It can be hard to stay with your child through an intense crying session, especially if you child runs off or tells you to go away. Here’s how Hand in Hand’s Heidi Grainger Russell rode out her son’s big feelings about garbage recycling and his grandmother moving in right next door.
Last summer my mother moved from over 2,500 away to a house right next door. It was a dream come true for all of us, and particularly my four-year-old son, who adores his grandmother. But a change this big doesn’t come without ripples.
My son was sorting through some big feelings around the change, which mostly manifested as boundary pushing and inflexible behavior. At this time, one of his favorite activities was managing our garbage recycling. He emptied our wastebaskets daily and put the cans out on the curb for collection every week. He would even wake up early on Thursdays to watch the garbage collection trucks. It was his true delight. He also had lots of pride and ownership around it. It was, “His job.”
One Thursday we returned from some errands to find my mother had pulled the cans in. She was having guest over and had put them away to make more parking space in our shared driveway. My son was very angry and immediately began dragging the cans back to the curb.
I tried to reason with him about my mother’s guests coming, but he was upset and angry that she had taken his job. As the big wave of feelings swept over him he just could not be flexible.
Setting the Limit
I set a limit, approaching him calmly and placing my hand on his hand, which still held a garbage can. I said, “Grammie’s friends are going to park there. You can bring the cans in next week.”
This was all he needed to throw himself on the driveway crying and screaming. He yelled about how unfair it was.
“Doesn’t she care about me? Why did she even move here?” he cried, thrashing on the ground, while I squatted nearby and listened. I wondered what the neighbors might think of this noisy commotion. I was feeling the heat of their judgment. But I said to myself, “My son needs me to be present and listen to him. That is the most important thing. They can think what they want.”
But with that concern out of my head, I realized that with guests due the driveway probably wasn’t the safest place to stay. Ideally when listening to children during big upsets, we stay with them where they are, so they can have a full release of feelings without distraction. That’s why it is referred to as Staylistening. However, staying put is not always possible. I told him I wanted to hear his feelings but we needed to move off the driveway.
I helped him up and he took off into the house. I followed closely behind. He kept crying and running wildly through the house and I stayed near. He yelled, “Leave me alone!” a couple of times, but I stayed near as he continued to cry and move through the house. He eventually ended up at my desk in the kitchen and sat in the swivel chair and faced the wall. I sat on the ground behind the chair. He cried there for several minutes.
When it got quiet, I peeked around the chair to see if he would make eye contact. He looked away. I waited. I peeked a couple more times to remind him I was there and receptive. Eventually he swiveled the chair around and looked me right in the eye. I don’t know how else to describe it, but he had a very deep look in his eyes. Then, he leapt into my lap. We sat there for a few minutes and he began to notice things around him and make light conversation. I knew the storm was over.
Later, when my mother’s guests were gone he was able to ask her nicely to leave the cans on the curb for him and he was able to accept her reasons for bringing them in. All of the charge and anger about the subject was gone.
When we are able to set loving but firm limits for our children when they are off track, they will often show you the big feelings that are driving the unworkable behavior. If we are able to be present and listen to those big feelings without trying to “fix it”, the feelings will be released, and the cheerful and cooperative child that is underneath can shine through.