When I was a parent I thought my sons’ negative behavior would never end:
- Joe would never stop biting. He did.
- Gabe would never stop saying ‘NO!” He did.
- Joe would never stop wetting the bed. He did.
- Gabe would never stop knocking the board over when he was losing at Monopoly. He did, but he still hates to lose!
- Joe and Gabe would never stop fighting. They did.
In the words of Lee Hayes of The Weavers singing quartet, “This, too, shall pass. I’ve had kidney stones and I know!” Now I can also say with the conviction born of personal experience: “This, too, shall pass.” I can see with the wise and knowing eyes of someone who’s been there and survived.
I am very involved with two of my grandchildren, taking care of them two to three days a week, but I look upon them with a more detached point of view than I ever could as a parent. Recently I brought the children to their mother’s place of work to visit with her during her lunch break. They immediately started shrieking and running around and basically driving her nuts, especially two year old Jordan. “This is supposed to be my break time,” she said to me. “I’m more exhausted after they leave than before I had my break.” She was also embarrassed because co-workers and customers witnessed their behavior. She took them to my car and strapped them into their seats ten minutes before her half-hour lunch was over.
“This, too, shall pass,” I told her. “This is their way of telling you they are happy to see you and also their way of punishing you for being away from them all day.”
I think both feelings are true for them. Crystal and Jordan miss their mommy very much when she’s at work. They make her drawings and presents while she’s gone. But as soon as she shows up at my door to pick them up, they start misbehaving, and Jordan will go so far as to run out into the street, or hide under the table so he doesn’t have to go home. The result is that their mom ends up angry at both children instead of being glad to see them.
The unmet need for all of them – mother and children alike – is to re-bond after an absence. They all want to feel and demonstrate the love they feel for each other, but they don’t know how to show it or ask for it. It feels like a slap in the face to be mistreated after working so hard all day to provide all the things growing children need. I can see my daughter-in-law fighting the urge to run back to her car, get in and drive away, leaving the kids with me until they become “human”.
Within minutes of driving towards home, however, everyone settles into their natural roles and order is restored. Crystal tells her Mommy all about her day and Jordan takes a much-needed nap. By the time they are home they are a happy family again.
How to make this behavior pattern pass more quickly? There are no easy answers here. Children are very sensitive about when they are getting their parent’s full attention and when they are not. When Crystal and Jordan visit their mother at work, they can tell that she is distracted and not fully focused on them. They will take steps to make sure she pays attention, even if the attention is negative. When she comes to pick them up she is still transitioning from her work persona to her home one. It takes time to ease into her Mommy role and the children will react until she is fully present for them.
Some of the most difficult behavior any parent will have to deal with is the “Terrible Twos”. Every child tries to test the limits again and again in their own way when they reach the age of two or thereabout. The word, “NO” in all its variations will be heard as your toddler tries to differentiate himself from you and learn just where you end and he begins.
My grandson, Jordan, uses the phrase, “Nodon’thaveto!” all run together like one word, even when he means “yes”.
Me: “Jordan, time to change your diaper.”
Me: “Jordan, would you like to go to the playground?”
Jordan: “Nodon’thaveto! (wait two seconds) OK.”
Me: “Let’s put on your jacket.”
Jordan will also pick up a toy (or anything in sight) and throw it on the floor. If I catch him looking for something to throw, I can stop the behavior before it occurs. But usually the action is so fast and so “out of the blue” I don’t see it coming.
And most difficult to handle, Jordan has temper tantrums where he screeches in a blood-curdling way and thrashes about on the floor. During one of these episodes I had the sudden thought that – if we could tape this sound – we could prepare soldiers for battle. 60 seconds of listening to a two-year-old tantrum and the enemy would be toast. I know I look around for something to kill! Luckily for Jordan, his tantrums are as humorous as they are unpleasant!
I am able to laugh at his antics most of the time because I can see his behavior for what it is and because I don’t have to deal with it 24/7. There are days when I am very happy to see him go, but I start missing him about an hour after he’s gone. My vantage point as a grandparent means I have been through this before and I know it will pass. New growth stages will arise to take the place of old ones.
Some stages will be pleasant, like the one Jordan’s older sister is currently in. Crystal is five and in pre-school two days/week. She loves her school and the new-found independence that comes with staying there by herself. She is a joy to be around most of the time. Some stages will be a lot worse, like the early and middle teenage years. I am NOT looking forward to re-experiencing those stages again!
I am lucky because I can send the children home after a particularly trying day. Parents – and some grandparents – are not able to walk away from a child when they are in a difficult behavioral stage. How can parents survive the terrible twos or terrible tens or terrible thirteens? By finding ways to repair the relationship after “bad” behavior and its resultant correcting behavior occurs. And by taking a short break if needed.
As soon as possible, find a way to hug or compliment or reassure the child that you still love her. Try to find lots of ways to be soft and gentle and loving together each and every day. If the only interactions include negative behavior by the child and correcting behavior by the parent, the parent-child relationship will become strained. The child will also learn that the only way to actually get attention is to misbehave. (See my article, Catch Them Being Good) I look at special cuddling times and loving times and happy interactions as putting money in the emotional bank. Then – when the need for corrective behavior occurs – a withdrawal from the bank can be made. The child knows that most of the time her mother is loving and affectionate. When Mommy has to be stern, the child can still feel connected to the love her mother feels for her, even if that love is not obvious at the moment.
If the tantrums or behavior starts getting to you and you can feel your own anger rising to a dangerous point – take a break. Even if it’s only to step outside and take a few breaths of fresh air, do it! No one can push your buttons like your own precious children. And the last thing you want to do is walk over the edge into rage.
Sometimes I have to tell Jordan, “I’m very angry right now so stay way from me until I can calm down.” He can see by the look in my eye that he’s gone too far. I walk around the house, or step out on the deck and just breathe. Soon I am able to handle the situation with a calmer attitude.For young parents, knowing “this, too, shall pass” and living through whatever “this” is can feel mutually exclusive. Here’s a good reality check for you. Look at your own past iffy behaviors – those that you remember. Or talk to your parents and ask about some of your own exploits. Did you stop biting or throwing rocks at birds or pulling your sister’s hair? What can seem like forever will blend into a new stage and set of behaviors and then a new set and soon you’ll be wondering why they don’t call. But that’s another story!