter.
Second, I realize that if Piper feels safe losing her mind in front of me, I must have done something right, because showing our real emotions to others implies a sense of safety. I’m also helping her talk through her feelings after a tantrum. These are good, healthy things that many of us are doing – our contribution to advancing parenting, so to speak.
Finally and most importantly, I let my daughter see me struggle with being human.
Our generation has been through the mill of therapy, talking about things we could not discuss in our families. And this is helpful.
But it has also led many of us to believe we can raise children who do not have to struggle emotionally at all.
Which, is, well, silly.
Human beings are meant to feel lots of different emotions by design. Our children will and should carry shame, anger, grief with them because these emotions help guide us through life.
So many of us are already doing the work that is most important: letting our children see us make mistakes, struggle with it, and eventually own it by forgiving ourselves and apologizing when we mess up.
In doing so, we may imprint some shame on our children that they don’t deserve, but we’re also giving them the tools to navigate these feelings and permit imperfections in themselves.
So give yourself a break today, ok? You’re doing a much better job than you think.
In parenthood, as with all things: progress, not perfection.
Please send some more boxed wine.
This morning’s tantrum was a real doozie.
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