Somehow we veered left … or maybe it was right. Either way, I missed all of the signs that told me to “U-turn” or “Proceed With Caution.” And it landed us here: Meltdown City.
The wake-up: smooth.
Mid-morning: that’s when it got a bit hairy.
My four-year-old had just transitioned out of naps, so our afternoons had been a little more fragile. But we also began to relish the hour and a half that we got together while his younger brother slept. It gave us space to fill his attention bucket - something, as a firstborn, he was definitely wired for and sought often.
We were playing his choice of Paw Patrol. Marshall was putting out a fire to save a barn while Skye was coming in hot with a rope to rescue the cat stuck in the tree. There was fun, and, then ... crying. I mean, lots of it. Over what, I don’t exactly know. I am still catching up, myself.
My sensitive and strong-willed little love was outside of himself. His emotions escalating taller than him, swallowing him up in a gulp.
I had been preparing for this moment all week, reading parenting blogs and listening to podcasts in my attempt to level up my parenting game to better show up to my child’s emotional outbursts.
In my search, I found a little gem. Turns out there’s this thing that some refer to as the Limbic Leap, which happens around age four. Kind of explains some of the bait-and-switch that happened in our home.
I mean, does anyone else feel like their child totally changed at this age, or am I over here on solo island? Like, birthday … boom … switch flipped. Despite what it sometimes feels like, this isn’t willful defiance, but rather our child’s effort to regulate their brain’s hypervigilance.
On average, between ages four and five, our child’s brain goes through big developmental construction with rapid growth of their amygdala, their lower brain region primed to keep them safe. New neurons and synapses are rapidly growing. And while our kiddos can’t put words to this neurologic overwhelm, it is happening, and it comes out of the body as big emotions and behaviors … often ones we find challenging or hard to be with.
But, anyway, back to my story …
He cried, I moved closer.
He backed away, I validated his feelings.
He escalated, I stayed calm.
This was all supposed to work. But it didn’t.
He asked me to leave his room, but I stayed. I wanted him to know that I could handle his big emotions and that he was safe. That’s what the parenting experts “told” me to do.
His sobs and verbal requests for me to leave turned into physical acts of aggression. With his entire body, now, he was communicating his needs. I just wasn’t listening.
Parenting isn’t a to-do.
It’s not a perfect script.
Or a checkbox to check.
It is a relationship.
I was so focused on doing the right thing, that I forgot to just be in the moment with my child.
My not-enoughness was flooding me. I dug in. I was going to stay and show him that his emotions weren’t contagious. I was here for him.
But my loving intent was getting lost in translation, and the power struggle smothered our connection.
He was on one side begging for space and I was on the other determined to be present. Except I wasn’t. I was replaying parenting tools in my head and crossing them off as I went.
Twenty minutes. Yep. I let this go on for twenty minutes because I was mentally following a parenting to-do list and script. And not that these tools don’t work or aren’t effective, they just weren’t what my child needed in the here and now.
As I watched my son become emotionally worn down, I felt it too. No one felt empowered here.
So I decided to let go.
I took a deep breath and said to my son, “I hear that you want space. I will be outside your door when you are ready. I love you.”
I left, cracking the door. I sat and waited.
Two minutes went by, I peeked in. He wasn’t ready.
Five minutes went by. I peeked in. He was calmer and made eye contact.
Ten minutes went by and he opened the door himself and collapsed into my lap.
I said nothing, drawing him close. And that’s when he said, “I felt really frustrated when the game didn’t go how I wanted it to.”
I stayed quiet and hugged him a little tighter. And then he offered, “I am sorry I hit you.”
I apologized, too. I wanted him to know his wants and needs mattered to me.
He smiled and said, “Yea, but next time, can you just please wait outside my door. I know you’ll be there when I am ready.”
The smoke cleared and we were back in relationship with one another.
I was out here reaching for all the tools when, really, they were inside of me the whole time.
Having a parenting toolbelt is helpful, but not when it overshadows what’s right in front of you.
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