One of my children feels everyday things at levels of emotional intensity that I hardly ever reach. She grasps and struggles to remember her coping strategies. Almost every day, we have at least one reaction that ends with her sobbing and me bear-hugging her to keep her and others safe. (That I would even write “at least one” is an improvement from last year, when I would write “at least five.”)
My heart hurts for her.
I’ve learned to set up her environment to help her succeed. I’ve read lots of books and tried lots of strategies that have seemed to help. I’ve also tried and discarded suggestions. I’ve visited a few professionals. Her brain has continued to develop and I see progress as she matures. But the world makes her feel big feelings and I can’t make them stop.
I’ve learned a lot along this journey. One of the lessons that has been the hardest to learn and accept is to stop trying to find a magic strategy that fixes everything. I still wrestle with this temptation–if we can just figure out WHAT CAUSES THIS, then I DO XYZ AND IT ALL GOES AWAY.
I like linear thinking and cause-and-effect; I am a CBT-practicing therapist’s dream. But my child can’t communicate about all of the things that influence her responses, and I suspect there are things that mediate her responses that she isn’t aware of. We are diligently working to try to understand them, but it doesn’t mean that we will.
Which means we need to focus on practicing coping skills. Both of us.
Another lesson I have learned is that in order for me to enjoy parenting and communicate love to my child, I need to move beyond a behavioral focus. In the beginning, I tried behavior modification techniques. Over and over again. But I had to pay attention to the fact that when I ignored her as she wailed on the floor, or when I put her in time-out, or even when I used some old-school parenting techniques as a last-ditch effort, the behavior was not becoming extinct and my child’s feelings grew more intense. She didn’t feel bad about her behavior; she felt alone with her feelings.
I have come to believe that my sweet girl didn’t ask to feel such big feelings and isn’t trying to feel them; they’re unpleasant for her, too. So the best way to be her mama isn’t to punish or ignore those feelings out of her; it’s to get down with her and be there as she feels them, and to help coach her in the best way to cope with them.
It doesn’t mean that we never do time-outs, but it means that instead of shoving her in her room wordlessly or with a “WE DO NOT HIT!”, I try to set her up in her room with her bean bag chair, her “bump bump,” her heavy backpack, some books, or her sensory teether and help her make a plan for how she is going to calm down.
It means that I take her away from situations that are too overwhelming for her, but don’t get frustrated at her for being overwhelmed. If she handled her feelings in a non-acceptable way, I usually don’t punish her beyond the logical consequence of being removed from the situation; if she shows remorse, we move on and practice how we could handle the situation better next time.
It means that I resist the urge to view her behaviors as a deficit that need to be stamped out of her and try my hardest to remember that I am dealing with a human being with a heart that I am partially responsible for shaping.
Before every nap and every bedtime, I hold her hand and remind her: you are kind. You are good. You are smart. You are loved. She always begs me to say it again. I think this is telling of how much she wants to be these things and maybe even how far-off she feels from these things sometimes.
Right now my kitchen table is full of flowers. She picked a bouquet for me a few days ago and asked, “did this make you happy, mama?” I told her yes, they did. Two days later, before the first bouquet had even died, she picked me more. Then she made me paper flowers with her babysitter. Each time: “did this make you happy, mama?”
My prayer in parenting right now is that I can focus on the fact that my table is full of flowers from a girl who wants to please me. In the midst of trying to deal with all of HER big emotions, she values MY emotions. What a gift!
When Jesus said “let the little children come to me,” he didn’t set a behavior standard first. It wasn’t “let the children come only when they are good at coping with disappointment, anger, and sadness, and can communicate clearly using I-statements.” He wanted them to come as they were so He could share unconditional love with them.
That is my job as well. And as I stumble through it, imperfectly but with lots of effort, He shares that same unconditional love with me.