One of my hardest parenting lessons happened when my son was about a year and a half. Seemingly overnight, my lovely little blue-eyed baby turned into a tiny hissing grouch monster with flailing feet and fists. He went from generally amenable around transitions to someone I had to carry kicking and screaming from grandma’s house, the resale shop and various restaurants. From a cuddly person who always wanted to be carried in the sling he became someone who insisted on walking “by self!” and when expected to hand-hold in a parking lot became a wailing dead weight.
Dinner time, nap time, go downstairs time, greet daddy at the door time, put on shoes time, change diaper time — they were all opportunities for him to lose his dang mind (and for me to lose mine).
It was awful.
It was me, I knew it was me. I was the worst mother ever. My experience working with other people’s kids, it felt useless. I remember crying in the passenger seat of our car while my husband drove us away from yet another public tantrum saying, “I don’t know what I’ve done! I think I broke him!” And I had a list a mile long of every little thing I might have done wrong.
And then this wonderful thing happened, which was an old friend from my job at the shelter called me because her daughter (exactly one month older than my son) was doing the same exact thing and she wanted my advice. Which was hilarious of course because I had no idea how to fix any of it. But as we talked (and cried and eventually laughed) we both realized, oh, this is toddlers. This is a toddler thing. Here we were trying to raise babies — using all those mad baby raising skills we’d perfected — and they’d turned into toddlers so that baby stuff didn’t work anymore.
This taught me several things:
- Talking to other mothers, the ones you can really get real with, can save your life.
- All the theory in the world — all the advice and technique — is no match for the emotional work of parenting. It’s one thing to understand why toddlers tantrum but it’s a whole different thing to learn how to deal with the emotional reality of parenting a tantrumming toddler.
- Kids outgrow everything including your tried and true parenting techniques.
That last one, that’s really the point I want to make today. Kids outgrow everything — clothes and car seats and parenting tools. So we know how to do things, we know how to handle our kids and then one day we realize that we don’t. It’s a terrible feeling especially because we don’t figure out that things don’t work anymore until, well, until they stop working. Which means that usually we need to fail in some way to realize we need to change up our game.
You know what it’s like? It’s like when you reach into the diaper bag at library story time for that extra pants for inevitable diaper blow outs and realize you’ve only got a summer sunsuit for a three-month old and nothing to fit the robust nine-month old in front of you on this crisp winter morning. You thought you were prepared — and you absolutely were prepared when you packed that diaper bag six or seven months ago — but time got away from you.
They outgrow stuff. We aren’t always ready for it.
Failing is no fun, especially when it comes to our kids, which is why I think we need to reframe the idea that it is a failure. Maybe that’s just what parenting looks like. Maybe it’s a lot messier than we thought and maybe we, as parents, need to know that sometimes (often) we’re going to be learning on the run. So my son completely flipping out over everything was his way of saying, “Yo, this isn’t working for me” and not a condemnation of every single thing that came before. All those things I was doing that felt like mistakes? They weren’t mistakes; they were just outdated. It worked until it didn’t, which is just how it’s going to be.
As parents, we will make decisions that we may eventually regret but that doesn’t mean they were the wrong decisions. We can only respond to what we know right then and there at the moment we’re making them. Later on down the line as things change — ourselves, our kids, our circumstances — we will be responding to new things and we will make new decisions.
With my son, one of the big decisions I made was to adjust my expectations. Once I realized that he was being a pretty typical toddler, I relaxed a whole lot. I planned for him to balk at transitions, I honed my transitioning techniques, and I made the rest of his life more toddler-friendly (a big thing for my son was that he was ready for new activities; I hadn’t realized that he was bored). And the next time we hit a breaking point, I recognized it for what it was — a time for me to stop and reassess, not proof that I was doing it all wrong.
Oh and then my daughter? Whole new thing, whole new path, whole new challenges. Because there is no such thing as figuring this out, the end. It’s always process and progress and a big old mess of love and struggle (thus the Mr. Rogers quote up there).
At the anxiety workshop we talked a lot about what’s normal and what isn’t normal and needs intervention. Sometimes it’s clear — your child absolutely refuses to go to school or your teen tells you she’s depressed and is thinking about hurting herself. But other times it’s more ambivalent. Are these tantrums normal? Is your reaction to them making things worse? Can counseling help your 7-year old’s struggles in school?
Here’s how to figure it out.
Are you or your child missing out?
Is the issue — sadness, anxiety, anger — getting in the way of your everyday lives? Do you find yourself spending more and more time trying to move from one place to another? Is she expressing frustration or sadness with how things are going? Are you?
This is the number one way to know that it’s time to get help. If you or your child are avoiding things, if the problem is disrupting the normal events in your lives, that’s the very definition of troubled. It’s one thing to be scared of dogs; it’s another thing to be so scared of dogs that your child won’t leave the house. It’s one thing to want to stay home from second grade; it’s another thing to scream and hold onto the door frame when your dad tries to move you out the door to the bus stop. It’s one thing to have a lousy day where your child falls apart at the zoo; it’s another thing when you can’t go to the grocery store because of your child’s tantrums in the cereal aisle.
If you find yourself living around your child’s challenges, it’s time to get help.
Are you at your wit’s end?
Do you dread confronting your child or dealing with transitions? Do you find yourself unhappy with your child more often than not? Are you losing sleep because you’re worried about her? Do you find yourself asking friends, relatives, strangers for advice?
Parenting is no endless ball of fun but most of the time it’s pretty good. We can all have bad days and even bad weeks but if you aren’t enjoying your child and your child isn’t enjoying you, you both deserve help. Parenting is hard but it shouldn’t be so hard that you find yourself crying or yelling at the end of the day. Counseling can help you have fun being a parent again.
Are other people expressing concern?
Is your child’s teacher sending lots of notes home? Are there people you trust who are worried? Do you find yourself constantly defending your child?
Sometimes other people can see what we can’t. I’m not saying that every kid who’s not clicking with her teacher needs help but if the teacher’s concerns ring true or she’s the last in a line of concerned people, it might be time to get a new perspective. If you’re not sure — is your mother-in-law’s criticism valid or not? — a counselor can help you figure it out.
It’s hard to know when we can handle what’s happening for our kids and when we need professional help. Fortunately you can call a therapist and ask her. Does this sound like a concern? How will I know when it is? What might it look like if we come in right now? Further, you can get help simply because you want it. If you use your insurance to pay for counseling you (or your child) will need a diagnosis but if you don’t use your insurance then you don’t need a diagnosis. (I do not take insurance and so I do not give a diagnosis unless it’s warranted and will serve the client. I’d say most of my caseload is made up of people who don’t necessarily qualify for a mental health diagnosis but do deserve and benefit from professional help. You can speak to the therapist you’re working with to learn more about diagnosis and treatment.)
You don’t have to figure this all out on your own.
(I’ll be writing more about kids and therapy this week. Stay tuned!)
I’ve written before about how change can feel like betrayal to friends and family. What happens is that sometimes it feels so scary that they drag you back and you find yourself in that same rut you’ve been trying so hard to leave. They like you there because having you there is familiar, it makes sense to them. If you change then they have to change (or at the very least change their ideas about you). And they didn’t sign up for that; they don’t necessarily want to change.
Sometimes their need for sameness will be so great that they will refuse to see that you are different.
Let’s say that when you were a little kid you hated birthday parties. Maybe you were shy and hated being the center of attention while everyone sang you happy birthday. Or say you’ve never liked frosting and dreaded the inevitable first bite of birthday cake. I don’t know but let’s just say that’s how it is — you didn’t like birthdays parties.
That became your thing as you grew up. That’s what your friends and relatives would say about you.
“Now that one over there?” they’d say, jerking their thumbs your way. “That one hates birthday parties.”
They would tell all the stories of you sitting in a corner scowling while everyone else made a fuss about presents. They’d pull out pictures that would show you wailing over the birthday cake your grandmother made, even though she’d hand drawn a beautiful frosting design showcasing your favorite characters from Sesame Street across the top.
The more they said it, the more you believed it. Besides there’s proof in everyone’s stories and in all of the photo albums; you are a person who hates birthday parties.
Only one day you start figuring out that it’s all more complicated. Perhaps you went to a birthday party where there was no singing and everyone made their own sundaes. You thought to yourself, “That’s not so bad, that’s pretty good. Maybe I don’t hate birthday parties — maybe I just don’t like getting sung at and eating frosting.”
So you go back and tell your friends and family, “Hey, I’m throwing myself a birthday party this year! Do you want to come?”
And they scoff, “You? You, hater of all birthday parties? You who threw up all over my birthday party when I was eight because we generously gave you a corner piece of cake with a big blue rose on it?”
“Well, yeah,” you say. “I hate frosting but I love birthday parties.”
“No, you don’t. You hate them.”
“Turns out I love them when they get thrown a certain way.”
“Oh so now you’re criticizing the way we throw parties? Now it’s our problem? And now you expect us to accommodate all your new fangled ideas about sundae bars when you know that in our family we eat cake! See, that’s you all over again — ruining birthdays for other people because you hate parties!”
At this point you might start feeling a little crazy. Are they right? Are you fooling yourself? Do you owe it to people to continue on your birthday party-less way because you’ve been such a trial to them throughout your life?
See, there’s a birthday-party-hater slot in their lives and you’ve been filling it for however many years. If you don’t fill it, it means they have to change and while some people can handle change pretty well (perhaps your Aunt Leonie and your best friend from fifth grade handle your new-found love of birthday parties with equanimity) everyone else might freak out.
This can be because
1) they don’t want to think critically about their own creation of your birthday party myth (your grandmother might not want to feel guilty about that Sesame Street cake); or
2) because they need you to fill that slot to avoid their own birthday party hatred (it might be that your little sister hates frosting, too, but needs you to stand in for her so she doesn’t have to suffer the consequences); or
3) they like the story they’ve been telling themselves and don’t want to stop telling it.
You can’t know, really, why they don’t want to let you out of the rut you’ve been in but every time you try to climb out, they push you back in. You throw yourself the party, you invite them all and they stand around and smile sympathetically at you, “Look at you trying to pretend you’re enjoying yourself!”
“But I am,” you say. “This Goat Cheese with Red Cherries ice cream from Jeni’s is to die for.”
“Sure,” they say, nodding and winking at you. “Sure thing.”
Because sometimes that’s how it is.
That leaves you with three choices:
- To sigh and let yourself get pushed back into the rut and give up on birthday parties.
- To argue with them until it becomes a big old thing and you’re all crying with frustration.
- To go on with your bad birthday party loving self anyway and not worry so much about how other people take the Brand New You.
There is a reason there’s a whole genre of television and movies about how you can’t go home again and it’s about growth and change and figuring out how to be the person you’ve become when the people who have been part of your life from the beginning can only see how you were. It’s painful for everybody and certainly for the person trying to grow into something different.
Change is hard but it’s worth it. There are birthday parties out there just waiting for you to show up.
And here’s Whitney Houston’s live cover of “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls.
People can’t learn to be brave unless they’re scared first; courage doesn’t exist without fear. It can be frustrating to be faced with a fearful child, especially when the fears seem so small or petty or easily overcome. Think of the child who won’t go outside because he’s afraid of bees (even though he’s never been stung). We can’t make him push past the fear; we can only support him while he considers the risk of bees versus the lure of the swing set. It’s frustrating to be sure, especially if we spent the whole weekend laboriously putting the climber together, all the while anticipating his excitement. But he needs to learn how to live in a world where there are bees so that he can learn how to live in a world where there are bigger fears — earthquakes and lay-offs and all of the rest. It’s not bees he needs to learn to manage; it’s his own fear.
We can be reassuring without dismissing their fears. We can let them know we understand — bees can be scary — and that we trust they will be able to overcome their fear. We can help them problem-solve and give them the information that we have like that bees are less likely to sting you if you don’t swat at them. We can be patient while they step out cautiously only to run right back in. (Or at least pretend that we’re patient. Excusing yourself to go scream into a pillow in frustration is a perfectly acceptable coping mechanism!)
And, importantly, we can sympathize with them as they lament that oh-so-out-of-reach swingset instead of giving into any temptation to say, “Well, if you weren’t so scared to go out there you could be having fun like your little sister. She isn’t letting bees stop her!” Because if there’s one thing your child already knows it’s how much more fun it would be to NOT be scared of bees or the dark or the puppet at the library story time or that part in The Little Mermaid where the sea witch goes crawling across the boat deck on her elbows with her tentacles waving wildly behind her. So you can be the one who has the confidence he doesn’t quite have for himself yet. You can promise him that the swing set will be there tomorrow and that you’ll make sure his sister gives him a turn on the swing when he’s ready. You can tell him your own stories — how you were afraid to put your face in the water until one day you weren’t. Or how you were afraid you’d go down the drain in the bathtub, too, but then you got bigger and you weren’t as scared anymore.
“You are getting bigger,” you could say. “And you are getting braver.”
Meanwhile, you can tell him that you will sit with him awhile before you go to push his sister on the swing for a bit. And then you will come back to hug him.
He might surprise you. Because sometimes the very best antidote to fear is someone who understands and loves you anyway.
When your child was a baby, maybe you never thought he’d sleep through the night. When she was a toddler, maybe you never thought she would potty train. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that your children will do the things you so desperately want them to do — walk without the stroller, sit down and read a book, start brushing teeth before bed without a zillion reminders. We get stuck in the groove of admonishment and correction.
But our kids need us to believe in them. They need to know that we believe that someday they will do these things and that we’re not going to give up on them. They need to be able to lean on our belief so that they can keep on in the hard work of growing up.
They’ve never tried to become grown up before. How can they know that growing up isn’t something they’re supposed to achieve overnight?
To truly understand our children, we need to understand their development. While every child has a unique timeline, the path from little to big is fairly predictable. Infants must roll over before they can walk. Children need to know how to count before they can do long division. Kids will have tantrums while they’re learning communication and self-control. They will daydream when they should be doing chores until their attention spans mature.
Knowing what to expect from your child developmentally will go a long way to helping you help your child. When you understand that 2-year olds like to dump things (boy howdy do they like to dump things!) you won’t feel as frustrated when they do. Instead you will help them begin the long lesson of picking things up and you will learn to put the open container of oatmeal out of reach.
Long-time readers of this blog (and attendees of my parenting classes — next series starts January 15th so register today!) will know that I recommend the Ames & Ilg books for being an expert on your child’s development. You can get them for a penny (plus shipping) on Amazon and while their advice is dated, the child development information is not. It’s a lot easier to live through the tough stages of parenting when you know what’s coming.
Meanwhile, tell your child who you believe her to be. Remind her (and yourself) that life is a process; we’re all learning as we grow. You can promise her that one day she won’t be scared of monsters under her bed because you will know it’s true even if she doesn’t. You can show him how much he’s grown by reminding him that he used to smack his little sister but now he uses his words. You can tell him that you know that he will bring this same dedication to growth to learning how to manage his homework and pick up his room.
And if you need to borrow some confidence, find a friend who knows what a great parent you are or seek out a professional to cheer you on, shore up your weaknesses and celebrate your strengths.
This growing thing, it ain’t easy. At least we don’t have to go it alone.