When my kids are testing my every nerve, chances are good… no, chances are certain… that they have some feelings that desperately need to come out. After they have a cry or a rage, it is like a switch – they become pleasant and serene, they concentrate and focus well and the mood of the whole day changes. It is so bankable that I like to start the day with a big tantrum… and sometimes my kids do also.
Usually though, they wake happy as Larry and it takes an hour or two for them to piss each other off enough to reach breaking point. My daughter tends to just walk off and shut herself in her room, generally to get away from my toddler son who can become a maniac when that point strikes. He yells at every little thing and no one can please him and the wrong word can send him into a melt down. If intervention isn’t forthcoming, he will stay this way, sometimes all day. I’d like to explore this and offer an alternative perspective and action plan that many parents may not have considered before.
First, I need to debunk the term “misbehaviour”. That is a judgement that only serves to skew my empathy for my children and turn to anger. There is only “behaviour” that I have deemed right or wrong. I have been wrong in my judgments before, I won’t risk it again.
Second, due to the length of this and the chances most readers won’t stay the course with me, the upshot is: hold your children when they cry or tantrum, with love and compassion. That’s it really. Want to know why and how? Read on.
Babies and children get stressed, and even traumatised, just as adults do. The beginnings of emotional repression are in infancy, when a baby is shown that no one wants to hear her cries. By the time they are one, most western children have a control pattern – an object or behaviour that suppresses their crying or raging, dulls the pain and loneliness of having feelings no one wants to hear. Commonly these are blankets, pacifiers/dummies, thumb sucking, soft toys or a repetitive action against themselves or a parent – however the list is as varied as children are. Parents often introduce these things, and call them “comforts”.
To identify a control pattern, look for these signs:
- They demand it frantically when crying/raging or on the verge of it.
- They stop crying when they have it.
- They often glaze over with it (look distant, a little sleepy perhaps). It disconnects them.
- They may seem to want it more than they want mama, or mama may feel that she cannot console her child quite like this “comfort” thing does.
- They use it to fall asleep.
- You dread losing it, and may have duplicates “just in case”.
A child can have more than one, and they can also change to different ones although there is more commonly one stand out control pattern… any others may not exist or are harder to fathom. My son has cycled through bouncing, music, sucking, rocking and a little blanket. All of those things can still work to instantly calm him down. As children get older, control patterns become more intricate, more like adult ones and are much harder to identify. Some remain easy to spot, such as watching TV or nail biting. Some kids have none, but you probably won’t meet one of those unless you visit a natural tribe or a family that has awareness of the topic this article is about.
A child without her control pattern will cry and rage in your arms or in your presence.
I am a long term advocate of attachment parenting, which is just a fluffy term to describe instinctual, primal type parenting. There was a gaping hole in attachment style for me in that my daughter started tantruming before age 4 and I felt powerless, and dare I say it… bullied. My current methods were to distract, negotiate, belittle (yeah, I tried a few ugly things). Sometimes one would work, sometimes not.
Attachment advocates are against punishment, 123 magic and all that bullshit and some – like myself – are even against discipline altogether. I believe instead in the inherent goodness of children and that any buttons pushed or mistakes made are simply part of the building of the mental filing system of this confusing ride we call life. However, I felt I had no way to deal with her radical outbursts – not realising that previously, her attachment to her blanket had kept her “calm” and her tears at a manageable minimum. There came a point when the dam burst and rage came with it and she started having outbursts and demands.
That’s when I found the work of Aletha Solter, which is attachment style with a bonus – children have valid emotions that need expressing, not repressing.
As soon as I read that, it was one of those *slaps own forehead* moments. Of course, that makes sense.
Most of us, especially attachment parents, are doing everything we humanly can to “comfort” our child, which in both attachment and mainstream families translates as “crying is bad, fix it, stop it.” It hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps my baby doesn’t have a desperate need for bouncing, even though it makes him stop. Perhaps my daughter doesn’t actually want to turn into the Tasmanian devil. Maybe they’re both upset and want to release that. I instantly resonated with the philosophy and applied it to my whole life, not just to my daughter. The last time I had done anything like that was after I read that gut wrenching, life altering book Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff.
I like Pam Leo’s quote, “It’s not nice to hit people; children are people.” Simple. Profound. “Children are people too” – what a gorgeous phrase. It is the perfect reminder for me for how to react in any given situation.
I felt I had been given permission to “allow” my daughter to be angry, to cry… to express herself. I had always been considered – by myself and others – to be an empathic person, open to the emotions of others, always there with a ready ear and sympathetic noise of genuine interest. To suddenly realise I had denied my own child this basic concept was a shock to me, and the guilt started to ooze in… oh sweet guilt, why do you torment me so?
Guilt, like all emotions, serves a purpose. Without guilt, I would have remained a stagnant parent, unaffected, unwilling and complacent. In fact, without guilt, we’d all be perfect arseholes to each other – even more than we already are, God forbid. In fact, it seems to be the only emotion that specifically protects others from ourselves – or at least, from repeated harm. I eventually embraced my guilt and allowed it to lead me to the glorious release I needed to move forward – the slow release of sorrow and anger that was as deep as the Armageddon tides. At the same time, I started to allow my daughter to release, and the first time, luckily for us both, was a raging success. Pun intended.
She was being difficult this day, to put it mildly. I’d had enough and she started to crumble into a tormented, kicking, screaming mess. I clicked into gear and dropped all my irritation to find a place of empathy for her and got down to her level and pulled her into my arms and said to her that she sounds very angry and sad and that I’m here and listening. The raging quickly turned to full fledged sobbing; tears were flowing and I held her and stayed present with her until she calmed of her own accord. This took a long time.
When finished, it was like it never happened, and her mood altered drastically. She was calm and happy and content and also, really compliant – bonus! A connected child is a compliant child… this is another profound truth I could drop to my knees with gratitude for also. “Misbehaviour” is a need to release feelings or lack of connection. Usually both because one begets the other. Every day I reconnect with my children many times, or after school, and they’re putty in my hands.
The tantrum miracle spurred me on to where I was actually looking forward to them yet she only had a few more, and then they just stopped. Emotions were still there, she’s human after all and fresh stress hits almost daily, but she seemed to have more resilience, and our bond became very strong. She abandoned her blanket not long after all this. She is 8 now and some days, especially after a stressful day, she becomes difficult and if I am on the ball, I can get her into tears or some kind of expression so she can move forward. The dynamic with her brother has brought us all new challenges, and I don’t know how I would have coped without this basic human tool of empathy and freedom to express.
I felt I had power back, and best of all, it felt “right”. No matter who you are, punishing someone always carries a deep sense of “wrong” with it (although, some are able to shake that right down to the recesses of their hearts)… kind people do it begrudgingly, and the phrase “this is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” speaks volumes of this phenomenon, of how we do things even with a sense of wrongness about it. I’ve literally seen mothers kneeling at a closed door in tears while their child wails on the other side of it because they have been lead to believe they are doing the right thing – regardless of that incredibly powerful sense of wrongness. Then they will tell me they’re “just not good at parenting”, that they don’t have mothering instincts. What have we done to our families?
A note about “colic”. Many people think this is an actual illness of the digestive tract. Farting, puking, and pulling their legs up in what looks like pain certainly looks like digestive distress. In fact, it is the phantom diagnosis given to babies who cry for long bouts, often, and for no known reason. A baby with a perfectly functioning bowel will pull her legs up when crying, the whole body clenches actually. Note how it seems like she is trying to crawl into you, or into the fetal position… following?
A puking baby is sometimes simply over-full. My daughter was bottle fed from 2 months and after cycling through myriad different formulas in a bid to find one she didn’t throw up I figured out she was feeding for comfort – meaning, she was feeding way past “full”. I had to find a way to give her less without upsetting her (hence, the blanket. Sigh). I fed her old-school method which was every four hours, so mimicking breastfeeding can help, feeding less milk more often. It is something to try, before the ever ready diagnosis of “reflux” and the medication that follows; medication that stops the natural regurgitation reflex that rids the body of too much milk. Always check with a doc if you feel you should, of course.
From my personal experience, research and work with many parents, turns out colic is:
- The need to be in-arms more often to dispel energy and for security.
- The need to release feelings.
Usually both. “Infant colic drops” might have some use to help the parent feel they are doing something, but if a parent wants to try something radical, I suggest those two things above. Making sure they cry in-arms and that all other needs have been met.
Colic does not exist in many natural cultures. I was lead to believe that if I held my baby ALL the time, he wouldn’t cry because that would emulate the natural cultures where babies are held skin to skin 24 hours a day, even during sleep. I tested this theory with my son, and it turned out to be partly true.
The true part is that even if all else is fine, but you don’t hold a new baby all the time – he will cry. They need to be held and not just when upset and there’s no getting around it. Sorry. I didn’t even buy a pram for my son as the easiest way to get more in-arms credits was to sling him. However, the false part is that it isn’t ALL they need. A well-held baby can still cry I learned, much to my disillusioned sleep-deprived discontent.
My son had a traumatic birth, his head was almost crushed by what is called a Bandl’s ring in my uterus. I had to factor that into my expectations. Then there were a few other challenges health-wise and whatnot… he had a lot of stress for a small person. He has feelings to express, and I’m the one he wants to rant them at. So I sat with him in my arms, for hours, listening to his cries. I thought my experience with his sister had prepared me… it hadn’t. He would have been diagnosed with colic if it existed, for sure. He wasn’t hungry, in fact, he kept insisting I take my boobs away, thank you very much; several health checks showed he wasn’t sick. My diet was already free of gluten, dairy and every-other-bloody-thing so my milk had a freakin’ halo – it wasn’t allergies. He had no issues at all, just crying, nothing to see here people.
Months down the track and I was literally out of my mind with sleep deprivation. I NEEDED this boy to SLEEP – how sad can a person be, for Christ’s sake? Regrettably, I installed “blanky”. Sigh. I’m such a trickster, I filled it with my smell (wore it for days) and sneaked it in between us when I held him… he learned that blanky was as there for him as I was. Then blanky was there… even when I wasn’t. Blanky became more reliable than mama. He needed it for everything – it was officially his control pattern and he sucked his thumb with it to boot.
People are kidding themselves when they say this is because a child is more independent. Dependence is dependence, no matter what it is on. I wouldn’t call grown tribal men dependent, would you? Yet they cosleep their whole lives and are carried the first two – by four they’re carrying other babies. We have our definition of dependence backwards and in my estimation, both dependence and independence only lead to strife. Interdependence is the way to go.
Everything else remained the same for my son, we still coslept and I still slung him to me everywhere we went. But I had committed one of the western parenting quick fixes and now I had that hairy guilt visiting again… I had to reverse it but wasn’t sure how. I cannot explain here what I learned and did because it is an article of its own. My advice is not to instil a control pattern to begin with (in my experience, easier said than done). And with or without one, the way back home is to start by seeing tears and tantrums as OK.
Oh, and don’t take a child’s control pattern away. Not only is that disrespectful and traumatic but they’ll just replace it in some way. They will release the need for any control patterns only when they feel safe enough to do so.
It’s ok to rage.
It’s ok to cry.
It’s ok to be scared.
Suppressing those things is when there is trouble. Or funneling every emotion through one in particular that we’re not as uncomfortable with… such as anger, so that every adversity in our life makes us lash out in rage. Men (stereotypically) have funneled sadness through anger because sadness is frowned on in males; in females, sadness is safe but anger is frowned on.
Have you ever stopped for a minute and allowed yourself to fully allow a feeling in? I don’t mean expressing it, but simply experiencing an emotion? Try it one day, just stop, lay down and say, “ok, come get me, I fully allow this feeling to be here.” and let it burn, risk it consuming you. See what happens. Here’s a tip: it won’t consume you, it will liberate you; it will show you the source of emotions are thoughts.
I keep the phrase “children are people too” close by, so when my son flares in a tantrum or my daughter dons a princess bitchface hat right when I am late for an appointment AND I’m in the mall AND I’m with all my judgmental peers sneering I-told-you-so looks down their noses I’m more likely to react as though my child is a beloved friend in emotional need than the killer of all my hopes, dreams and youth.
If an adult friend starts crying or raging in my presence, I do not give her a time out. I do not yell at her. I do not hit her. I do not send her to her room or threaten her with the loss of something.
I simply stop the bullshit in my own head for a while, and I be there for my friend.
At the end, she feels “heard” and even if I haven’t given a speck of advice, she feels strong enough to get on with the business she needs to attend to.
Beware the broken cookie syndrome. This is when a little thing becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Don’t be fooled; she isn’t really that upset because her cookie broke (or because you gave her the wrong glass), it’s that now the flood gates are open and her body and mind are trying to heal from a stockpile of past stresses. I can relate… I watched PS I Love You and sobbed for an hour afterwards but it had nothing to do with the movie, my body just took that opportunity to pour some shit out. I felt a million dollars after that for ages.
Don’t assume a child’s life is stress free because they don’t have bills and loan sharks threatening to knee-cap them – we’re no longer bothered by the things children are but they are still just children. We’re hardened adults, seasoned by time and adversity. Broken cookies matter, god-damn it.
Another cue is when their behaviour is off. Perhaps they’re being aggressive, (common in the toddler set); perhaps they’re being disagreeable and demanding and life is just not quite “so” for them right now. I find a releasing session sets anyone straight, but particularly children because they are so raw and ready. Healing a child physically is quicker and easier than healing an adult and the same is true emotionally. They dump old baggage fast, they just need an opportunity. They’ll create one if they have to, so be alert. Accident prone kids can often be the result of consistently finding a sympathetic ear to tears from physical pain, but not from anything else. That isn’t manipulation, it is beyond their control because life finds a way to heal.
If my son yells at his sister, I ask him if he needs to get some feelings out and he starts crying and I hold him and it can escalate dramatically; I feel useful at these times, like I’m playing a part in healing him. I have held him for two hours screaming and kicking – although that only happened once, back when I started being more present for his releasing instead of getting blanky to do all the work. A fully connected child is fully present in his life, not in constant pleasure addiction and pain aversion.
Experiencing emotions often entails tears, even for joy and anger. Tears have been examined and shown to contain stress chemicals. Every exiting body fluid has a purpose, a cleansing purpose – why would tears be any different? Body and mind are intimately connected, it makes sense to me that releasing emotions results in the release of something tangible from the body.
With babies and toddlers who lash out during releases: protect yourself from being hurt but remember you are the grown up, don’t carry on like they slashed you with a chainsaw. Gently catch their arms if they swing at you – you won’t need a degree in self defense for this – and kiss the hand that swung. Meet rage with love. Protect yourself, yet allow them to push against you, arching back can be release of birth trauma and other times where they’ve felt powerless.
Older kids with serious aggression need to release more than anyone yet they can actually do serious harm so find a place where damage control is easy. Laughter releasing might be better for that child – that is not in the scope of this article. Playful Parenting by Lawrence Cohen PhD may help.
My parenting style is an investment in a child’s emotional future, not in immediate results – this means that my children are not given strong consequences and this unnerves people. My brother asked, “So do you just give them anything they want?” and this has been a common question. Here’s my answer: yes and no. Again, it is treating them as a person, as a friend, with common courtesy. If a friend asks me for something and I am willing and able to give it, then I give it. Same with my children. If I am unwilling or unable, then no, I don’t give it – no, you can’t have a horse and no, you can’t have cotton candy. Decisions are much simpler when I consider my children as people.
My brother also asked me, “So, what about when they tantrum over whatever it is you won’t give them?”
If a person, young or old, is upset, even if that is because of a decision I have made, the rules are the same: empathy empathy empathy compassion compassion compassion. No, you can’t have a horse and I can see that really upsets you but I’m here with you would you like a hug?
My brother eventually said, “Actually, that all makes sense. I never thought of it that way.”
The best part is that now my daughter is 8, some of those “you’ll make a rod for your own back” comments from way back can be addressed just by her, being her. She is talented, gifted, kind, happy, quiet, brave, profound, polite and does things like stands up for spiders that are being tormented by kids – she is social yet isn’t part of the pack mentality. I need only point to her and say, “She has never so much as been sent to her room. Nuff said?”
I sniff my own smug occasionally, but it’s good for morale.
A word about crying as a “tired sign”.
People do not cry simply because they are tired. Tiredness can trigger a release though. Adults and children alike can hold themselves together for long periods and through great adversity if they have the energy reserves. When that energy is all used up, we need to eat or sleep, depending on time of day, to replenish the stores. Fatigue therefore weakens our defenses, and we can become irritable and express emotions that we were otherwise holding in check. Fatigue does not cause these emotions, however. Most parenting books have a list of tired signs in babies and one of them is always irritability and tears. We hand them the control pattern and this squashes those feelings in again and they go to sleep. With their defenses down, it is a good opportunity to help the child release some pent up feelings instead of trying to drown them out with a control pattern or repetitive motion.
People free of inner stress simply go to sleep when they are tired. My son, content, just closes his eyes wherever he is. He seeks out a lap most of the time, but he has been known to fall asleep sitting in a chair, no tears, no fuss at all. When he had stress inside, he would become difficult when tired, irritable and fussy and usually end up in tears or even rage. The experience of many of us is that a child sleeps better after a release – but only if they have been held, and their pain witnessed by a loving carer.
ALWAYS hold a baby when he is crying. With older children, always hold them if they will let you. They may push against you and arch back, even older children may arch back like a baby when tantruming in your arms, this doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to be held, sometimes it feels good to push against something. They don’t know what they want during a melt down, they may come to you and move away again but if possible, get them near you and at the very least, stay present and attentive. If they absolutely refuse to be held and that is made very clear, not just by pushing against you but by making strong efforts to get off your lap and move away. NEVER NEVER NEVER leave a baby OR child alone to cry. For any reason. Not negotiable.
Addendum: Ok, it’s negotiable. If you think you might hurt them… that would be a reason to leave and pull yourself together.
It can be difficult for some to sit with the powerful emotions of others, particularly rage (it can feel like blame) and particularly with their own children when they themselves were denied this as a child. It triggers deep, unrecognised feelings that can lash out in all kinds of ways, creating the same cycle with our own kids. Due to this, and to the fact that laughter is at least as important as tears for healing and for moving into release of stress and trauma – collect more information. Either in book form or via Aletha Solter’s site Aware Parenting. In Australia, I recommend Marion Badenoch Rose from Parenting with Presence for real time support. She’s beautiful, serene and compassionate.