Sitting Through the Fire: How to Handle Your Child's Biggest Emotions
One of my children is a pretty intense guy. He seemed to come out of the womb that way! From day one, I couldn't believe the scale of emotion that tiny body was capable of, and it often knocked me down flat. I bet you either know a child like this or have one of your own. Even if your kiddos are of the more relaxed variety, a little kid is a little kid. There are tantrums in every childhood, and they often leave us sweating and frantic or feeling about to boil over, too. I had more than my fair share of tearful conversations with my husband about feeling captive to his moods. Something had to change.
And in the way grace often manifests, help was sitting right under my nose in the innocent form of...a podcast. Specifically Janet Lansbury's Unruffled podcast: a wealth of calmly delivered advice that makes you already feel like a terrific parent...while confidently coaching you through some of the most common and challenging parenting topics. She has put the calm voice back inside my head. Today I'm going to apply some of her suggestions directly to military parenthood, but be sure to check out her site for discussions on issues from babies to big kids!
Parenting as a military spouse or service member is different. You either spend a lot of time away from your children or a lot of time with them, by yourself. You're challenged with facing behavioral and emotional changes due to a parent's absence all while trying to manage your own mental health. It's HARD. So give yourself a pat on the back for even being brave enough to be here, okay?
Back to tantrums and other tricky behavior: defiance, aggression, pushing boundaries, social clashes, etc. The biggest thing to remember is that your child is telling you a valuable message through their behavior. If they're sharing a big emotion with you--even if it doesn't seem to be coherent or seems to be an issue over "nothing"-- they're saying something through their yelling, back talk, crying, hitting, or whining. They're sharing with you, and that is a POWERFUL insight into where they are emotionally. It also says that they are asking you for that emotion or challenge to be okay so that they can work through it and overcome.
So you might be thinking, "okay, duh. I know she's mad. What else is new?"
I realized through my own journey in parenting an intense little man that there's a deep difference between recognizing an emotion and accepting it. Usually, I was throwing solutions at what he was giving to me. I would find ways to distract him, or scold him, or give him "consequences" to convince him out of his feeling. The message he ended up receiving was: who you are right now and what you're sharing with me isn't okay. Let's get you back to the "good place." Hardly a reassuring message to hear when you're entrusting something overwhelming and scary with one of the people you love most.
What he actually needs from me, and what has changed our relationship for the better, is to sit with him in full acceptance of what he's experiencing. Whether he was sad that Daddy left or enraged that I wouldn't buy another truck for him at Target, I try to make the message: I hear you, buddy. I hear that it makes you sad. I hear that you're angry. I hear YOU. I say these while sticking to the boundaries that I believe are best for him, because that will make him feel secure within whatever emotional roller coaster he's enduring. Mom is unwavering. Mom is strong. Mom was made for this. Ultimately, his question is: "can you handle me?" And my answer, my dear boy, is YES.
A funny thing happened when I started sitting through the fires instead of trying to put them out...the outbursts became less frequent. Often they crop up again in times of big transition, but so many of our daily battles have been put to rest because he finally knows that I, as his fearless leader and boundary setter, am not afraid of him. I will help him to keep himself and others safe, but I will always let the message be: I accept you in this tough time. You don't scare me. I will be your guide when you feel out of control. You are safe here.
Can you imagine one of the people you love most in the world responding to you this way when you're at your absolute worst? Not making you feel guilty for the way you handled something or shamed for an inappropriate outburst? How empowered and at ease would you be? How much more quickly could you heal?
Our children have so many of these instances and needs for us to hear them out, and we can't give from a barren place. We have to nurture our own emotional health to be calm for them. So consider this your invitation to recharge and treat yourself with all the care you deserve for enduring this tricky time in life. And then, go forth into your children's worlds and be brave enough to just acknowledge.