“I don’t want to do it!”
And therein, lies the problem.
My little boy has had a rocky last few days. The first day was the roughest because we reacted. Yesterday was even rougher (beating out roughest) because we were very tired and second guessing ourselves and still reacting emotionally. Today was the best because we had it all figured out and we were prepared. We had sorted out the various issues, were prepared with who we wanted to be as parents, where our child was at developmentally and how we were going to respond (We are not always this good, but we feel like we weathered through this hurricane pretty dang well).
The Night Time Fall Aparts: Do we respond with consistency and ride through the loud outbursts or respond as if this is a meltdown requiring compassion and support?
Little boy has never been a great sleeper. He wakes up easily, cries and has troubles going back to sleep. He has, however, become an okay sleeper and will now wake up, cry for a couple seconds and fall back asleep. If he does get up, we can mumble, “It’s not seven am. It’s still time for bed.” He’ll look at the digital clock and cry on his way back to bed and fall back asleep. Consistency has been our friend.
But the last three nights he has been waking up and needing help. Jeremy Fisher is not on his pillow! Eagle is not there! Where is White Bear! His pillowcase is wet! He’s been quite distressed and coming in to get us. We’ve responded consistently, but he keeps getting more and more upset. We’ve struggled with how to respond. We can see images of Super Nanny and neither of us want to hear her scolding us for going in to find his stuffed animal. But sometimes it’s things like the pillowcase coming off the pillow a tiny bit. He can’t fix that and we’ve already recognized that for him, the pillow is Very Important. So I got up and helped do these little things and he would fall back asleep.
But around five in the mornings he’s been waking up and very distraught. And what he wants seems so trivial so we’ve sent him back to bed, but he’s just fallen apart. He keeps trying to go back to bed, but there are so many things just WRONG that he can’t get in bed.
Our attempts at consistency were not helping and all that was happening was that our boy was becoming horribly upset with big gasps for air and a shaking body. When I pulled him into bed to give him a hug to help him calm down, he fell immediately asleep. I took him back to his bed and he was quiet while I told him a story, but as soon as he’d drift off, he’d wake up with a red light concern (water bottle, bear, sister, monkey…). It took him over two hours to fall into a deep enough sleep for me to leave the room and him not to notice.
So last night at bedtime we saw more of this behavior and it was hard. He wasn’t just trying to get his way, as he seemed completely overwhelmed by everything about bedtime. His body was shaking. He was clearly communicating in words (and politely) that he needed our help. We were not helping. It did not feel good, nor right. I didn’t want to go back on my words, but I wanted to help him. I Skyped my husband and he came up and helped tuck little boy in. He fell asleep in less than two minutes.
As I lay in my own bed ruminating over the evening and the visceral unpleasantness of feeling like I didn’t respond to my child’s very real needs, I realized that I want my children to grow up knowing that when they need help, we are there. There is a difference between a tantrum and a real meltdown. Both require us to stay calm and consistent and present emotionally, but meltdowns require some compassion and guidance. My boy was feeling pretty lost and I didn’t like that we were not helping.
He woke up just as we were falling asleep and he was in huge deep gasping tears. We told him to go back to bed and he did, but he was extremely distraught and getting more and more worked up. My husband got up and sat with him and told him a story and he fell asleep before Goldilocks did. I liked that we helped him and I decided that until he gets back on his solid footing, we will attend to these deeper needs. I can’t see much learning or self-soothing going on in the midst of a meltdown and he just doesn’t really have the skills to solve the anxiety causing issues by himself.
We won’t start having him sleep in bed with us, nor us with him, but we will help him find his creatures and water bottle and blankets and get him tucked back in before this crazy middle of the night exhausted anxiety gets a hold of his emotions. It feels right. We will also practice pulling up covers and turning his headlamp on and off during the day, but for now we will just recognize that he needs extra nighttime loving.
Attending to the meltdowns does not mean we are becoming enabling parents ready to run to him at his every beck and call, but it does mean that when he needs more emotional support for whatever reason, we will be there for him. I think our little boy has needed more supports the last few nights. Maybe his brain is processing more information. Maybe he’s a little under the weather, but he is definitely asking for more comfort from his parents.
The Daytime Fall Apart and THE CONSEQUENCE: When “I don’t want to” takes on a mind of its own.
Little boy did not pick up his mess before bed last night. I calmly said it was his responsibility and if he didn’t do it, I would clean it up, but there would be a consequence. He didn’t really know what that meant, but he certainly knew it was his mess, his responsibility and certainly not mine. He went to bed. This morning before breakfast I showed him a photo of the mess from the previous night (he remembered it) and said there would be a consequence. He came along with me to the stairs where I showed him a pile of laundry that needed to go upstairs (I helped clean up his mess. He will help with mine). Laundry is awkward to carry so we put it into three grocery store bags.
And then he said, “I don’t want to.”
I expected this and just used some when/then language (When you take the bags up, then you can have breakfast) and proceeded to putz around as if everything was normal. He sat at the table looking pathetic. He clearly knew that he had a task to deal with.
And every once in a while he’d go look at the task and then break down crying saying it was too hard and he couldn’t do it. Now, for anyone wondering if perhaps it was too hard, let me just share that the day before he and his sister had hauled camp chairs and skis up the stairs. Grocery bags are far easier. And, just to paint an even clearer picture, as he was demonstrating how heavy the bag was, his sister (age 18 months) grabbed the biggest bag and started hauling it up the stairs. He was a-okay watching her and thinking that she would take care of the problem. He was wrong.
I picked up sister who hollered indignantly that she couldn’t help and brought the bag back to the first stair.
The real issue was that he just didn’t want to do it. This is a pretty hard life lesson. Isn’t peer pressure all about doing things you don’t really want to do. Isn’t being controlled about losing control of your choices. I want my kids to feel empowered. I don’t want them to think you have to do things you don’t want to do like work and pay bills, but rather that sometimes we want to do things more than we don’t want to do them (like clean up because then we feel better or return a wallet of money because it’s the right thing to do). Big stuff was going on in our household today!
I was also loving things this morning because I was relatively rested. I felt good about how we were addressing his night time anxiety and I was mentally prepared for his testing of this new world of consequences. I was prepared to spend all day being pleasant and loving and supportive and super clear that until the bags went up, nothing else would happen.
(He did get to eat, but he didn’t get seconds.)
What I didn’t expect was that he resolutely refused to carry the bags up for five hours. (To which I am also exceedingly thankful that we are beginning to deal with this now instead of in a few years when he’s even more clever and stubborn and independent)
Part way through the morning he asked me to help and I said I could with song and cheer and I mentioned that it was like he was going grocery shopping and he lit up at that. It was fun. I thought, “Wow – that was simple!.” I put a teddy bear in another grocery bag for sister so she could haul up “groceries”. Little boy took two bags up in about 30 seconds and then he seemed to remember.
“I don’t want to. I can’t. It’s too hard.”
At lunch time, I served both kids, but said he would have to finish the consequence before having seconds. He spent the next hour crying and sobbing and clearly telling us, “I will eat first and then do the consequence.” I validated his feelings. I questioned him about the process. He told me he’d feel better after he did his consequence and that he felt bad right now, but then continued to say he’d eat first and then carry the bag.
Dad came home for lunch and tried the good cop approach because I was currently working on the tone of voice showing that there was no wavering. Little boy asked him to help. Dad went over to give moral support, cognitive problem solving, imagination games – boy wasn’t having it. He just wanted dad to carry up the bags.
Dad leaves for work and I say it’s nap time. Boy doesn’t want to go up. He still wants seconds on lunch (which was pizza toast so it was a rather good one – clever, I am). He says, “I want to do my responsibilities”, but he doesn’t move. I give him three seconds to start picking up the sole remaining bag and he doesn’t budge so I pick him up. He cries out again about doing his responsibilities.
Now, I know he had His Chance, but I didn’t think this was the time to focus on that. I put him down and he picked up the bag and carried it up. He then ran down the stairs and hugged me and said he felt good. I made him some more lunch. He went upstairs for a nap and was out like a light. And that was how the hurricane of emotion passed through our house. Everything feels so much quieter now.
The Follow Up
Before dinner, he picked up a box of puzzles and dumped it out, glancing my way. I said that was fine but to be mindful that it was his responsibility to pick it up along with his sister. When the time came, he started to clean up and then DUMPED it out. Sassy boy! We pointed out that if he dumped it out, then he would have to finish the task on his own. He pulled it together. They cleaned up. We read books. He went to bed and all is good (for the moment).
I expect this Life Lesson is going to be revisited on many occasions and will rear its head when we least expect it and are least prepared. At least for that, I am prepared!