She sobbed heaving sobs into my chest as I wrapped my arms around her. Her strong emotions spilled out as her tears soaked my shirt. I held her for the longest time; saying nothing, just listening and holding space for her to communicate to me her inner-most thoughts through her upset.
A thought flashed through my mind in that moment about how much I love it when my children have a meltdown. I didn’t always but I have learned over the years that so much good can come from them if I am accepting of the feelings that surface and hear the messages in their screams.
It’s not easy, though.
Not minutes earlier, on this particular day, my daughter was screaming at me to leave her alone with a vehement rage that can be disconcerting to hear. But, although challenging, I welcomed it.
I always welcome these strong feelings because, for her, the release of them is therapeutic and much needed. Her body knows when it can no longer hold onto the emotions that have been festering in her. It knows when they need to spill and subsequently works towards making it happen.
Often, it can take a week or two to get there. It builds gradually; manifesting in intolerance, unreasonable demands and testing behaviours; all out of the ordinary for my daughter.
It sometimes takes me a while to get to the point of “Aha, I see what’s happening here!” as I listen to her whining and complaining about every little thing. It normally clicks for me just when I’m pulling my hair out and starting to think “What is going on with this child?” I know then that she needs to release some strong feelings and get things off her chest.
To help her, I need to ensure my limits are firm and consistent and try not to avoid the little upsets by making excuses or exceptions for the demanding behaviour.
Respectful parenting expert, Janet Lansbury, has taught me that, often, when children are holding onto something they need to express, they are experts in finding ways to get it out. They don’t do this consciously, it happens organically as they go about their day, but as adults, we can help by holding limits so they have that platform to bounce off.
I had tried asking my daughter how she was feeling and whether there was something she wanted to share with me but it didn’t work. She looked at me blankly; she couldn’t articulate what was on her mind but I knew there was something there.
So when she finally let it all spill one afternoon this week, I was not surprised and in fact, I was relieved once I recognised what was happening.
I went to pick up my daughter (Miss 4) from school. It’s her first year of formal schooling and she is half way through her first term. She’s loving it: making lots of friends, enjoying creating and making through her self-initiated project work and developing strong connections with her teachers.
I checked in with her teachers; by all reports she’d had a productive and connected day, albeit busy. I made my way around her classroom room ensuring she had her lunchbox, hat and shoes. I had my four month old in my arms so progress was slow going but we were getting there.
Earlier, I had done the same for her sister who was now waiting with some friends for us to be ready to leave.
Miss 4 was excited to show me the two library books she wanted to bring home and decided to hold onto them rather than put them in her bag with the rest of her belongings.
So up to this point, all was going well and there was no indication of anything out of the ordinary.
When I made to head towards the gate, prompting my daughter to grab her bag so we could go, she moaned that she wanted me to carry it. I was already carrying the baby and we have a pre-existing arrangement where my children carry their own bags unless I don’t have baby with me and can help them more easily. This has not been an issue for the previous six weeks.
I reminded her: “You will need to carry your bag to the car because I am holding baby and do not have a spare hand.”
She protested: “No! You do it!”
I acknowledged: “Ah, are you feeling tired? You don’t want to carry your bag today. I can’t carry your bag but you can slip those library books into this hand to make it easier for you to carry your bag.” I extended my fingers out from under the baby towards her in an offer to take the books.
She protested again: “No! I want you to carry the Baaag!” Her voice was getting louder and more adamant that she wasn’t going to be swayed from this mindset.
I tried several more times to encourage her to pick up the bag and even offered that she could leave it overnight as we have spares of everything at home so it wouldn’t matter, but she wasn’t having any of it and was now screaming her responses and throwing her belongings at me.
Her older sister came near so I asked her if she wouldn’t mind carrying Miss 4’s bag to the car for her as she was needing some help. To my relief, she happily obliged and picked up the bag, heading towards the gate.
I took some steps to follow her, but then came the first moment of clarity. Miss 4 ran after her sister, screaming in a rage at the fact her bag had been taken. She snatched it from her, sending things flying out of unzipped pockets and once again screamed at me that she wanted ME to carry it.
I thought to myself that at least we were nearly at the gate now, but after collecting her items from the ground, Miss 4 proceeded to take the bag back to her classroom because THAT is where she wanted ME to carry it from.
It dawned on me that this was not about the bag at all, there was much more being communicated to me in those screams but I wanted to get her out of school and to the safety of her home before I got into those things with her.
Her teacher signaled me to ask if I needed help. I nodded. She came over and took the baby, freeing me to help Miss 4.
I told my daughter I would carry her bag because I now had hands free and I could see she really needed my support today.
She yanked the bag away from me. “Noooooo!” she screamed. “You hold E!”
Her words were being spat at me with such rage that they were barely discernible but I was getting more and more glimpses of the messages she was wanting me to hear.
This was still not the time to bring it up, however, as she was not receptive to anyone or anything. I needed to get her home where she could comfortably express herself to me and I could be completely present with her to hear it.
I told her I was going to do as much and that I would pick her up and take her to the car. She ran from me and wouldn’t let me near her, screaming at me to go away. I stayed calm and focused and steered her towards the car.
We eventually all got in. The screaming and irrational demands continued all the way home. She dropped a book on the floor. I reached back and handed it to her, she didn’t want it, then she did, then she didn’t. I kept it in the end and she screamed hysterically for me to give it to her all the way but I kept it. It was allowing her to get all those strong feelings out. I spoke to her occasionally between screams, telling her I heard her.
Once home, I took my other two children into the house before going back to the car to check on Miss 4. She had moved into my seat in the front and was still enraged with me, insisting I hand her the book that was now right next to her.
I moved to the passenger side to collect some bags and belongings and she picked up the book and thrust it towards me, asking me to give it to her. I picked it up and handed it to her but it was sent flying out of my hand.
There was more to this and I needed to meet her where she was at rather than just hand her a book. Her normal calm and placid demeanour, was replaced by an assertiveness that was making me stop and truly pay attention to her.
I took a couple more things inside and then came back out to simply be with her. She pleaded one more time for me to give her the book. It sounded different this time. I could sense she was ready for me to connect with her now that I had no other distractions. I moved to her and asked her to squidgy over in her seat so I could sit next to her to reach the book on her other side.
I sat next to her and I reached across to grab the book but instead of just giving it to her, I wrapped my arms around her and held her.
Her screams and whines turned to sobs. I had met her. She needed me and my time, not the book, not the bag, Just me.
I let her sob into me for nearly 5 minutes.
As the tears ebbed I said: “When I was listening to you scream before, I could hear you telling me what a big day you had had. In your screams, I could hear you saying you want me to do more things for you and spend more time with you. In your screams, I heard you say that It’s hard when L shouts at you, I also heard in your screams that it’s hard having a little sister because she takes so much of my time away from you. I heard all those things. I want you to know, I’m always listening. Whenever you need to scream, you go ahead and scream, I’ll hear you and I will understand. It’s okay to feel angry like that. It’s okay.
Her little fingers clawed gently into my back. She didn’t want to let me go and I didn’t want her to either. We both needed this moment. I was grateful to her for allowing me in and giving us this opportunity for connection. It wouldn’t have happened had she not dug her heels in and allowed herself to be vulnerable.
When I reflect on these moments, I think about how amazing our role is as a parent; that we get to see this and be privy to another human’s inner most thoughts in such a raw and primal way.
Miss 4 is back to her sunny self and I feel like our relationship is just that tiny bit stronger. I understand her a little more and she knows that I’ve got her back no matter what.
THAT is why I now love it when my children meltdown; for it is in those moments that I am forced to stop in the midst of the hecticness that is my life to learn a little more about what’s going on for them, and in return, they get to experience my unconditional love, support and acceptance. It’s easy to show love when children are being easy. Showing love when they are not, is when those truly deep connections are made.
My parenting is inspired by Magda Gerber’s RIE approach which I learned of through Janet Lansbury’s blog. If you are interested in learning more you can find some good information here or I highly recommend these books (affiliate links)
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect (2nd Edition) ~ Magda Gerber
Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting ~ Janet Lansbury
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame ~ Janet Lansbury