Monday, November 10, 2014

Can you hear the words that are coming out of my mouth?

That's what I figured.

"She is not giving you a hard time; she is having a hard time." Lisa Sunbury

Before school this morning, Violet kicked me. It's not the first time and I know it won't be the last. 

To be fair, she was angry because I was pulling her pajamas off against her will so that I could change her into jeans and a T-shirt. I'd be angry too if someone was making me wear something I didn't want to wear.

The morning started off well enough. She woke up in a great mood. I made her oatmeal with bananas and honey and sat down to enjoy my coffee. She admired the fall flowers I had bought for her table, and we talked about how she enjoyed watching the classroom hermit crabs over the weekend.

I try.

We had plenty of time for a while there — until we didn't. Suddenly we had about 10 minutes to get ready before we had to leave for school. I told her to go in her drawer and pick out jeans and a shirt. (I thought that was pretty good. I was giving her the option to choose which shirt and which pants she wanted to wear.) She chose a Christmas dress, all sparkle and bows, that was hanging in her closet, and when I told her no, she ran into the dining room and hid under the table.

What were my options then? I could choose not to battle over the clothes and just let her wear the Christmas dress. But it was cold outside, she gets filthy at school, and I didn't want to. Plus, I'd already said no, so I think it would have been unwise to do an about-face just so I could avoid conflict. 

I could yell, but I work hard to not lose my temper so that I am not sending the message that I am out of control. I don't want her to feel unsafe. 

I could threaten her by saying she couldn't watch her TV show after school or say that I was going to take away one of her toys. 

I could grab her and stick her in a time-out chair so that she could think about how she's not listening to me. But I don't believe in threatening (because I don't want to be manipulative), and I don't want to put her in time-out because I want her to learn to express her feelings, not stuff them. 

I could do the countdown: "You have until five. One. Two. Three ..." But if someone did this to me, I would just get more amped up and be ready to explode by the time "five" came around.

I could also just wait and say that we were not moving on to the next thing until she did what I asked her to. That seems like a logical natural consequence, but in this case, the next thing was going to school, and she really didn't care if she was late or didn't make it there at all.

It was tempting to just threaten. I really just wanted to get moving, and I knew if I made a good threat, she'd listen and we'd be out the door on time. But I know that this is about our relationship too, so I needed to make a choice that would get us out the door on time and send the message I wanted.

I'm pretty good about remembering to acknowledge my girls' feelings when they are upset, so I did that. I have to say, though, that while that used to help calm Violet down, it doesn't anymore. At least, not in the moment or for a while afterward. In the moment, she just wants what she wants. (I try to bring up the hard time she was having at a later point in the day.) I still do it, though, because it's not about whether it "works." I just need to let her know I hear her.

Then I asked her to come out from underneath the dining room table, and when she didn't, I picked her up, carried her into her room, pulled her pajamas over her head (insert above-referenced kick), and then pulled her pants and shirt on. It didn't feel good to do that, but I tried to remain calm while doing it and not allow myself to feel impatient or annoyed (it's not easy, and also she is heavy). I also grabbed her foot and said, "I am not going to let you kick me."

Not listening is just par for the course when you have a four-year-old (or, really, a kid of any age). Of course she wants to make her own choices. As parents, we try to give them some control, within reasonable parameters, but it's not always enough for them. 

Fortunately for me, Lisa Sunbury, an RIE educator, mentor, associate, and author of the popular blog Regarding Baby, offers some great advice:

  • First, she says to remember that when a child is not listening or is otherwise acting out it is because they are having a hard time, not giving us a hard time. I love that because it helps keep things in perspective and reminds me to be more of an observer of the behavior as opposed to taking the behavior personally. Also, when I think of it that way, it puts me back on my daughter's side rather than in opposition to her. And that's what I want my girls to feel: I am on your side. You will get there and I will help you.

  • She also says that if she's doing something like throwing something or hitting, do not allow it. Bear-hug her if need be. Sit with her through those emotions, for however long it takes (I find that it sometimes comes in waves). Once things have calmed down, you can talk about it. No lectures — just listening to the feelings and acknowledging them. You can start the conversation by saying what you observed happening. Keep it short.

  • When Violet won't let go of something I've asked her to give to me, I can give her the option of either giving it to me or putting it on the floor (or table/counter). If she won't do either, I can let her know that I am going to have to take it. Then, as gently as I can, go ahead and take it (or, as was the case this morning, I have to take control of the situation and set the boundary).

  • Teach your child how to master self-regulation. One way to do this is through modeling. Their emotions/moods often feed off your own, which is one reason why it is so important to have a relaxed, confident attitude. If you are feeling annoyed, just say that you are feeling irritated and need to take a minute to calm down. By doing that, you are having an honest exchange with your child about your feelings and you are modeling a calming technique. You can discuss with her what kinds of things you can do to help calm down when you are feeling angry, and you can put together something like a "calm jar" or a "calm box" with some toys in it that help her calm down (think marbles, cotton balls, stickers, etc.). You can also suggest a private signal between the two of you, like squeezing your hand. This will act as a nonverbal cue to let you know that she is angry and needs some help calming down.

  • Maybe time alone is needed. You don't need to send her to her room to punish her, but if she is feeling out of control, maybe she needs to unwind by removing herself from a situation that's triggering her and read a book or play quietly.

I appreciate Lisa's insights. It definitely takes a lot of patience to sit through all of those emotions that my girls are experiencing and to help them work through it — without getting too annoyed — but I think it's important. I don't want to minimize their feelings, dismiss them, or patronize my girls by distracting them. I will say, however, that I recommend not always announcing that you are going to have to take something away, or at least not until you have your hands already on it and are moving it out of the way. The announcement can just make an angry toddler latch on with all her might. Also, I suggested the hand squeeze and calm jar to Violet, and she gave me a deadpan that I would expect from someone fifteen or older. So to say she wasn't interested is an understatement. Oh well. Maybe I need to come up with a more inspired name for the jar or our secret handshake. I'm sure I'll have plenty of reminders.

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