My Sunday started in the usual way with some gentle time snuggling with my two children as we woke up. It was all fine until breakfast when the warm connection started to unravel. My son wanted scrambled eggs, my daughter cereal. “That's ok,” I thought, easy to do. Until my daughter had her breakfast in front of her, and decided she wanted what my son had. When I gently said no, the tantrum started. I knew this wasn't about the breakfast. She'd had some big feelings going on the past few days, really struggling with going back to preschool without her brother, who was about to start “big school” and had some big feelings of his own going on! So, holding on to some compassion, and the sense of a new day, I listened through the breakfast tantrum. After ten minutes of crying and screaming in frustration, my daughter ate most of her breakfast and went to play with her brother.
Then, as I tried to clean up the kitchen, I could hear the tension escalating, yet another argument over a toy, and whose it was. I sighed, and thought to myself, here we go again. This had been happening a lot lately. Luckily, I had some listening time booked in for that evening, so clinging to the thread of sanity and presence that offered me, I went to help my children. I'd not been back in the kitchen for two minutes before the next explosion of yelling and screaming began. Arrrgghhhh! I felt like yelling now myself. My husband was away, my patience wearing thin and a whole day together stretched ahead of us. HELP!
Somewhere in the back of my mind was all the things I could be doing here, coming in playfully to diffuse the tension, dropping everything and getting on the floor and playing with them, thinking up some amazingly fun, connecting experience, calling a friend in…yes, somewhere in the back of my mind. At the forefront were thoughts like, “I can never get anything done around here!”, “I need a break!”, “Will you guys just STOP!!” And then the guilt for not doing enough to help them stay on track, nothing I was thinking was helpful. Until, I remembered my plan, my list of things to do in times like this. Many of those things on that list were inspired by Patty Wipfler's article Strategies for Hard Times.
I took a deep breath, and walked over to my children, and as calmly as I could manage, comforted them both and then asked them to put their shoes on – we were going for a walk. No discussion. Luckily, they agreed. As we sat on the front step, my daughter said, “I’m just not having a good day.” Too right, I thought. Neither am I. But in a flash of inspiration I decided to tell her my reasoning for going for a walk. I explained, “There are choices we have about our thoughts, and our actions, and sometimes it’s really hard to change them, but today I’ve made the choice to go for a walk with you both, instead of staying inside and being cranky. I’m hoping that will change the direction of our day.” She listened and seemed to like the idea.
So off we set, and as we were walking down the driveway, our neighbour came out of his house with a gift of a bubble blowing set for my children as a thank you for looking after his dog the week before. They were so excited by this simple toy! Full of enthusiasm they thanked him and decided to put it into our mailbox to collect on our way back. I turned to my daughter and said, “See, our day is changing direction already!” She smiled, took my hand and said, “Mum, today is going to be fun!” My heart swelled as I looked at her smile, and I felt a rush of love for my children, grateful for the sunshine and fresh air, and the chance to start the day again. And we did have a lovely day together. We walked to the local café for a milkshake, picked up ‘treasures’ all the way back, and at home again, my children joyously invented some new games with the bubbles! I loved joining in too!
To be honest, there were still a few moments later in the day where I nearly lost it again, but I was able to talk to my children and make a plan for when I got cross. They would ask me if I needed to go for a walk, or call a friend or go outside and sit on the grass. And it worked! One moment, I was asking my daughter to do something for the third time, and my frustration must have been showing, as she promptly said, “Mum, do you need to go for a walk?” with a smile and a sparkle in her eye! Immediately the tension diffused for me, and I started laughing, and playfully went off for a ‘walk’ around the living room, exaggerating making myself calm down with much laughter from them of course!
That evening, when speaking to my listening partner, I got to tell her all about how frustrating it is when my children don’t listen to me. I cried about how upsetting it is for me to see my children hurt each other, and cried even harder about the guilt I felt for not helping them more, for neglecting Special Time, for knowing there are things I can do but not doing them. All this helped to relieve the tension I was carrying, that was stopping me from being present and being able to connect with my children. Not surprisingly, the next day I was able to be there for them much more.
Sound familiar? Parenting is hard, constant work. Often, there is too little time, and not enough hands and heads to meet the demands of a child’s need for attention. So, it’s inevitable that things will start to fall apart. Life might even reach crisis point if this lack of support is left unchecked. Parents can lose it with their children, and the fear this generates leads to more frustrating and challenging behaviours which leads to more losing it moments. Even if we feel like we get on top of things for a while, it can spiral out of control very quickly if the underlying lack of support is not addressed. We need to put support in place before it's too late!
As well as putting into place regular listening time, or time out for myself, I’ve found it helpful to make a list of all the things I enjoy doing with my children, and writing them down. This gives me a “plan” for those days when connection seems out of reach. Like in the story above, one thing on my list was going to the local café for a milkshake. Other things could be getting out in nature, reading a story, having a bath or anything connecting that makes you all smile. These are things I can do when I’m too tangled up in my own feelings to listen well to my children, or think well about how to set limits or when I’m too tired to play. I call them my “changing direction strategies”!
Lyra L'Estrange, Certified Instructor in QLD, Australia