My life with Tantrums: Me, Noah and his Scooter on the Side of the Road
It was supposed to be a fun day with family. We were on our annual trip to Ireland to visit my husband’s family. We were spending the day in a picturesque Irish fishing village and my kids were ecstatic to be with their cousins. The plan was to take the scooters and go for a scoot by the sea. We got out of the car, got helmets on and the kids went zooming. Everyone that is, except for Noah (If you have not read my first blog post, you have not yet met Noah, our delicious, highly sensitive, “prickly” youngest child). Noah’s cousins and brother took off out of sight, he could not keep up with the group. I have described Noah to you as a kid who has BIG FEELINGS, so you can imagine what happened when he was so excited to be with his cousins scooting and then was instantly left behind. He went into what Cindy calls “right brain shut down mode.” He started screaming, crying and throwing his scooter. He was mad and totally irrational. So, there I was, in the middle of this village, I had no cell phone to call for help and Noah was lying on the ground screaming. I have already told you about the successes in parenting that we had been experiencing since starting to work with Cindy Smolkin from Connected Parenting, so I absolutely knew how to handle this situation. I had all the knowledge and all the tools. Problem was, Noah was in right brain shut down mode AND SO WAS I.
Cindy taught me about right brain shut down mode early on in our therapy sessions. She explained that the right side of the brain is our emotional side whereas the left side holds and controls all the logic. She explained that if Noah is having “big feelings” (mad, sad, angry, frustrated) he gets stuck in his right side of his brain where he is incapable of accessing logic. Cindy taught me that while adults can move more freely from the right side of the brain to the left and back, children cannot as they don’t have the neurological equipment. She explained that when Noah is stuck, he needs us to get him out of it if there is any hope in him accessing logic. Connected Parenting has a very clear formula for this, it is a therapy skill called “mirroring,” which is really a fancy word for ruthless compassion.
Connected Parenting teaches us that to open up the logical left side of the brain in a child, that child needs to know in that moment that you, the adult, has suspended all judgement, that you sense their urgency, that you are in that dark place with them and that you get them. This is “mirroring.” It is 2-3 statements where you use affect and tone to match the child’s and then you present the problem and find a solution.
To have mirrored for Noah in this moment, it would have looked like this. Using a frustrated tone and matching his affect at about 50%, I would say, “this is really frustrating and really disappointing, you were so excited to go scooting with your brother and cousins but they went ahead of you and you couldn’t keep up with them, this is so hard and upsetting for you to be left behind.” Had Noah heard that, he would have felt that I was there in the trenches of frustration and devastation with him. This would have helped towards opening up the left side of his brain so logic could go in. This is when I would have presented the problem and found a solution. In my situation, this would have sounded like, “the problem is Noah, your cousins and brother are bigger than you and have been scooting for longer, so it is harder for you to keep up with them. Why don’t I push you from behind so we can go faster and catch up with them and then we can ask them to slow down a bit.” Had I done that, Noah would have seen in my face and heard in my tone the disappointment and anger he was feeling. He would have felt OK because his mom was in that moment with him. Even if he had continued to tantrum and remained ‘stuck’ (which does happen, mirroring by no means ends all tantrums - not even close!) at least his brain would have received the message, “mommy gets me, she feels my anger and disappointment, I am not alone in how I feel.”
What actually happened, I’m pretty sure, is the stuff that therapists tell you exactly NOT to do. Noah was mad, frustrated and upset and so was I. I had no compassion, patience or empathy. All I could think was, “Really Noah? Why is it that everyone else can just do normal things and everything with you has to be a battle, a tantrum, a fight?” I was yelling, he was yelling, I was frustrated, he was frustrated. In that moment, my brain couldn’t stop thinking about how life with Noah’s tantrums felt like a life sentence and I was tired of it. Why is he like this? Why can’t a regular day with family just be fun? Is he going to be like this his whole life? All my BIG FEELINGS completed prevented me from having the compassion I needed to see Noah standing there holding his banner saying, “Mom I am not OK I need you to help me be OK!”
So why couldn’t I mirror and show compassion in that moment? I guess because I am human and on that particular day, I felt angry for having to constantly work hard at parenting Noah. Noah and I did recover that morning. It took about 40 minutes and resulted in the 2 of us sitting on the side of the road with his scooter scattered next to us. I had to repair the situation and profusely apologize and explain that mommy didn’t do the right thing. Cindy has taught me that when we go into parental meltdown mode, we have to own up to it.
In retrospect, I suppose that day was helpful for me in my journey parenting Noah. Noah and I both came out of it and he went on the rest of the day to do “normal things” just like everyone else. My brain was able to get the message that his tantrums don’t mean anything, they are just tantrums and both he and I can handle them. So now when he does have infrequent MAJOR tantrums, I am usually able to close my eyes, remember that day and reassure myself that this is not a life sentence, this is my child and it is going to be OK. I also know that I am really lucky that I learned the skills to manage his tantrums.
I have sat through 2 days of parenting clinics this month and listened to 6 FFCA families talk to Cindy about life with tantrums. It is the most popular subject and it is why I am writing this post. If you are reading this and you are feeling overwhelmed by tantrums, please know you are not alone. Living through tantrums is HARD and what my story can tell you is that even if you do have the knowledge and strategies to manage them, it can still feel impossible and totally overwhelming. And if you don’t have any strategies, well then for sure it is impossible and totally overwhelming. I remember what it felt like before I had the strategies and it is awful!
The Connected Parenting approach has helped me more than I will ever be able to express on paper. Our FFCA and Connected Parenting Introductory Workshop will give you a really good place to start. We have one coming up on November 14th at our Cedarvale location from 7:30 pm – 8:30 pm. So, come join us, it is free of charge and totally worth taking the time.
I will leave you with this. The next time your child loses their mind on you and you feel alone and totally frustrated, think of me and Noah and his scooter on the side of the road and remember, you both can handle this.