Updated: Feb 19, 2020
Yesterday was a “Papa day” for my kids. They really enjoy spending time with him, he is a Disneyland Dad after all ("Candy! TV!" they usually shout when they find out their going to his house).
But the transition still provokes anxiety. And in my three year old son, that anxiety and discomfort around having to say bye to mom manifests in some nasty behaviours. And since we are always up early, it usually means a good 2-3 hours of nasty behaviours before drop off.
Tantrums and meltdowns because he asks for granola and I give it to him: “I DON’T WANT GRANOLA!!” followed by 15 minutes of crying, followed by happily eating the granola and asking for more. Deliberately pestering his sister— toy taking, destroying her crafts, random physical aggression. Toys being thrown everywhere. Not in that, make-a-mess kind of way, but the chuck-this-hard-monster-truck-at-my-sister’s-head kind of way. Refusing to get dressed or let me dress him (he only wants his speedy pants!). Lots and lots of crying. It is exhausting. For him, for me, and for his sister.
I try my best to be compassionate towards his experience while also maintaining boundaries. I hold him and ask him questions about what’s going on for him to show him that I understand and help him understand too. We try redirecting the negative energy to inanimate objects, like a pillow. But it is really hard while I simultaneously need to shower, get myself ready, get them dressed, make sure their bags are packed, feed them, and get them out the door. Vulnerable confession: we are at the point where he gets in the car without shoes or a jacket on. It’s the middle of February (and we live in Canada).
So I finally get them in the car, he is still upset, and my 4.5 year old daughter says, "I don’t like it when he cries so much". Yes, I say, It is hard to hear someone so upset. And I ask her if she knows why he’s been acting this way, why he hasn’t behaving nicely towards her. I start explaining:
"He’s having a really hard time. He’s excited to see Papa and he’s also feeling really sad that he has to say bye to Mama. And for you it is really hard to see him crying so much."
He starts crying harder (this is when I know I’ve hit the nail on the head and what I’ve said is true). She interrupts me. “Stop talking!” Again, another sure sign I’m onto something as it’s starting to evoke the uncomfortable feelings she has lingering below the surface too.
I ask her if she wants me to stop or if I should keep talking. She tells me to stop, so I do.
A silent minute goes by. Then quietly says “keep talking.”
So I carry on.
"It’s really hard when you can’t have both mom and dad together at the same time. He wishes I could be at Papa’s house with you. He wishes he didn’t have to say bye to mom. And that makes him feel upset (“SAD!” He shouts from his seat behind me.) And when he’s having these uncomfortable feelings he starts to act out. It’s kind of like him saying he needs help dealing with his discomfort. And it can be really hard to hear someone so uncomfortable. You want your brother to be happy, you want him to act nicely towards you. It can be really hard to see someone so distressed.
"And it’s not just him that this happens to. It happens to me, it happens to you, it happens to everyone. When something is bothering us and we don’t know how to handle those feelings yet, it can show up in our behaviour."
By now I’m parked, and I’m turned around talking to them. They’re both looking at me with their perfect eyes, silent, completely captivated, and a look of calmness on their faces. I repeat everything one more time, just slightly differently. My intent is two-fold: first, helping them understand their feelings and experiences, and second, showing that I understand what they are going through. They seem settled now and we give lots of hugs and kisses before saying bye and they head off to their dad’s.
Now, I’m not saying this is going to eliminate any future meltdowns and inappropriate behaviour. I am pretty sure I have at least another 15-20 years of that with them— scratch that. I still have meltdowns, and my behaviour is sometimes driven by an unknown, unresolved feeling. This is just part of the human experience.
But I do believe that showing compassion and understanding allows my son to comprehend his experience, to attribute his behaviour to something externally driven and not to internalize his misbehaviour as part of his identity. He is not a bad kid. His behaviour was bad, no doubt about it, and he knows it. We still need to work on channeling that negative energy towards an appropriate outlet. But firstly understanding what’s driving that behaviour means THAT is what we attend to.
Now if only I could be so compassionate and understanding to myself…