--2 Mother Tongue: Little, Big
Sept. 25, 2017
Kids experience big emotions too.

Mother Tongue: Little, Big

Shifting emotions are a balancing act in parenting

April 2, 2014, 1:00 am
By Lauren Whitehurst

Big feelings. This is how my daughter’s preschool teacher interprets Sylvia’s passionate emotional-behavioral skipping.

After another morning of dramatic playacting, emo singing, three outfits, cranky yelling and hyper silliness, followed by a tantrum, tight hugs and cuddles, Sylvia and I made it to her school. I was both concerned and relieved to learn that my 3-year-old’s back-to-back exhibitions of manic play, lashing out and clinginess weren’t solely for me. Did this indict or absolve me of bad parenting?

Sylvia says, “I love you,” often. She kisses and snuggles with my husband and me, her brother, cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends. Granted, for a while, the way she said “I love you,” was: “I don’t hate you.” But she’s added more variety: “Mama, you love me. You always love me.” Or, “The whole world loves me. And I love the whole world. Except bad guys. I kill bad guys to death. I [magic] wand them in half.”

She can be quite peaceful, but the self-ordained Princess Hot Sauce is not generally a mild child. Sometimes there’s time for her to run out her feelings, and sometimes we need to get out the door. I tried splitting the difference last week, to middling success. I repeatedly thought, “Why, why are you so difficult to handle!?” and “I cannot deal with this again today!” and “Aaarrrgghh!”

The last may be the only appropriate response: It’s the only one that expresses how I’m feeling. Sometimes I have to handle my kids; sometimes I literally have to pick Sylvia up and carry her, screaming. Sometimes I have to deal with them. But I try to avoid these terms because they elide the part about people relating to each other, or at least trying to.

I’m wary of discounting Sylvia and Theo’s “big feelings.” Emotions are common human ground, and they can be messy. They’re often inconvenient—and so is figuring out how to respond to them with love and respect without judgment.

Theo has been super sensitive, teary and outraged at insulting requests like, “Wash your hands.” He’s mad at me the minute I pick him up from kindergarten, even if I volunteered in his class. “Ugh!” he grunts and jerks away from my hug. I’m tempted to call after him, “Dude! What is wrong with you!?”

I don’t. I want my kids to know it’s okay to feel angry—furious, even—sad, sensitive, selfish, conflicted and frustrated. They also need to know it’s not okay to hit someone, scream something mean in someone’s face or run away when their mother is talking to them.

Feelings and their behavioral expressions are different things. If my kids and I can talk in terms of “I’m feeling ___,” then we can approach a communicative somewhere, if not an actual resolution. This is ideal, but we’ve gotten here only a few times. My patience fades, or the dialogue veers sharply into LegoLand or someone’s need to pee right-away-now!

Like parents everywhere, I have standards for my kids. Certain behaviors are appropriate and others aren’t; others depend on situation and context. I can’t expect Theo and Sylvia to know this without being taught. I can’t teach them if I don’t guide them to reasonable alternatives and certainly if I don’t model them in the first place.

This is a dilemma: I’m human, too, and reactive. Rarely are my reactions sufficiently patient or creative. Why do I always have to be the adult?

A couple times, I’ve had the wherewithal to invite the kids to go scream outside instead of at me. Sometimes, everyone softens with a cuddle. Sometimes, not. Pillows and balls as better for hitting and kicking than siblings or parents, but props aren’t always available. Deep breaths are, though.

I want Theo and Sylvia to develop good judgment in assessing situations and making decisions, difficult as they can be in the throes of big feelings. I think I hope to model this, too, somehow. But using judgment is different than passing judgment: I don’t want to judge my kids’ big feelings directly or by conflating them with their behavior.

Conflation is easy. Theo’s painfully protracted wailing over being asked to clean up his Legos—sternly, because it’s the eleventh time I’ve asked—is ridiculous. It’s tidy to address it on this level alone. I can command, “Just stop it!” louder than his wailing or Sylvia’s flailing. But I can’t do this and expect a switched-flip resolution.

Kids (like adults) can’t stop feeling what they’re feeling on demand, and I don’t help them by insisting they should. This isn’t encouraging wallowing; they can change the way they’re acting. But they’ll need empathy and guidance to learn how in a positive way.

Theo still has to pick up his toys, but Lego-binning and my annoyance aren’t the locus of his big feelings. He’s feeling sad. He’s frustrated and really angry because he didn’t have time to do everything he wanted to do, like ride bikes. I say I’ve felt sad lately, too. I get frustrated and angry when I can’t do all I’d hoped to do. It’s no fun to feel this way. Is there a kid-appropriate phrase for “it sucks!”? We sit together; we commiserate. We make plans to bike tomorrow.

We can’t always work through big feelings in their big moments. Sometimes, parenting equals choosing battles. I wrest Sylvia into sleeves for a 32-degree morning, carry her barefoot to her car seat, and strap her in. I take a deep breath. We drive, she screams, and I calmly explain how big feelings and behavior are different.

I might also say, “I’m so tired of this! Every day!” I often want to say, “I have no idea what I’m doing, really, so I apologize for the therapy you’ll need.” After all, according to a recently revived article from The Onion, every parenting style inevitably causes suffering “from some debilitating combination of unpreparedness and isolation.”

This is funny in that you-can’t-win-in-parenting way. I worry it’s true; I hope it’s not.

Eventually, we arrive. I fasten Sylvia’s shoes, and she either refuses to hold hands across the parking lot or she climbs my back with a kiss and a choking hug. “I don’t hate you, Mama,” she says.

“Thanks,” I reply.

Or maybe she says, “Mama, you do love me.”

I waver between tension held and released. I say, “I always love you,” which is intensely true, even when I’m reacting to her and Theo’s wild swings. Love is a big feeling.



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