It started with the French toast being ‘too eggy’ for my six-year-old daughter, Opal. Then she threw a fork at the floor, blasting the words you don’t make it as good as daddy! I promptly escorted her to her room to ‘cool down,’ and, three steps ahead of me, she yelled back, “You haven’t hugged me enough today!” So I tried to hug her and she lurched away.
Then, when she saw me cringe at the chaotic disarray that is her living space, she hollered that she SHOULDN’T have to clean her room because her best friend told her to always follow her heart and her heart was saying she SHOULDN’T have to clean her room! She completed her declaration by slamming the door with such force that my insides tightened. The baby started crying.
I had attempted to dutifully interject, to quell some of the heat between each of her fiery sentences. But she was an emotional force with no clear beginning and no decipherable end. My efforts felt snuffed-out and ridiculous.
I picked up the baby, which calmed her for the moment, and returned to Opal’s door, staring at it like a dunce. I could hear her tearing and crumpling up paper inside, aggressively mumbling, “I’m moving. I’m JUST moving.” Then, she slid a flat, un-torn piece of paper under the door that bumped into my toes. It had an unhappy face drawn on it and the words “Opal RELL (real) SD (sad).” (She’s still working on spelling.)
My instinct was to talk to her firmly. I wanted so badly to tell her this behavior is not okay. Because it isn’t; it’s nuts. And now that the baby was awake, Opal and I wouldn’t be able to have the quiet lunch together that I had so consciously planned.
The firm-voice approach does stop her mind for an instant, she takes notice since it happens so rarely. But any satisfying pause is short-lived. When I do raise my voice—when I can’t help myself and need so badly to state my claim as the authority figure—she will stop, mouth gaping like carp and eyes wide and empty, taking me in like she’s trying to recognize me. Then, you can set your clock by it, on a count of three, she will let out a skull-splitting scream that makes whatever happened up to that point pale in comparison. She will kick, shake and turn a shade of glossy burgundy. Then she collapses beneath a litany of self-loathing: You hate me! You hate me! And we are seemingly much worse off than before. We are hours from recovery, requiring hands-on, intensive and conscious guidance back to reality.
No, this does not seem to be the most effective approach.
Kids have much more of a capability to live in the now, but taking all that emotion and squeezing it into the present moment can, at times, feel like trying to squeeze a feral wolverine into a breadbox.
From the first, unsatisfying bite of French toast to the cryptic under-the-door note, not more than a few minutes had passed. Before then, Opal was jolly and her mood was seemingly free of troubles. Her rage came on like an electrical storm, which is often how it goes. It is a very different category than the brand of upset that adults feel— our smoldering, escalating anger, or long lingering grudges. Kids have much more of a capability to live in the now, but taking all that emotion and squeezing it into the present moment can, at times, feel like trying to squeeze a feral wolverine into a breadbox.
Through the door, I said coolly, “Honey, when you are ready to come out and eat calmly, I’ll be here.” Minutes passed and the indistinct mumbling continued from inside. I was bouncing the fussy baby in my arms, feeling a sharp baby-holding pain in my right shoulder as well as guilt for the fact that we have this crying baby in the first place—our new foster baby, having just taken her in a few weeks ago, when she was less than a month old. She required constant attention, as infants do. There was a gap of about a month between our last foster daughter, who we’d cared for for nearly a year, and this one. During that brief time, Opal was an only child again. And as loving and welcoming—and, dare I say, protective—as Opal has been with this new baby, I can’t help but to wonder how much she misses being the center of our attention. She must.
Through the door, tensing and trying not to let on to my level of exhaustion, I said, ”Honey, we can talk about this. But you just need to find a way to calm down.”
AAAH! She yelled from inside. Just like that, with exasperation, AAAH!
Without another thought, I ran downstairs, baby in arms, and yanked the book, The Whole-Brain Child, by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson, from the top shelf. I have turned to this book on numerous occasions over the years when Opal has been victim to her emotions. Its insights about integrating the left (logical) brain and the right (emotional) brain have been the most applicable for us, but the information in the book about the workings of a child’s brain—and how this influences their behavior, and most importantly, how we, as parents, can best proceed in what feels like an emotive minefield— is seemingly endless. And I needed a reminder, bad.
I opened to the back ‘summary’ pages with the urgency of a paramedic in desperate search of guidance on how to handle a critical situation as it was happening before my eyes. I did my best to tune out the stomps of the older kid and the escalating cries of the tiny one in order to focus, if just for a moment.
The number-one, foremost instruction: Connect and redirect.
The number-one, foremost instruction: Connect and redirect. When your child is upset, connect first emotionally, right brain to right brain. Then, once she is more receptive, bring in the left-brain lessons and discipline.
Oh, right. My agenda means nothing right now. Until she has calmed down, Opal’s ears are completely broken and any perfect-parent scenario I could compose would mean nothing. While gripped by the right brain, she is like a comic-strip villain, deflecting every thoughtful, meaningful, lesson-inducing word I could say.
So, I changed my tune. I took a deep, resigned breath and set the baby down in her rocker, where she lay mercifully quiet for the next handful of minutes.
“Do NOT come in.”
“Ok,” I answered gently, ”How about if I sit in the doorway?”
She opened the door, very slowly.
I sat cross-legged on the floor in the doorway and gave Opal a tender smile. “You are having a ton of emotions, huh? That must feel pretty intense. Anger. Frustration. All of it.” She shook her head, offering a crack in the mortar. I pulled her to my lap and put my arms around her and held her there for a minute. A full, long, elastic minute. The house echoed with the sort of penetrating quiet that follows in the wake of extreme commotion.
“Oh sweetie. Life feels pretty big sometimes, huh?” She softened into my lap, her muscles like something left in a warm window. “Do you think you could come eat something now, it would really help your body.”
At the table, gobbling her now-cold, eggy French toast as if she hadn’t eaten in weeks, I asked Opal if she could tell me what exactly happened earlier, when she got so angry.
“Well,”’ Opal said, spitting out a tiny glob of maple syrup, “I didn’t like the French toast and I guess I’m also mad because I’m having a hard time with Sara at school. She follows me everywhere. She’s driving me crazy.”
“Is that right?” I said.
It was as if we’d taken an un-piloted ride in a tiny, commuter plane through dangerous and unpredictable conditions. We were lucky to be alive by the time we reached our final destination, there at the table, the true meaning beneath her upset staring us in the face. Our nervous systems were still quaking and vulnerable from the incursion. We talked slowly, deliberately, with wide gaps between our words, about Sara, school, recess.
Later, we would talk about consequences for her behavior. We would talk about house rules and how she has the skills to calm herself, but they just need practiced.
But, in no time, all those details would fade into the indecipherable ticker tape that is memory. All that would remain would be the moment she saw something change in my eyes, just before pulling her into my lap.
A Simple Breathing Practice for the Melt Down Phase
Recently I spoke with Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child, about how we can help our kids help themselves during those melt-down moments. She suggests, “a long cooling out-breath can help children quiet their minds and bodies when they feel overly-excited or upset.” She’s got a new book coming out in the Fall called Mindful Games: Sharing Mindfulness and Meditation with Children, Teens and Families, and she offered this lovely practice:
- Breathe to relax. “Encourage your child to breathe in a little bit through their nose and breathe out a whole lot through their mouth with pursed lips, making a soft whooshing sound as they exhale. Doctors call this pursed lip breathing, which helps kids relax by slowing the pace of their breath and heart rate. “
- Make it fun. “I like to turn this into a game called Smell the Flowers, Then Blow Out the Candle. If your child is sobbing, and having trouble catching their breath, ask them to raise their first finger and pretend there’s a flower bloom on the end. Encourage them to breathe-in through her nose to smell the flower. Then, have them picture that the finger is a candle with a flickering flame and encourage them to purse their lips and breathe out through their mouth toward their pointer finger to blow out the candle.”
- Slow the outbreath. “Ask kids to blow so slowly and gently that the imaginary flame flickers instead of going out entirely. Teach kids this game when they’re not having a melt-down and talk to them about how a long exhale can help cool them down when they’re upset. Then, they can use this quieting strategy on their own in the moments when they need it.”