Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Raise the Curtain on Drama

They say as a toddler I was fairly dramatic.

They say their nickname for me was Sarah Bernhardt.

They say they used that nickname often.
I should feel complimented, really. She's quite beautiful.

"They" are my parents.

I wonder what they would say about my daughter and her recent discovery of the gamut and depth of human emotion.

My daughter, as you may know, is three. Much of the time, she is a dear, delightful child. But during the past month, a new part of her brain seems to have awoken. It is the part that helps her to feel all emotions -- from joy to the deepest sorrow -- with frightening strength.

I'm afraid she doesn't know what to do with those feelings yet. To be honest, neither do I.

I have been amazed to see the transformation of my mild little girl into a wailing banshee of fury in a matter of seconds. Her godfather, upon witnessing one of her rare outbursts (I think sparked by the denial of candy before supper) looked bemused as she arched her back and opened her mouth to eight times its usual size for an ear-splitting NOOOOOooooo! "Well, I'm happy to know that nobody can push my god-daughter around! That girl's got some power!" he accurately observed.

Because her transformation happened so publicly (at our family Christmas celebration), I had to remove her from the watchful eyes of the relatives and give her a time-out in a separate room. I let her spend time alone until she was calm enough to rejoin the group. What worked? Whispering in her ear that every person in the house could hear her yelling, and that they all knew the noise was coming from her. She looked at me with surprise. "They do?" Fairly soon afterward, we rejoined the family.

Looking back, I'd say I was lucky.

To be honest, seeing her careen out of control frightens me a little bit. I have always known that parenting girls would be somehow different. It made me nervous (still does) because I want to do it well. I want to help her control her reaction to the strength of her feelings without teaching her that feelings themselves are bad. When I look back at my own upbringing and the way I was taught to hold feelings inside and when I think about how much I kept hidden from my parents, especially as a young woman, I am hopeful that I can find another way. Maybe there is a way to parent my children through emotional times and lead them to understanding. Maybe not. Maybe that's just supposed to come later. At this point, I'm not sure.

This morning, on the way home from dropping her brothers off at school, my daughter had another angry outburst. She wanted to go into the building to visit with "her friends" (the teachers and secretaries and her brothers' classmates). But we had other errands to run, so I kept her in the car and said goodbye to the boys and drove away. I was treated to about 8 minutes of abuse that seemed more like 40.

At first, my reaction was strong, telling her that children who behave that way have no business going into a school and that yelling at me was not appropriate. But the more she flew off the handle, the more detached I became. I realized she wasn't yelling at me. She was trying to remake reality and was frustrated that things weren't turning out as she had expected. I turned on the radio and let her process that we were driving home instead of back to the school.

"We ARE going in to school! I AM NOT GOING HOME!" she stated loudly and with power.

I let her wind down as we drove. I could tell she was starting to accept that I was not giving in. Early in the drive (when I was still in 'reactive mode') I told her that she was going to have to accept that there were some things she couldn't control. No one enjoys hearing that, no matter how true it is. I know I sure don't.

About three-fourths of the way home, she started saying, "Mommy?" But she was still so wound up, I didn't respond. I needed to feel like I was cool enough to not react harshly. I waited until we were all the way home, until she was played out completely, to respond. And even then, I waited until I had turned off the car, had a moment of quiet, and got out to unbuckle her. When we were face-to-face, she asked, "Mommy? Is today my playgroup day?" I was able to speak to her and calmly say yes.

Then came her request for a hug. It is something she does at the end of almost every outburst and sometimes right in the middle of one.

When she is still angry or crying, though, I don't hug her. I wait until she has regained control. Sometimes I feel conflicted about that, especially if she is both crying and begging for a hug. But I don't want her to start relying on me to get her emotions under control -- I want her to learn to do it herself. Then we can re-establish our bond. It may be over-analyzing, but I think sometimes she is starting to realize that she is having far different feelings than I am, that we won't agree all the time, and that we are, in fact, different people. Maybe that's scary, especially since she has been my little princess and constant companion since she was tiny.

Oh, through all of this, I worry. It is a tough time for me as a Mom because I want to help her, but I understand that she has to discover the answers for herself, even though she is only three. Maybe the best I can do is keep her safe and talk about things once the crying is done.

Wish me luck. I know this is only the beginning of her journey, and I want it to be a good one. At this point, parenting through this is tough.

Maybe now I'm the one who needs a hug.

- Midwest Mom


  1. Wow, reading this made me gasp. My oldest is 9 and he acts very similarly--and I'm equally conflicted about how to deal with him. Part of me wants to prod him through this stage so he doesn't embarrass himself, but I was wired the same way and it took me through college to cool my drama queen act and I don't think anything anyone would've done or said could have changed me. Good luck--and if you come up with a good response, let me know!

  2. Matthew has an ultra ego named 'mattias' who emerges more often than not. My parents tell me that I was a calm child but when Bob's family is treated to a visit with Mattias they grin and shake their heads that Bob was the same way.

    You're raising a girl that isn't a pushover.. nothing wrong with that!I think it is adorable she has 'her friends' at school.

    I hope you post before and after photos of the painting project!

  3. You certainly aren't alone.

    Our 2 1/2 year old daughter goes through pretty much the same exact thing. The smallest thing can set her off in a big way. We really marvel at how upset she can get.

    You're doing the right thing, at least I hope you are 'cause we're doing the same thing. Holding strong and not compromising where bad behavior is concerned.

    Hang in there!

  4. She sounds like she is one of MY children - ALL strong willed. I hope you find a balance with yours - I seldom know the answer with mine. It's difficult. All my kids are great kids - truly, but ... they are forever trying to push the boundaries. I often say - they are going to all be very strong adults - if I survive their childhood. They will too!

    I love the new photo in your header - that is the most darling picture!

    Take care - Kellan

  5. It was so touching to read how concerned you are with parenting this little girl right. I had never thought about giving a child a hug during a fit, versus what you suggested, waiting until her emotions were under control so she was not reliant on you. I like that advice. It's wonderful to read stories from other mothers about how they handle these tantrums and outbursts.

  6. Thanks for letting me know about the link! I fixed it just now. Next week will be more matthew/parenting related and less fantasy so thanks for not minding a change in pace.

  7. Sounds like you have a strong willed child. My oldest was like that when she was that age. I read "Setting Limits with Your Strong-Willed Child" by Robert McKenzie and it really helped me. You can get that book for real cheap at Alibris. I have the link to Alibris on my site. Good luck!

  8. Check my post tom. morning there will be an award for you!

  9. Just found your blog and love love LOVE the header. Adorable! I'd be a fan if you never wrote a coherent sentence...would just come here to look at the cutie at the top of the page...but you DO write well. Your daughter (and her brothers) are lucky to have a mom like you.

    That said, the most novel AND effective Mom Response to a tantrum I've ever witnessed was a friend who would wait until her daughter took a breath between rantings. She would *very calmly and quietly* say "How much longer do you think you'll feel this way?". To which Daughter would scream something like "I DON'T KNOW! MAYBE FOREVER!". My friend would wait *patiently and calmly* for the next breath-taking, touch the little girl's shoulder, and say (again, calmly) "Well, let me know when you're done", then walk (not storm) out of the room. I was always amazed at how quickly the tantrum ended!

    It worked because 1) my friend acknowledged the little girl was angry but didn't get angry herself, and 2) made the duration of the tantrum the daughter's decision.

    But remaining quiet like you did until my own children calmed down worked too!

  10. Three is tough. I thought that right after my son turned three, and now that we are mere weeks away from four and encountering more even ground than bumps in the road, I'm sure of it. I am so with you on wondering on a daily basis the best way to handle and teach and mother a preschooler. How much should we encourage them to do for themselves, and how much should we just enjoy doing for them before they are too old to need us at all?


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