On a recent Monday, Dahlia woke up “fussy.”
It had been a hot, eventful weekend in which she had waaaaay too much sugar. And by sugar, I mean fruit. Lots and lots of fruit. Way more than her tiny body could handle.
She was unusually cranky. Every little thing upset her. She cried over things that had never bothered her before.
She also started doing things she knew she wasn’t supposed to, asking for things she knew she couldn’t have.
After lots of limit-setting and reminding her that it was breakfast time and she couldn’t have just dates for breakfast (I know, not a big ask, but still) and that she couldn’t write on the walls with the markers or I would take them away, she finally started to lose it.
At one point she asked me to pick her up.
As I held her in my arms she cried and screamed. Literally, screamed. Anger. Frustration. Confusion. That growling, guttural, shouting scream that comes from the deepest parts of one’s belly.
Then she asked, “Mama, what I’m doing?”
“You’re crying and screaming, my love.”
“Because you’re feeling upset.”
“Well, I think you’re still tired from this weekend, and we had a lot of fruit and there’s some sugar withdrawal happening. But also, it’s very frustrating to want something and have Mama tell you you can’t have it.”
She continued to cry. And then she’d stop. And then something would set her off again.
“Mama, I’m crying again!”
“You are, my love.”
Each time, I thought about her questions. I thought deeply about how hard it must be for her to understand what was happening.
It must have felt like all those emotions were just happening to her, coming at her from out of the blue, taking her over, practically attacking her. From that perspective, all her questions made sense.
They weren’t just the ramblings of a two-year-old stuck in her “Why?” phase.
They weren’t just attempts at random conversation or connection.
Her questions were sincere.
I’m crying again! Why am I crying again? What is going on?
Now I’m crying and screaming! Why!?!? What is happening to me!?!?
What. Is. Happening. To. Me?
Ah, I know that question all too well.
Have you ever felt taken over by your feelings?
Do you remember that sadness or grief that would fill your eyes at the mention of someone’s name and you just couldn’t stop the tears from falling no matter what you did?
Do you remember that frustration (or fury) that bubbled inside you so fast you snapped at your spouse/coworker/friend before you realized you even opened your mouth?
And then, after hearing yourself speak, you realized you were being a jerk, but you just couldn’t will yourself to behave or feel any differently?
Do you remember thinking…What is wrong with me?!?!?!?
That’s how I believe she was feeling. And that’s exactly what I believe she was thinking.
She was trying to understand why she was crying, why she was “misbehaving,” why she was getting so upset over every little thing when she normally doesn’t.
That’s an awfully large undertaking for a two-year-old, or a ten-year-old, or even a sixteen-year-old.
Seeking to understand oneself and one’s behavior is a lifelong undertaking, and I’m in awe as I watch her begin at the bright, young age of two.
When she came to the end of her tears and she’d gobbled down her breakfast, she sat calmly on my lap and returned to her usual, playful self.
I talked to her about her emotions, and how some were like dark tunnels she just had to make her way through.
“And I’m here to help you,” I said. “It can be scary, but I’m here to hold your hand and be your light through the dark tunnel.”
Hubby said, “And I’ve learned that the best thing I can do is stay out of the way.”
He and I laughed.
We continued our analogy and talked about how Papa’s not so good at dealing with strong emotions…yet.
We joked about how Dahlia and I would be trying to make our way through the dark tunnel while Hubby, with the best of intentions, would be on the tracks putting up roadblocks and construction signs, saying, “Wait, wait, hold on, lemme’ fix it. Lemme’ just fix things and it’ll all be better.”
But emotions aren’t meant to be fixed. They’re meant to be felt. And trying to “fix” things in these moments often does more harm than good.
Once we’re through the tunnel, those emotions can be our guides.
Next time, I won’t let her have quite as much fruit. Next time, we’ll make sure to spend Sunday afternoon winding down and relaxing from an eventful weekend.
And next time, because there will be a next time, I’ll do exactly the same thing I did that Monday morning. I’ll hold her hand, show her that she’s safe, and let her know that I can handle her emotions even if she can’t.
But trying to “fix” them in the midst of the cries and the screams, in the depths of raging emotions, does more to devalue the experience than it does to help her get through it.
Hubby and I continued our talk about emotions, recognizing that adults who can’t readily experience their own emotions seem to have a very hard time dealing with other people’s emotions – especially children’s’ emotions. That’s been our personal experience, anyway.
The very hard part about that, though, is that those adults will also teach their kids to be uncomfortable with their emotions. Just as I was raised. Just as how many of us were raised.
If I laughed too loud, I was scolded. Clearly, being happy or joyous was not a good thing.
If I cried too much, I was reprimanded. Clearly, sadness and pain were not acceptable.
If I got angry or upset, I was punished. Clearly, I wasn’t allowed to speak up for myself or set my own boundaries … perhaps because I wasn’t worthy … perhaps because I was undeserving.
This is how my child brain translated those experiences.
I pray every day to be the light for this child, to give her a different experience of herself than I had of myself as a young child.
I speak to her in my mind, daily, and I say:
“I love you, no matter what.
I love you even when you don’t do the things I want you to do.
I love when you won’t go to sleep already even though I’m exhausted.
I love you even when you won’t eat that thing I spent hours contemplating and working for and laboring over.
I will love you no matter what, and I will never punish you or push you away from me just because you’re not being who I want you to be.”
On days like that Monday, I’m reminded that she’s trying to make sense of life as a child as much as I’m trying to make sense of life as a mother.
Maybe she cries more frequently than I do and her outbursts are more uncontrolled, but asking Why? Why? Why? is something I am plenty familiar with.
We’re not so different, she and I.