I sigh, heavily, exhausted, defeated.
My 4-year-old daughter is having an epic, raging, meltdown because we’re going to miss her ballet class.
The reason: She couldn’t handle the feeling of her tights (even though she voluntarily wears tights every day. But that’s beside the point. Or maybe that is the point...).
She’s lying on the ground, she’s kicking, and she’s screaming “NO!” over and over and over, as loud as she possibly can. She alternates between flapping her arms and punching at the air around her. She’s not so much crying as she is wailing. It’s bloodcurdling. She’s so loud, and sounds so distraught, we actually begin to worry our neighbors will hear her, and fear there is something terribly wrong happening inside our house.
We fear there is something terribly wrong happening inside our daughter.
We already know there’s nothing we can do to calm her down. If we try to comfort her, she screams in our faces. If we ignore her, she screams in our faces. If we leave her alone, she follows us, and screams in our faces. Basically, it all ends up with her screaming in our faces.
And, when I say “screams in our faces,” I mean it as literally as it sounds. That’s how angry she gets. It’s visceral, and raw, and she needs us to see it as much as she needs to express it.
There’s no talking her down, or gently intervening. There’s no trying to isolate her in her room until she calms down. Any sort of action on our part only seems to provoke and prolong her rage – it feeds her. So, there’s only watching, and bearing the assault her screams, in total agony, until she’s run her course.
As I watch her writhe on the ground, 1000 times more upset than she should be, over something that a) makes exactly zero sense, and b) we very kindly tried to help her work through, I can’t help but look my husband in the face and angrily whisper hiss “OH MY GOD, WHY IS SHE ALWAYS SO DIFFICULT?!”
To some, this incident may not sound like a big deal – it sounds like another typical tantrum, something every parent goes through – and sometimes it is.
It may even sound comical – because hey, it’s hard not to laugh about someone whose emotional state can unravel over a crooked sock. Often, we do look back at her meltdowns, and all we can do is laugh, because we’d go nuts if we didn’t allow ourselves to have a sense of humor about parenthood.
But sometimes, especially after dealing with it daily, and constantly failing to find a solution, these incidents feel like anything but typical or funny.
When your child consistently takes ordinary interactions and turns them into full blown battles, followed by monumental emotional collapses – over small things, routine things, fun things, and basically all things – it begins to wear you down. It begins to make you wonder. It begins to drive you crazy.
You ask yourself a lot of questions. What did we do to cause her behavior? Is something else causing this behavior? What are we doing wrong? Are we doing anything right? What can we change? Is there something wrong with us? And even, is there something wrong with her?
You also read a lot of parenting books, all of which are helpful, but always easier said than done.
To us, our beautiful daughter is the center of our world; we love her to the edges of the earth, and adore her for exactly who she is. We would never, ever wish to change her, or give her the impression that we wished she was different. We want to encourage her to feel confident and free in her own skin.
For her, this means she is always going to be sensitive and strong willed.
For us, this means she is always going to be difficult.
It sucks having to use the word “difficult” to label your child, because there are so many other wonderful characteristics that define them.
But unfortunately, when it comes to dealing with a highly sensitive kid, clad with an iron will, there will never be an easy answer. This is because everything is a big deal to them – their feelings are like exploding stars – and on top of that, they will fight, tooth and nail, to get what they want.
In other words: it’s draining as fuck.
There’s no such thing as “picking your battles,” because to them, everything is battle worthy. It’s non-freaking-stop. Even when you try, desperately, to guide the interaction away from the combat zone (because you seriously can’t deal with another useless dispute), they will find a way to lead you directly to the front-line. As for trying to meet them in the middle, that’s also a big fat NO, good luck trying though.
Anyone with a child like this knows how crucial it is to remain calm, cool and collected during an outburst (freaking out only makes things worse). More than anything else, your child needs your support during these moments; they need your love and respect. You have to lead by example. But ohmygod, sometimes it feels impossible.
When your child continues to behave like this, day after day after day, over so many random things – things it makes NO sense to get upset about, or things you’ve already gone through a hundred times before – it gets exponentially harder to always remain calm.
When the fuck will they understand that if you dump a cup of bathwater onto the floor, you have to get out of the bath? Why the fuck do they still do this every single bath – even after you discuss it with them, prior to them committing the offense? Why the fuck do they act surprised and devastated when they’re removed from the tub? How many literal times does this need to happen before they finally GET it?
Repeat this with approximately 100 more meaningless battles that happen on the daily, and pepper in some fresh bouts, just to keep you on your toes, and it all equates to one thing: you, questioning everything about yourself. Do they continue to behave this way because of your flawed parenting, or is this just how they are? Either way, you feel like you’re failing them, and you constantly question whether your approach is helping or hurting them.
Where is the line between supporting and babying them? Where is the line between encouraging them to develop their independence and disregarding them? Where is the line between being firm and being an asshole? Where is the line between being easy going and being a doormat? Where is the line between guiding them and steering for them? Where is the line between letting them learn and letting them crash?
How often should you let it go? How often should you stand your ground?
How much is too much to hold them accountable for? How much is too little to hold them accountable for?
Sadly, there is never an easy answer. Not only do your choices feel loaded, but they also feel like a total shot in the dark. You never know if you’re helping to advance your child in their emotional development, or, if you’re somehow condoning their misbehavior – because no matter what you do, they continue to mess with you, daily, at astronomical levels.
But, regardless of the impossibility of this dilemma, you have to keep giving it shot after shot, because that’s just what parents do, you have to keep trying.
As for my household, and the tiny drama queen who seems hell bent on wearing us down beyond all reasonable depths, well, we are learning from our experiences with her every single day.
When our little fire cracker finally returned from the stratosphere after her infamous, hour-long, tights catastrophe, we did what we always do and tried our best to reconnect with her right away. Once her initial angry spark had flickered out, she was tired and sad, and just needed to be loved. She doesn’t like flying off the handle any more than we like dealing with her when it happens.
We discussed it with her. We apologized for getting angry. We asked her what it was that made her so upset. We talked about how we could better work through the situation next time. We hugged her. We kissed her. All the while knowing, at some point later in the day, we’d be running around the same mulberry bush, again.
And, even though the first half of the experience made us feel like total failures, the second half didn’t, and that’s what actually mattered – how we reacted, and what we did about it, not her.
One of the most important things we are always reminding ourselves is that: the sign of a good parent is not seen through the behavior of the child, but through the behavior of the parent. We can’t control her (and nor do we want to) but we can control ourselves.
For all parents, this means, we can treat our children with the respect and kindness they deserve. We can apologize when we are wrong. We can promise to do better when we screw up. We can keep an open dialogue about our feelings. We can show our children the way through our own actions, our own attitudes, and support them as they learn and grow at their own pace – even if that involves an exceptional amount of tantrums while they get there.
As for those moments when things feel especially difficult, maybe even impossible, we have to remind ourselves: parenthood was not meant to be easy. Raising a good human is seriously hard, because it means giving all of yourself to another, and expecting nothing in return.
It’s accepting and loving your child for exactly who they are, even when they drive you crazy.
It’s taking the rough moments, and using platitudes to get yourself through them: nothing worth having comes easily. What doesn’t kill me will make me stronger. The days are long but the years are short. This, too, shall pass. You'll miss these days when they're gone.
Sometimes you may snap, and completely lose your shit. But, one thing children are remarkable for, and something us adults could all do better at, is that they forgive fast and easily.
So, when we do experience those impossible moments (where we think our kid couldn’t possibly get any crazier), the best thing we can do is try our best to love them through it, apologize if we don’t, and move forward with the same ease they show us.
And, the last and most important thing to remember, is that even though they may be difficult to parent at times, they are always, always easy to love, and for that, we are lucky beyond measure.