It’s not easy to be a kid. Or a parent, for that matter.
The way the morning plays out is a pretty typical depiction of our current world-system:
We are headed to a birthday party for one of Opal’s best buddies. Some of her closest friends will be there; we know and adore all the parents. But Opal drags her feet before we leave, says her stomach hurts, that she doesn’t want to go anywhere. (Her mantra as of late.)
Jesse and I convince her that it is a great idea to go by talking to each other about how much fun the party will be. If we direct the same comments directly at her, she pushes back, seemingly for sport. But, in overhearing us say that the party will be a ball, it becomes her idea.
So she decides she’s excited to go, but that she doesn’t want me to leave her alone while we are there. (This is new.)
She says, “Mommy, if you have to go to the bathroom, you need to tell me and give me the choice to go or to stay.” (A direct quote.) Jesse and I try to make light of it all while still honoring her concerns. We practice silly non-verbal hand gestures that I could use to signify to her when I have to pee, while at the party.
“No,” she says, not funny. “Just point to the door and say, I need to use the bathroom.”
All business, she is.
We get to the party and she immediately starts to fuss. Two of her best school buddies come up for a hug and she pulls away with a curmudgeonly grunt.
I take two steps away from her to put our stuff down and she screams, I mean screams, “No, Mommy! Don’t leave!”
This is how the entire morning unfolds. If I walk over to the trash can, if I walk over to get her a napkin, if I am standing next to her but turn my attention away from her for a moment, she cries, “Mommy!”
This is totally painful. And shockingly embarrassing.
She is unwittingly the focus of the party. Do I take her home? Would that be rude? Is staying and being loud even more rude?
In the past, when she’d kick up a fuss or throw a tantrum, she got a warning and then a subsequent time-out if the warning was not heeded. And, in the past, that worked pretty well.
So I tried that this morning. I took her out of the party, down the hall, and said, “Honey, this behavior is unacceptable. You are being so grumpy and fussy, and it’s your friend’s birthday. I am right here with you. I am not going anywhere.” And I put her in time out and sat a few feet away from her while she wailed.
Ultimately, nothing changed after that. She was still anxious and clingy, loud and upset(ting) for the remainder of the party. I was wiped, self-conscious, and close to crying, as well. It wasn’t so much the fact that my kid was acting like (what could be perceived as) a spoiled brat in the company of some of our closest friends, as much as it was the fact that I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to handle it.
She turned four last week, but it feels like she went back to two.
What the hell is going on here? Why does it feel like she’s going backwards?
Lately, she wants me to be with her constantly and it is often lovely to be together. But just as often, she doesn’t seem to enjoy my company, seems conflicted by it—like she is stuck with me but is afraid to go elsewhere. During those times, she’s endlessly fussy, whiny and aggressive. It has been like this so consistently lately, that I have taken to inviting her friends over for extended play dates to aerate the situation, to avoid being alone with her for hours on end. Having another, non-related, four-year-old in the house is much easier than just having my own.
Her behavior with Jesse is totally different. She tells him she loves him so much, over and over. After the party today, she finally ate her lunch when he showed up. For me, she sat there refusing, obstinate and uninterested. This is like medieval torture for a mother.
When Jesse took over, I hit the road, feeling disproportionately frazzled.
Therapy #1: I found a group of cottonwoods by a stream to lie next to, running my fingers through the blades of grass the way Opal caresses her bunny’s soft ears in the moments before she drifts off to sleep. I walked along the creek with Bon Iver in my headphones and then with nothing but the rhythmic mouth-crunching of the dry leaves.
Therapy #2: I found my way to the library, which is a chapel of sorts for me. The building provides solace immediately, even in the smooth-glide of the entrance doors, the familiar beeps of others checking out books. I know somewhere in the rows and rows of books exist a string of words, perhaps a paragraph, that will make sense of the baffling phase I have found myself in. Today, I bury myself in books on child development in the quiet reading room, sitting next to a man who reeks of patchouli. I don’t feel snug and safe yet. But closer.
(Regarding three to six-year-olds:) “…Realizing not only that Mommy and Daddy are complete people, but also that they have strong, loving feelings for each other, can send our children on a vigorous campaign to recapture the central position, if only for a while, either by being very good, attractive and clever or by being very naughty, destructive and demanding…It is the jealousy, competition, and ultimate identification with the same-sex parent that led Freud to allude to the Greek myth of Oedipus in giving a name to this period.” (Listening to Fear, by Steven Marans, PH. D.)
A Greek Mythology recap: Oedipus is the guy who tragically murders his father and marries his mother.
Freud does love extreme examples. But as Dr. Marans puts it, this name “captures elements of this developmental drama but may oversimplify the real phenomenon of this phase.”
Agreed. I translate this as having nothing at all to do with sexuality (she’s four). But it does ring a bell that Opal is conflicted with me right now, and much less so with her father. That she is desperately trying to establish her place in this family, and there is an urgency to it that I have not seen before.
As I read on, my perspective expands a little and my heart grows heavy as I think of how complex and confusing this must be for her. How deceptively easy it appears to be four! Not so.
Well known child-development author, L.R.Knost, says on her website, LittleHeartsBooks.com:
“Children in the three to six-year-old age range are beginning to realize that their parents aren’t the all-powerful beings that they once believed them to be. This realization can be very uncomfortable for them, causing them a great deal of unease as they are concurrently beginning to realize that there is a whole, big, wide world beyond their safe, little home, and that that world is full of potential dangers, hazards unknown, and just a lot of really big, scary things.”
“If regression is an issue, keep in mind that your child is self-comforting by returning to a time she felt safe. Rather than punishing, ridiculing, bribing, or in other ways trying to ‘control’ the behavior, offer comfort in appropriate ways to demonstrate that she can trust you to meet her comfort/safety needs. This applies to acting-out behaviors, as well. Set boundaries, certainly, and provide plenty of guidance, but remember that punishment tends to push children farther away rather than connecting with them. Since your child is reacting to a feeling of disconnection from you in her new understanding of your non-superhero status, pushing her further away will merely exacerbate the issue, not solve it.”
Now that I think of it, there have been more examples of regression along with the separation anxiety.
Opal has been using mono-syllabic communication and a baby voice. She, a girl who knew her ABC’s at 18-months, now says, Milk! and Hungry! to get her point across instead of using full sentences. Luckily, her sleep is good and being potty trained has not been affected, as they say is common for kiddos who are regressing.
Back to the books: Dr. Marans says,
“Children may display the intensity of their neediness and of their opposition to their wishes by engaging parents in struggles about almost anything.”
“The separation difficulties, nightmares, frequent battling with parents, and other symptoms that are so common in this period serve the child’s attempts to withdraw from or displace the conflicts around by his or her powerful wishes for exclusive love, competition, and destructive power.”
Lord have mercy. And I just thought she was being a shit.
Could I really have punished my daughter for her developmentally appropriate fears?
Could she really be feeling the need to usurp all of Jesse’s attention—positively—and mine—less positively—as a matter of safety? Could the frequent battles, coupled with separation anxiety be coming from the feeling that there is not enough space (read: love) to go around for the three of us?
A few good cries, a gorgeous walk beneath the ink-blue sky, a glass of Malbec and a desperate attempt at a little self-gentleness brings us to the present.
Let the record show, I classify myself as someone who is genuinely attempting to parent mindfully. But there are times, many times, when I have no idea how to proceed and I simply give it my best shot. (And I have to trust in my basically good insides enough to go at it blindly.)
And when I look around, I see that we are all here. Together and separate, standing in rows or cascaded about. Hustling, shouting, laughing, writhing, settling, and loving. We are all doing the very best we can with our basically good insides. As kids and as parents.
(If there is only one thing to remember, it must be that.)
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Editor: Catherine Monkman