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When we were first time parents many people told us, "wow have you got it easy!" and looking back, we did. Our first born was chill. From the very beginning he basically took care of himself. Other then his refusal to nap more then 40 minutes twice a day (but we all know that was more me then him, I'm smarter now!) He hardly cried, was easily satisfied and as he grew and developed a personality he remained that easy natured, calm child.
Enter, baby 2!
Imagine a world where everything is opposite, bizarro and LOUD! That was our new life. Our second born decided to be different. He wanted volume, drama, alarm bells and to be utterly confusing minute by minute, day by day. His spirit was (still is) naturally vivacious and extreme. He feels all things passionately and is not afraid to show it.
As a Mom I have always felt it was my job to be conscious or purposeful in my parenting. I believe that parenting your children isn't all about instincts and leaving it up to fate. I haven't been the type to throw my hands up and "well I can only do what I can do". I knew that I had to learn and grow with my kids at their different stages. I wasn't born with the skills to settle a sibling dispute over who ran so hard they broke the others lego creation, I mean huh? I don't have the natural patience level to hear the explanation of how the toilet paper ended up in the toilet unwound and half flushed filling the bathroom with water. Professionally, I am trained, educated and experienced in dealing with behaviour, anxiety, developmental stages and challenges, family dynamics etc But that means NOTHING in your own parenting sphere. So I read. I scoured the internet for parenting blogs, articles, books etc. I loved it and because of it I found my parenting identity. I helped my husband find his own style (different from my own, annoyingly!) and together we started to sort through the rubble of having a spirited child. Or as we affectionately refer to him, our Three-nager.
I believe the definition of Three-nager would sound something like this. A beautiful complex blend of a toddler and a teenager. A tiny human full of the big emotions, learning challenges and limitations of a 3 year old but the mood swings, temper tantrums and need for independence of an adolescent. Thank you universe for that cocktail blend of crazy.
Over the course of a year we tried and failed at many strategies to cope with our sons tantrums, crying spells, behaviours and emotions. There were times when we spoke to our doctor so overwhelmed with how to cope. We were convinced he had a learning or developmental disability. Perhaps he was on the autism spectrum or had ADHD. I ran his attributes through checklists, questionnaires etc. Nope - nothing. We finally figured out a blend of strategies that really helped our every day life. Life was never perfect, days were still hard but for the most part they were better, mostly enjoyable! Its not cold to describe this stage in my sons life in this way, its realistic. Three year olds are learning and figuring out complex emotions through daily situations. They struggle to balance the need for adult support with their desire to be independent. How many times have you heard, "I do it!" and three hours, two meltdowns and maybe some kicking or throwing toys later - they do! Some kids breeze through the 2-3 yr stage without these concerns. Some people have them to varying degrees. It doesn't make it easier or better for one set of parents. We all have our own sets of struggles at different stages. Comparing what you experience with your own children to what others experience just creates fear, self doubt and shame. Sharing and listening to each other creates dialogue, support and empowerment.
Here is what I have learned;
Hold them Close
Pull them close, hold them tight, wrap your arms around them and let them cry. Sit and snuggle through the screaming and tears until their body relaxes. Stand close, at their eye level or on the floor in front or beside them. It feels counter intuitive to pull your screaming 3 year old, who might have just kicked you or took a giant bite out of your shoulder, in for a hug but their internal regulators are firing on all cylinders. They are confused and overwhelmed and no matter of talking AT them will help. Your warmth, slow deep breathing, soft cooing of "its ok. Im here and I love you" will help them ride the wave of complex feelings until they are ready to problem solve or move forward.
Let One Go
Sometimes "this way or no way" just starts a power struggle big enough to blow the roof off the house. Things may seem prescribed "this is how we put on a coat" but to a Three -nager there are no limits. He or she sees that coat with endless ideas and options. Legs in sleeves, upside down, buttons only etc. Time and patience permitting let them do it. It won't be the worst thing for them to wear the coat upside. Let One Go. Meals especially make this idea difficult. No one wants to run a restaurant in their kitchen, making many separate meals is exhausting. But, if dinner is tacos and the Threenager says "i do it" or "eww gross" - face palm yourself, pray for bedtime and say these three words to yourself "let one go". Let the little darling assemble her taco, create her own version of a taco (PB+J anyone?) or if disgust is on the menu let them create a plate of items using whatever is in the fridge. Don't fight the hurricane, ride the wave. You won't damage their healthy eating habits, or ruin your dreams of family dinners. It all still happens because eventually the fight is gone and the Three-nager moves on. Obviously safety trumps this notion but in most situations if you take a deep breath and ask yourself whether your "way" has more to do with how you think something SHOULD be and no harm will come to the Three-nager, Let One Go.
Big emotional reactions are basically many little feelings triggered from many tiny experiences that stick together and then implode inside the Three-nager. Think of a carbonated beverage slowly being turned upside down repeatedly in a day. Eventually the lid pops off and sprays everywhere. Throughout the day say things outloud like "Peppa Pig is being sassy today isn't she?", "wow I love this hot cup of coffee it makes me so happy", "Mommy thinks you must be feeling frustrated that I can't find your favourite purple sock" repeat repeat repeat. The more Three-nagers here emotional language used in everyday experiences the more likely they are to use that language in explaining or talking with you. My Three-nager would not have held off a tantrum due to saying he was frustrated but at least I had a 1 minute warning to set the coffee down, put on a rain poncho and wait for his lid to pop off! (figuratively speaking of course!)
Rest Repair Repeat
The days of parenting a Three-nager feel endless. 6am to 7pm is a long time to be on guard, ready for battle, restating emotions, creating choice, holding them close etc. Wearing down. growing weary and feeling resentful is common. Its hard and only parents of Three-nagers really get it. Lots try to understand and be empathetic, "oh my darling got so mad yesterday she yelled at me too!" Nope, thats different! Give yourself some leeway to feel bad, to be sad, to wallow and to fear if you are doing a good job. Acknowledge your own feelings, share them with your partner but then find time to repair. Create moments to build yourself back up, to feel the joy in your parenting, to be kind to yourself and do something that brings you peace and calm. In the same way repair with your child. Create opportunities to snuggle, to laugh, to be present and enjoy the beautiful complex angel in your life. They feel all things strongly, including their own happiness and joy. Revel in their ability to stand against the normal and forge their own path. Tell them you love them, you adore them, you learn from them everyday. REPEAT REPEAT REPEAT
My Three-nager isn't an angel everyday. But when we gave up on waiting for him to grow out of it, as if this personality trait was a pair of old pants - and we focused on learning and experiencing with him, our daily lives and his got better.
check out more of my writing at www.wordpress.com/builtwithjoy