As summer heats up, I get to reread my students’ final essays in the quiet after school has ended. Revisiting each writer’s thoughts confirms for me the importance of the questions, observations and understanding of these bright, young mothers.
The writers were students in this year’s Mother Tongue English III/IV class at Capital High School. The class is the anchor program of the Mother Tongue Project, which delivers to expectant and parenting 11th- and 12th-graders high-standard, relevancy-based academic English instruction, a tailored in-class library, and mentorships with former teen parents who’ve earned college degrees.
This year, participants delved into issues of support versus shaming; toddler behavior; family nutrition; grieving and mothering; and committing to long-term goals for the sake of a child. Their perspectives are shaped by being teenagers and young parents; their insights can speak to all of us.
Our experiences of parenting and being parented seem always to be changing, staying the same, evolving; and our reflections on and conversations about these experiences deepen significantly with the addition of diverse voices. I am grateful to be able to share these young mothers’ voices beyond the bounds of the classroom.
If you feel moved to respond to these essays, please leave feedback. It is a joy to make a young writer aware of the power of her words to affect a reader.
A note of thanks: Mother Tongue Project and the posting of these essays wouldn’t be possible without the support of the Santa Fe Public Schools Office of Student Wellness, the administration of Capital High School, the Santa Fe Reporter, and the generous contributions of our supporters. Thank you!
—Lauren Whitehurst, Mother Tongue Project Founder | Director | Teacher
When Less is More: Looking Ahead + Managing Now
By Jennifer Gonzales
Photo by Anna Yarrow
Being a teen mom means I have more responsibilities and less time for my daughter. I feel her love for me, but it’s not as strong as her love for my mom, since my mom watches her more. I don’t get to enjoy much time with her or see all her milestones. Even though going to school means not spending much time with my daughter, she is the one who keeps me from giving up. Before I found out I was pregnant, I was going to drop out. Thanks to her, I stayed in school. I will graduate and go on because I can earn more money and flexibility with more education—and because I want to be my daughter’s role model.
Our time together is short right now because I’m finishing high school and work full time. I am a primary income source for my family, while my mom is the primary caretaker of my baby. Many teen moms struggle with having time for their babies, like my Mother Tongue Project Mentor, Jaime Holladay. “When my son was very little, I worked the night shift as a hostess at a restaurant and took one to two classes per semester, evening classes,” Holladay remembers. “I was able to be with him during the day; and the time I was away was primarily when he was asleep.”
I’m with my daughter for four hours on weekdays. It hurts not to see her more, but, like Holladay says, it will be okay: “Part of me felt very sad, as if I was not a good mom since I wasn’t with him all the time. However, I realized most parents have to work, and, since [my son] was cared for by my mom or sister, he was well taken care of. I knew the time we were apart early on would pay off in the future.” She saw that continuing her education could improve her children’s lives: “After I had my son, I realized even more how important it was to be college educated so that I could afford him with opportunities I didn’t have.”
Graduating from college is one of my main goals, too, so that as my daughter grows I can sit with her and help with her schoolwork. That way, she won’t have a problem graduating herself. Moms want the best for their kids, and that has to do with education. It practically builds your life because more education equals more job opportunities and more money, which lead to a better lifestyle.
According to an Associated Press article, Americans with college degrees are more likely to have jobs: “Just two-thirds of high-school-only grads ages 25-64 were employed in 2015,” compared to 84 percent of college graduates the same age. Getting a good job with a college degree can get me where I want to be—and I can do something I’m interested in and actually enjoy going to work.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, “only about 50 percent of teen mothers receive a high-school diploma by 22 years of age.” The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that fewer than 2 percent of teen moms earn a college degree by age 30. These statistics bother me. I know the percentage of teen moms who don’t graduate is not because we aren’t smart or capable. You would think that, because they have children, young parents would be more motivated to graduate and go to college—but having support has a lot to do with being able to achieve these goals.
Holladay mentions other reasons why teen moms have a hard time finishing school: “For some, there has been trauma in their life, which led to poor decision-making. Also, many have conflicting demands: homework, school work, actual employment, taking care of a child, as well as pressure from family to stay home with their baby.”
While I think this is true, as Holladay also says, “It is easy to get caught up in the short-term instead of thinking about long-term goals and implications of the choices we make.” I have my mom’s support and encouragement to continue with school, but I also made a commitment to my daughter that I would keep going and not give up.
My achievements influence her future. Parents want to see their kids graduate, go to college and get degrees—but when parents don’t go through that process, there's more chance their children won’t, either. Even if many teen moms don’t graduate from high school on time, they can still get a GED and go to college. It’s important they know this and keep moving forward so they can be role models and help their kids succeed.
Part of being a mom is being a role model: Who we are is how our children will be, and parents’ actions contribute to children’s development. In “The Importance of Parents as Role Models,” Sophie Bloom writes, “By displaying moral and ethical behavior, parents […] impart values which can counter the negative influences children may receive from their peers or media.” Our kids will learn different things outside of home, and a lot won’t be what we want them to learn. But we can help guide them.
Being understanding and having calm conversations help kids know they can open up and let us help them with whatever’s going on. Bloom tells parents, “take the time to listen and share their concerns, so [children] feel both loved and respected.” Yelling and getting out of control won’t make kids see what they did wrong or learn to trust us.
Being a role model isn’t just about showing your kids who you are and want them to be, but also about telling them who you were. “Parents who admit to their mistakes, learn from them, and strive to better themselves can serve as powerful influences for children’s emotional growth,” Bloom says. I want my daughter to be a better person than I am. For that to happen, I will try so hard to be there when she needs me.
I won’t always be in school, and I cherish time I have with my daughter. Not being able to see her much has motivated me to finish school and get a degree. She has made my life better even though I struggle. Because of what I’m doing now, I will have a career I enjoy, that can support us, and that will allow me to be present for her throughout her life. I will be the role model I want for my daughter. I have learned to work for our future together. Thanks to her, I am becoming who I am.
Jennifer Gonzales graduated from Capital High School on May 25.
She plans to attend Santa Fe Community College in the fall
and become a dental hygienist.
Losing My Mom and Becoming a Mom
By Guadalupe Avalos
Photo by Anna Yarrow
I never thought about losing my mom as a teenager. Coping with the fact that she is no longer here and I will never see her again destroys me in some way every day. I especially feel her absence in my milestones. “Everybody has their own journey when dealing with grief, ’’says Xarin Escobedo, a Capital High School mental health and academic counselor. He recommends talking about grief with counselors, friends, whoever helps. When my mother died, however, I didn't open up to anyone. I couldn't speak about her because I’d burst into tears, and it was hard for me to ask for help because I felt like I needed to be independent. I was parenting a one-year-old and didn’t have time to deal with my emotions or grieve. Experiencing the loss of my mom when I was 16 and beginning my parenting life continues to affect me as a teen mother, a student and the woman I’m becoming.
I was 14 when I became pregnant. My mom supported me throughout my pregnancy and encouraged me to make my own decisions. I had complications, and my membranes ruptured at six months. I was on bed rest at the hospital in Albuquerque for a month. On October 30, 2013, my son, Javier Avalos, was born premature at 28 weeks by C-section. He was 17 cm long and 4 lbs, 1 oz. I remember being in a white room. I remember my mom holding my hand.
A couple weeks later, my mom was in critical condition when doctors detected cancer again. She’d been diagnosed with breast cancer shortly after my twin and I were born, but it was treated and went into remission. The second time, just after I had Javier, it was bone cancer. I always felt it was my fault that my mom had cancer because my father told my twin and me that it was. I don't blame him because maybe he was going through a rough moment, as I did when I fell into postpartum depression. Before having my son, I felt happiness inside of me, and then I felt a deep hole. I remember visiting the hospital every day—my son in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Albuquerque and my mom in the Intensive Care Unit in Santa Fe. I couldn't stand seeing my son and my mom in such critical conditions: I was scared they wouldn't make it. My son got better, but my mom died a year and a half later.
Navigating life as a teen mom with two children and without my mother is a journey, not a quick passage, and it’s left me with an emptiness that never goes away. I’m just surviving with it. In her article “Help for Motherless Daughters,” Kathleen Doheny writes, “Losing a mother early in life can affect the woman’s own parenting.” She says some mothers become “overprotective, driven by the fear something will happen to the child or themselves.” I am afraid of not being there and missing too much time when my children are growing and needing me. I try to be healthy and spend as much time as I can with my kids because I don't want my children to go through what I am going through.
Lissa Howe, a mother of two from Colorado, was not a teen mom, but she and I both suffered the loss of our moms when our oldest children were one-and-a-half. “Losing my mom has affected my parenting quite a bit,” she says, “partly because [I miss] just not having her here. She really knew a lot about kids—she loved kids—and so I just miss having her advice and help.” This is true for me, too. My mom, a parent of nine, had so much experience with babies, and I could have learned a lot from her.
Several mothers I read about who lost their moms thought they became different than they would have been if their mothers hadn’t died early. This was true for Lissa: “In a way, I think I’ve become more of my own self as a parent because I haven't just asked her what to do. I’ve had to think about it myself a little bit more and get advice from other people, other parents, and really think about who I am and who my kids are and try to figure it out.” For me, I became more independent since my mom died. I’ve had to ask for help from other moms, and everyone has a different way of mothering.
Striving to accomplish my goals without my mom has been painful. Whenever a grieving student wants to drop out of school, counselor Escobedo says, “one of the questions I will ask is, what would the person you lost want you to do with your life?” My mom would want me to keep going. She was the only person in my family who really supported my education, even when others told me to drop out.
Not having my mom has come up in school in different ways. I remember a school open house when a teacher assigned students to bring in their parents for extra credit. I spoke with the teacher at the end of class and told him my situation, and I will never forget his response: “Well, I guess you don't get your extra credit,” he said.
I walked around the school with my huge belly and my son in my arms watching other students smiling and giggling with their parents. They all seemed like happy families. I couldn't hold it together. I burst into tears. My son wiped my tears on my face and asked with his sweet little voice, “Mommy, are you ok?” He hugged me and I cried in silence. I had to hide my emotions.
Another time, registering for senior year, I stood at the end of a huge line with my son and my very visible pregnancy. Everyone stared. I really needed my mom, and it was hard seeing the other students beside theirs. It’s going to hurt a lot not seeing my mom at my high-school graduation. She always wanted me to graduate and demonstrate that a single teen mom can be successful, that there are no impossibles, that a baby is not a huge stone in my way, and that I can prove wrong people who judge me.
Graduating is a big milestone and I’m excited for it. Also, I’ll feel different: Other parents will watch their children graduate while my children will watch their mom graduate. Because I don't have my mom by my side, I often ask myself, “What do I do to advance alongside other people and not feel very different?” Hope Edelman, author of Motherless Daughters: The Legacy of Loss, says, “There is one piece of you that always feels different.”
Since I was 14, I’ve felt like an adult. I often did things on my own and I kept it to myself.
Sometimes I feel more different than at other times. It’s kind of like when I feel sad. As Sandy Banks writes in a Los Angeles Times article, “The grief that accompanies early loss of a mother can ebb and flow through a daughter's life. It tends to surge at milestones: a graduation, a wedding, the birth of a child.” One of the toughest moments I experienced without my mom was having my second baby, Mia Marivy Araiza, on May 26, 2016. This significant event triggered my grief for my mother. I was 17 and I felt the absence of my mom and family very sharply. “It’s all about those times you expect your mom to be there,” says a counselor in Doheny’s “Help for Motherless Daughters” article. In the hospital, I watched the family of my newborn’s father arriving. My only family member was two-and-half-year-old Javy, and I started crying as soon as he stepped into the room.
It is hard not having my mom to guide me as I become a woman, especially because it’s hard letting people help me. But accepting help from other women can make things easier. “Finding a surrogate mother helps,” writes Doheny. “There are many women out there who will mother you if you are open.” I have found some.
Teresa Campos, the mother of a friend, was willing to mother me right after my mom died. She treated me as her own child and was there when I needed her most. She was there when I needed to cry or talk about how I felt. She was there when my twin sister and I were wandering the streets with nowhere to go: She drove 25 hours from Santa Fe to North Carolina to pick us up. I asked her why she did all this even though I’m not one of hers. “Because you guys are like my daughters and I’m not going to leave your sides,” she said. She gave me advice when my son got sick and taught me home remedies. I am so blessed to just have her in my life. She is my Ma.
At school, teacher and administrator Jaime Holladay stood up for me when I had problems. She signed the teacher’s parent list on that open-house day so I could get my extra credit. There is a big list of women I admire.
In “Help for Motherless Daughters,” psychologist Arthur Kovacs compares life to “starting out with a tiny house and adding rooms. Every life experience adds a room to the house. The death of a parent adds a big room. What’s important is to keep all doors open to all rooms. We will find ourselves visiting those rooms in our mind. Some rooms will have beautiful views and some rooms you will need to go in, sit, down, and cry occasionally. Women who have lost their mothers early may need to ‘visit’ the sad rooms more often during important life transitions.” I have visited that cold, dark room many times, especially this spring, which is the second anniversary of my mother’s death, as well my high-school graduation and Mia’s first birthday.
Lissa Howe gave me ideas for how to involve my mom in my children’s lives. “I try to do little things to remember my mom,” Howe says. She believes in passing stories on to the next generation and tells stories about her mom to her children. If I do this, too, I can introduce my children to the grandmother they will never know.
This is the first time I have really reflected on my mom's death and gotten advice about keeping her in my life. I didn't have time before because parenting and school kept me busy. “When you are a mother and trying to grieve and take care of your kids, it is hard,” Howe says. “I didn't process it very well for a while.” The experience of writing about my mom has given me opportunities to think about her and how to honor her memory—and I notice I’ve become stronger by being able to talk more openly and honestly about my mom and my grief. This will make it easier to keep her alive in my heart and for my children.
RESOURCES FOR YOUNG PEOPLE WHO HAVE EXPERIENCED LOSS
Capital High School counselor Xarin Escobedo says there’s a lot of help here in Santa Fe. “Grief is a unique process, so I take each individual differently,” he says. “If a student is having problems functioning in school because of the loss, or not eating or sleeping, or experiencing mental health problems, I refer students to programs that help.” He names Gerard’s House, The Sky Center and Presbyterian Medical Services Teen Health Center at Capital High School and Santa Fe High School.
Guadalupe Avalos graduated from Capital High School on May 25.
She plans to attend Santa Fe Community College in the fall.
Shaming is Not the Solution
By Perla Castrejon
My son was one month old when I returned to school last September, walked up the stairs with my lunch tray, and joined my friends in our usual spot. My five friends said “Hi,” and then turned back to each other as if I wasn't there. Their message was clear: I wasn’t included anymore. Something like this must happen to every girl becoming a mom. A lot become outcasts the moment their pregnancies show.
Teen moms are judged, shut out and told they won't make it out of high school. It is true many drop out, but I’d say it’s usually because they don’t get enough support and encouragement. I will graduate high school in May, but it has been challenging. My family, some teachers, and my few friends have proven to me that it’s possible. Support makes the difference, while belittling us does nothing to help.
Teen parents are constantly shamed. An article about “Teenage Pregnancy and Motherhood” in University of Arizona’s Crossroad Connections states, “our society, including much academic research and popular media, frames teenage pregnancy as a problem for mothers, children, and society.” Teen pregnancies are problematic: According to the Centers for Disease Control, they “bring substantial social and economic costs through immediate and long-term impacts.” Of developed countries, we have the highest teen-pregnancy rate—and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) says children of “teenage mothers are at risk for long-term problems in many major areas in life.” How does anything get better, though, if we hold teen parents up only as bad examples and shut them out of opportunities?
Former teen mom Marylouise Kuti was so ashamed of her pregnancy that she didn't tell anyone about it until she was in labor. Later, in response to teen-parent shaming, she helped launch a national social campaign with a different message. Founded in 2013, #NoTeenShame fights stigmas that restrict young parents’ “access to quality healthcare, education, and community support” and promotes reproductive justice. “We need to make sure that teens have access to the information they need without using teen parents as examples of why teens should not get pregnant,” Kuti says. I agree. I think kids should be taught much earlier about how to take care of their bodies, for example.
Teens can make good decisions if they have good information, and they should be educated about their reproductive systems and rights, as well as birth control options, including abstinence and protection from diseases. Teens get embarrassed about birth control, so they choose to not ask for it. It should not be something teens should be ashamed to ask for. It’s way less expensive to give a teenager condoms or long-acting birth control than it is to raise a child.
The AACAP says, “Teenage pregnancy is usually a crisis for the pregnant girl and her family.” When I was told I was seven weeks pregnant, my first thought was abortion. I didn’t want to keep my child because I was so afraid of what people would say and how life would change. My whole world came crashing down. It was heartbreaking for my mother that I was going to be a mom at 17 because she knew there was so much I hadn’t done or experienced. But she and I also knew that it would be okay. As soon as Christopher was born, he became the love of my life. I have my boyfriend and family, but not every teen mom has the same support.
For a New York Magazine article, journalist Alex Ronan talked with young moms about the impacts of shame on their experiences. One teen, Vianna, had a difficult time bonding with her daughter because so many people had told her that having a baby would ruin her life. She felt like she was “giving birth to this person whose life is going to end mine.” Natasha, another teen mom, says, “I spent a lot of time alone with my daughter. Not having love from my family made me feel like I was a burden.”
It is devastating that teen moms feel this way because families, friends and teachers turn their backs on them. Parenting is hard, and not having love makes it even harder. This is why shaming is not okay: We need to make sure teen parents are supported and reassured so that they can bond with their babies and raise healthy kids.
Without support and reassurance, moms don't always know what to do. It is hard to raise a baby with no guidance. The AACAP states, “babies born to teenage mothers are at risk for neglect and abuse because their young mothers are uncertain about their roles.” Young moms who are given the resources and affirmation to be good parents, however, wouldn't be as uncertain—and their babies would be less at risk for neglect and abuse.
It isn't only teenagers’ babies who are at risk. Parents of all ages experience factors related to child abuse and neglect, such as addiction, low social support, aggressive behavior, poverty and stress. Just because we’re young doesn't mean we’re terrible parents. Most teen moms I know would go to the moon and back for our children. Acceptance and guidance help us parent, but we get judgment. It’s exhausting to deal with parenting, cooking, cleaning, homework, school and work—plus disapproval.
When I came back to school as a new mom, I felt isolated and embarrassed. Old friends still don’t ask about me or want to meet my son. I felt disappointment from teachers, too. One teacher I really got along with stopped talking to me much, and it hurt to know it was because I’d become pregnant. This isn’t unusual. “My academic advisor stopped talking to me completely,” says a teen mom Ronan interviewed. Another was told, “It's unlikely you’ll even graduate, so let's focus on finishing high school first.” This makes me mad: I think it’s the biggest lie a teen mom could be told.
Teen moms are trying, and we shouldn't be discouraged from school. Teachers shouldn’t treat teen parents as less than other students. If anything, they should help more because, in addition to high school, we’re parenting—often by ourselves. Friends with no help from family or their babies’ fathers have dropped out, and I think that being shamed is even harder when there’s no support in or out of school. On the other hand, genuine support makes a huge difference in someone’s success. I doubted myself throughout senior year, but my family and teachers kept me coming to school and looking ahead.
Being a teen mom means I’ll still be young when my son is 20. It also means things will sometimes be harder. One thing I’ve learned is that I cannot live by what others say. Some people will always judge me because I am “too young” or they don't approve, but I won’t let them tear me down. I know I will succeed: My motivation to do so is my son.
We need to encourage and guide teen moms’ successes. I’m not saying teen parents should be given prizes—just that we should be accepted and supported instead of shamed. Yes, being a teen parent changes the course of my life and my future. Either I get bitter or I get better, but it is my choice because it is my life. It’s that simple. My choices belong to me. I’m not just a statistic. I will pursue my education, graduate from college, and succeed in a career—largely because my son and I have had solid emotional and practical support.
Perla Castrejon graduated from Capital High School on May 25.
She is interested in many things—art, forensics, cooking, poetry, violin—
and isn’t yet sure what she’ll pursue next.
Eat Right, Future Bright
By Laura Dominguez
Photo by Anna Yarrow
The moment I found out I was pregnant my interest in nutrition started to grow. I used to get fast-food meals twice a day, which is not exactly healthy eating—although it is pretty normal for most people I know. According to doctors Mary Story and Juli Hermanson in their book Nutrition and the Pregnant Adolescent, “Poor dietary habits are common among US adolescent girls.” As an expecting mom who would be—and now is—responsible for my son’s development, I wasn’t just a normal adolescent anymore. Nutrition has become important to me because I want to feel healthier and I want to raise my son in a healthy way.
While I was pregnant, I focused on eating healthy food because I knew that what I ate was critical to my baby's growth and development; and the only thing I cared about was my son’s well-being. The early childhood organization ZERO TO THREE states that “a baby's birth weight—and brain size—do depend on the quality of his or her mother's nutrition during pregnancy.” Eating healthy was the key to forming my son’s healthy little body and mind.
Better nutrition also helped me. In their focus on young moms, Story and Hermanson write, “the greater the amount of uncompleted growth at conception, the greater the energy and nutrients needs above those normally required during pregnancy.” I guess I was eating better for both of us. The sooner I changed my eating habits from junk food to fruits and vegetables, the sooner I saw a positive change in my daily life. I am trying to keep this up. Fruits and veggies give me the energy I need to get me through my day rather than making me just feel tired.
Good nutrition is important for children's growth and development physically and mentally. “Nutrition has been called the single greatest environmental influence on babies in the womb and during infancy, and it remains essential throughout the first years of life,” according to “Nutrition and Early Brain Development,” an article of the Urban Child Institute. A proper balance of nutrients in that period is critical for normal brain development. For example, “Shortages of nutrients such as iron and iodine can impair cognitive and motor development, and these effects are often irreversible.” The consequences of malnutrition should really alarm parents—even before their babies are born. Nutrients are the building blocks of all of the functions that are necessary for children to grow into healthy strong adults. Childhood sets us up for adulthood.
One of my goals for each day is to make sure my son has all the nutrients he needs to keep growing strong and healthy. Getting little ones to get used to eating good things is easier if you start early, but our bad habits tend to be the things they catch onto. Because of this, I am interested in strategies for building better eating habits for me now and for my son as he starts to eat more foods.
According to ZERO TO THREE’s “Here's to Healthy Eating: Habits to Start and Habits to Avoid,” a good habit to introduce is “providing two to three healthy snacks per day.” That way, “if children don't eat a lot at a meal, they will have a healthy option for a snack.” Since most toddlers get full right away or get distracted easily, they don't always finish a whole meal. Eating healthy snacks through the day can help them keep up their energy and get what their bodies need.
“Here's to Healthy Eating” also suggests that parents avoid “nagging or making deals with children. ‘Just two more bites, just two more bites!’ ‘If you eat your vegetables, you will get dessert.’” The article says that this approach does not end up working because it sets up a negotiation pattern that can become, well, a belly ache: “Children who learn to make deals about eating quickly learn to make deals and ask for rewards for doing other things—like cleaning up. Soon they won't do anything unless there is a reward for it!” Kids are very smart, so I want to watch out for the actions I take, as well as what I say, when I’m feeding and teaching my son.
This is not easy. It took me a while to change some of my pre-pregnancy eating habits: I missed eating chocolates, chips, burgers, fries, you name it! I gained a lot of weight, and I did not feel good about myself. Knowing there's a tiny person looking up to me put even more weight on my shoulders—and gave me motivation. Changing my eating habits was and still is a huge challenge for me. I'm nowhere close to where I want to be, but I am not eating how I used to, either. Now, my habits are a lot healthier: I go for an apple rather than going for chips! That, for me, is a huge change. This new journey has influenced me to make smarter choices. I now get whole-wheat bread rather than white bread, a salad over cake and cookies. It's the little things that make a huge difference.
Laura Dominguez graduated from Capital High School on May 25.
She plans to attend Santa Fe Community College in the fall.
Parenting a “Difficult Child”
By Stephanie Solis
Photo by Anna Yarrow
I’m a 17-year-old mother parenting a child named Aiden. Apparently, my 15-month-old sunshine is going through a phase called being a “difficult child.” A “difficult child,” as Alicia F Lieberman defines it in The Emotional Life of the Toddler, is a child that “consistently challenges one’s patience and best intentions.” Difficult children are “often irregular in their biological functions, withdraw from new situations, have difficulty adapting to changes, and get in a bad mood easily.”
My child is extremely inflexible and struggles to reorganize his feelings. Not knowing how to organize his feelings leads him to throw tantrums, hit, push and pull hair. This is becoming a behavior issue, so I need to understand how to navigate it and support my son. As a first-time parent, I am learning how toddler behavior relates to normal development and to my own parenting decisions.
It is rare for me to hear that my child behaved well at daycare or the home of a family member watching him while I’m at school or work. Almost every day I hear, “Aiden hit him!” “Aiden pulled his hair!” “Aiden wouldn’t stop crying!” “Why is he hitting so much?” Earlier this year, his daycare provider said something that really hurt me: “Do you discipline him for his bad behavior?” “What is Aiden seeing at home?” It seemed like she was asking if we use violence. My son is not seeing anything bad at home. He’s struggling to express strong feelings and using his body to communicate.
It’s not abnormal for toddlers to deal physically with frustration about not getting what they want. As Dr. Dona Mathews writes in “Toddler Tantrums; Hitting, Kicking, Scratching, and Biting” for Psychology Today, “An aggressive young child, at least up to the age of three, is not being ‘bad’ or disobedient. […] From a child’s eye view, lashing out at someone is a reasonable reaction to the powerlessness of a toddler.” According to Brennan Agosta, a child-development lecturer quoted in the Deseret News, “Even though toddlers have the desire to get what they want, they lack strategies to deal with disappointment and frustration in the same way adults do.” Aiden’s feelings of “I want what you have” lead him to act aggressively since he can't say, “May I please borrow this?” I know it’s an issue when it negatively affects other people, and this is where I come in, showing my child better ways to deal with frustration.
Claire Lerner and Rebecca Parlakian’s ZERO TO THREE article, “Aggressive Behavior in Toddlers,” helped me identify my child as a “big reactor.” This means he has “a more difficult time managing emotions than children who are by nature more easygoing. […] Big reactors rely more heavily on using their actions to communicate their strong feelings.” When Aiden can't get what he wants and has no language for his frustration, he uses his body more than other children. “Big reactors” are more physical, but all kids have tantrums.
When toddlers “can’t express their feelings through words, they often use their bodies to express their emotions physically through hitting, kicking and screaming,” writes Megan MacNulty in “Parents, it’s okay for your toddler to have tantrums.” This title is comforting. It reassures me that my son is just going through a stage; and all this hitting, pulling hair and pushing can be part of typical development. As McNulty explains, “the transition into the toddler stage is a developmental milestone where they start expressing authoritative behavior and noncompliance.” It isn’t fun—or abnormal: “Tantrums are common as frequent falls as a baby climbs the shaky ladder toward independence,” according to the Sears family’s The Baby Book. Watching my son, I see that he’s learning how to stabilize his feelings, act nice, be independent and separate himself from me.
My family thinks I should give Aiden a small spanking when he disobeys, is aggressive to others or has a tantrum. According to psychologist Mathews, however, “aggression won't help,” and “getting angry or impatient will only make things worse.” Aiden gets scared if I stress out and do as my mother says: “Give him what he wants or give him a spankie, so he can shut up.” When it’s repeated, his fear response can lower his self-esteem as he grows and mess with his development.
The Connecticut Department of Children and Families (CDCF) warns parents about this: “It's important to not spank, hit, or slap a child of any age. […] Babies and toddlers are especially unlikely to be able to make any connection between their behavior and physical punishment. They will only feel the pain of the hit.” Understanding this made me think about strategies I can use with Aiden, like positive redirection or timeouts. According to CDCF, “Timeouts can be effective discipline for toddlers. A child who has been hitting, biting, or throwing food, for example, should be told why that behavior is unacceptable and taken to a designated timeout area—a kitchen chair or bottom stair—for a minute or two to calm down.” I haven’t tried this yet, but I may.
For now, I manage Aiden’s tantrums by ignoring him in the moment—so he understands he won’t get attention for negative behavior. After he’s done crying, I explain that I understand his feelings but how he’s acting is wrong—and then I give him lots of love. Showing empathy and love to my toddler is the best thing I can do. According to Lieberman, “Toddlers want independence and control over their environment—more than they may be capable of handling.” I can help Aiden learn to deal with his environment by showing him that what he's experiencing is normal, teaching him how to communicate, and reminding him that I’m here to help him.
Things I've learned about how to parent my “difficult child” are to keep cool, remember I'm the adult, give myself time, take control and, lastly, give him hugs so he knows he is loved. Abby Bordner, an early childhood educator and prenatal education and outreach coordinator for United Way of Santa Fe County, has helped me understand this process. She teaches “The Circle of Security,” a behavior loop that describes how children explore and how parents support them with positive attachment, “emotional co-regulation and learning.”
At one point on the loop is the parent, the base that supports and encourages his or her child’s exploration. When the child returns for protection, comfort and delight, the parent welcomes him and helps organize his feelings. The Circle of Security advises me to be “bigger, wiser, and kind,” to follow my child’s need when possible and to take charge when necessary. Since learning about this, I’ve tried to meet Aiden’s needs according to the part of the circle he’s in—although my favorite part is when he comes to Mama for recharge!
My 15-month-old sunshine meets descriptions of a “difficult child” and a “big reactor”—and a normal toddler. After my research, I’m not worried about Aiden. His behavior is part of his developmental process. By redirecting him when needed and consistently showing him love and empathy, I’m following the advice of early childhood researchers and doing what feels right for me. After all, he’s just a little boy trying to regulate his emotions and he needs some help. The way I parent my child is different from some parents around me, and that’s okay. As a single mom trying to do the right thing, I need people in my community to understand I am learning and creating a philosophy of parenting that works for me and my child.
Stephanie Solis Mendoza is heading into her senior year at
Capital High School and looking forward to pursuing a medical career.