Sunday, September 20, 2009

Never an abuser

My son is three-and-a-half. My daughter is two-and-a-quarter. I'm working hard to develop my patience, compassion and supportive coaching capacities, and they are my immersion program.

The other day, I noticed that they behave to me in ways not unlike a dog that's sometimes kicked by the owner it adores. I sense occasional resentment, quickly overcome by joy in the present happy mood, but with subtle anxious watching. If my mood changes unexpectedly, like if play gets too rough and I'm hurt, their response is a wail of heartbreak-mingled fear, becoming anguished cries and heaving sobs. They aren’t just crying to get on my nerves or be difficult, much as those things may result. They are heartbroken. For them, this moment of anger calls into subconscious question every belief they have in their own lovability. Every time I lose it and turn into Monster Mom, even if it only lasts 10 seconds, it breeds doubt while also instilling traits. I am the paragon of human behaviour for them. I show them what to do with these feelings, and they log it, learn it, and it becomes them. Over time it’s the family dynamic.

So if I know all that, why do I ever lose it? Why do I end up yelling out or whining at them when they do what can only be expected? Maybe because I feel impatient and bored with the same lessons over and over. By the 80th time we play out essentially the same scenario in a week, I want them to be on my agenda. I’m expecting them to learn my steps and needs, and they appear to be steadfastly focused on anything but. It's tedious, and the tediousness grates against my agenda, causing anxiety to cohabit with existing frustration. That's my side of it. What's theirs?

It’s important for them that I am happy. And, it’s imperative for them that they fulfill their immediate perceived need. They are programmed to learn; it’s a physical, psychological and emotional compulsion to do what the brain has settled on, try it in a very specific way, and try it themselves. This focus is no more aware of the “five minute warning” or the importance of getting to music on time than is my growling stomach when I’m hungry. He’s not wilfully ignoring me, he’s focusing on something he finds more fascinating than my agenda. That’s the word for it – they are fascinated with what’s in their now, to the exclusion of much else.

While my irritation is rising, he’s also becoming irritated by the mosquito-like distraction from his current sole purpose in life. He’s intent on his brain’s immediate food, whether or not I see it that way, and he isn’t in the headspace to listen to alternatives. He is working to stay focused on whatever it is, and I’m getting in the way. His first instinct is to swat at me, either in a whiny or angry tone, or sometimes with hands or feet. When I try to understand what he’s feeling, I remember the way my brain and body focus on going back to sleep when I can’t bring myself to get out of bed, despite escalating reasons to do so. Everything is irritating in that moment.

Breaking away from compulsion gets easier over time – the compulsion fades, and our ability to break improves. But still, if I’m in the middle of writing something and one of them is nagging, Mommy, Mooooommmmyyy, MOMMY!, I’m quite likely to turn on them and fiercely say “I’m BUSY, please WAIT,” scaring the hell out of them. So what do I expect from someone who has 1/10th of my experience, very little perspective, no real buy-in into the agenda, and a compulsion likely stronger than anything I’ve experienced in a long time? I expect more than I expect of myself, that’s what. Where is my compassion? How do I call it up every moment of every day so that I’m never an abuser, not even a tiny bit, not even hardly ever. Just never.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

A three year old dilemma

Caught in a temper tantrum, this endless loop of wailing angst about some trivial detail that must be absolutely the way he wants it, now. Too distraught with purest frustration and terrifying anger to bring himself to ask nicely. He shakes with the effort of it, and bellows out against being broken in this unacceptable way. Reviving the flame when he starts to tire, re-investing himself in achieving the detail, fanning the total hysterical devotion. He shakes his head heavily from side to side, his hands are a blur of up and down motion, his face a mask of incredulous misery. Even when he allows himself to be touched or cuddled, he continues sobbing and reviving. At any sign that he’s relenting, I try to touch the point of reason in him, gently, carefully, with cooing sympathy, giving him permission to begin to let it go. But he won’t take it. He recognizes my attempt and insists on his right to be sad. How can I deny that? But what is the reasonable period? Where is the line between learning to console yourself and learning to wallow in the power of the current emotional state despite its destructive effect on your goal?

And after a time, I start to think, No More. I’ve done all that can be reasonably expected, and now it’s your responsibility to find a way out of this. Enough time and energy has been spent, on both our parts, for this particular emotional overload. Now you need to overcome it – that’s your job. You have the capacity, and it’s time. Especially if there’s a reason I want to move forward with the schedule or we’re already pressed for time. So now I find it hard to see through the blur of whether I’ve really provided a reasonable amount of time and support for the level of emotional distress he’s in, regardless of whether the cause seems trivial, or am I simply letting my impatience and agenda colour my thinking?

And after many of these episodes in a relatively short period, I think, Really? Again? I sigh, internally, externally, and my offerings of cooing sympathy peter out more quickly in both length and quantity. My expectations of how easily and efficiently he should be able to overcome his emotional overload become more about my perception that the cause is trivial than about what he needs in the reality of his current perception. My comments are shorter, more clipped, irritation seeping then spilling in. My adrenaline is flowing; I’m starting to feel frustrated and even angry. And as it’s happening, I feel I should be better but just can’t bring myself to it. Like him.

So how many hands to I have? Because on another hand, I ask myself how he will learn not to make mountains out of molehills if I indulge his every tantrum with added loving attention. Will being unwaveringly patient and loving in the face of this monstrous tantrum just encourage him to act unreasonably whenever he wants to take over the agenda? Will I send the message that it’s okay to let yourself lose control of your emotional state just because it’s hard to work through it? Will I unwittingly teach him that it’s someone else’s responsibility to calm you down instead of your own responsibility to come to terms with what you’re experiencing?

How do I teach him loving limits without limiting his ability to feel through his emotions?