How do any of us balance our lives as a parent? How do we get through a day, much less a lifetime, of trying to meet other people’s needs, working with variable emotions, maintaining a semblance of order, and maybe, just maybe, meeting our own needs as well? Whether you’re a parent with one child or the parent of several children, how do you get through a day where all of us even survive?
There are days when, as a parent, I wonder if I’ve done anything right at all. And with three children of varying ages—a toddler who is going through an independence stage, a grade-schooler torn between the experience of childhood and looking forward to pre-teen years, and a teenager fast moving into adulthood and trying to survive adolescence—meeting everyone’s needs is all-consuming. And it’s easy to forget not just one’s own needs, but also where each of our children is coming from in the moment.
Learning to cope, and coping with learning
Our children are not born knowing how to handle their emotions. Certainly, even as adults we work to manage our emotions: anger, sadness, confusion, desire, stress, anxiety. It’s a tangle to work through our own emotions and when other people are involved, it becomes even more tangled. Should I hide my feelings? Should I mask my sadness? What will happen if I direct an outburst of anger at this person? Was that outburst of anger really about the other person, or was it about something else? Trying to navigate our emotions can be a life-long process, and children are not born knowing how to do any of this. We have to teach them how to navigate their emotions, how to interact with others, how to work with their own anger and how to understand what they’re feeling.
Children (like adults, I would argue) are experts at presenting one emotion when really they’re feeling something else. They’re experts at masking the situation. The tantrum about a train set not being put together correctly really translates to their frustration at the feeling they’re not growing up fast enough and learning how to do things by themselves. That outburst of anger toward their parents with an “I hate you, I wish you’d get out of my life” is really about the uncertainty of growing up, or being bullied at school, or wondering about their place in the family dynamic. The slamming of doors and stomping around and silent treatment from a teenager is more likely masked frustration at still being dependent on their parents.
It’s not about us. It’s not about the parent.
It’s difficult sometimes though to wade through all these emotions and signals. How, in the heat of the moment, do we know what it all means? Lately my toddler has been pouring cups of water all over his supper food, or refusing to eat certain things that I cook and present him with. My first reaction is one of anger and frustration at him. I start to take away his plate and tell him that he can’t eat with us if he’s going to dump water everywhere. Then, tears. Yelling. Screaming. “No mommy no! Supper! Pease? Pease mommy?”
All he really wants is to be included. He wants to help put out supper. He wants to be involved in the making of supper, in asking for what he wants to eat. He doesn’t necessarily want to eat what’s on his plate, but perhaps what’s on our plates. He wants to share, and he wants to help us. He wants us all to be together. And not knowing how to express all of this, he lashes out. And he wants to see if I’ll still be his mommy, still love him, still work with him to figure it all out.
So, I will myself a change of heart. A deep breath, as I try to recoup myself. I ask him if he wants to try again, if he wants another supper, if he wants to sit with mommy and daddy together at the table.
“Yes mommy. Pease mommy. Supper.” And his tears stop, his yelling stops, and he goes to help me with the food. And gives me a hug and a kiss.
A different approach. A new beginning. Leaving the moment behind.
It’s not about me. It’s not about him hating what I made him for supper. It’s not even directed at me. Even though in the moment, when there are a million things beating down on me (the dirty kitchen, the unswept floors, trying to get days’ worth of laundry done, water dripping off the counter from a small person playing in the sink), it’s hard to remember that it’s not about me and the hard day that I’m having. He doesn’t understand that. He just wants me to love him and help him through this hard thing called growing up.
It’s hard to remember all of this sometimes. And all our children really are the same, no matter what stage of life they’re at. They need reassurance that we will still love them no matter what. No matter what they’re experiencing, no matter how they lash out at us. They need to understand and be reassured that when they’re confused and upset and angry and having a tantrum or screaming at us, that we won’t walk away from them. That we’re still here, that we still love them, no matter what they do. We will not take away our love because of their negative actions.
Really, how do any of us get through all of this?
With a deep breath. With a reassessment of the situation that we’re facing. With a hug. A moment to just reassure ourselves, to take it all in. To understand that our child might be hurting too, probably more than we are at the moment. They need us. And really, we desperately need them too.