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Brittany: How to Get a Grip

“Let this become your key — next time when anger comes, just watch it. Don’t say, ‘I am angry.’ Say, ‘Anger is there and I am watching it.’ And see the difference! The difference is vast. Suddenly you are out of the grip of anger. If you can say, ‘I am just a watcher, I am not anger,’ you are out of the grip.”  ~Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh

When we initially moved to New York, my three-year-old son, Sam, was all smiles and excitement. It was all a great adventure to him, driving cross country, living in temporary housing, and spending a week without us at the grandparents’ that ultimately culminated in the wonderous, never-to-be-repeated excitement of finally, finally, after months and months of talking about it, coming to live in The New House.

But like most things on the roller-coaster of life, once you’ve reached the highest of highs, there’s nowhere to go but down…

We moved into our house on July 1st and Sam hit Toddler Rock Bottom about two weeks later. (And I hit Parenting Rock Bottom right along with him.) It started with a tantrum or two, over nothing, and then insidiously, over the next few weeks, the tantrums escalated into mega-tantrums, where Sam bit John, and then began biting his new friends, to which I escalated my parental crackdown. My punishments were met with outrage so severe that Sam started having “accidents” — in public and at home. And by the beginning of August, our house was like a police state — justice was intense and swift — and Sam’s behavior was so unpredictable that Tom and I wondered where we could find him a good therapist.

Even when I was pregnant with Sam, I knew that he was going to test my emotional and physical endurance. In utero, he was active, demanding, and always a loud presence. Before he was ever born, I knew him and his moods as well as I knew my own because he projected them to me so intensely.

But things had been fine in South Carolina. After he turned three, the tantrums from his Terrible Twos leveled off, and his intense reactions to everything seemed to have been a passing phase. When they manifested again here it took me completely by surprise, and it took me several weeks to remember that an intense reaction to change has always been a facet of his personality. If I looked at things from his perspective, he’d just experienced a huge emotional upheaval leaving the only home, only friends, only neighbors, only life he’d ever known. He had nothing in his life to compare it to, no sense that everything would be okay after a while, no ability to understand the fear and homesickness gnawing at him. I incorrectly assumed he was too young to care much where he lived, as long as he was with me and Tom and John. By the time I stepped away from my own rage at this wild, unpredictable, irrational child that I was being forced to deal with, and think about the reasons behind it, the damage was done. My child was an emotional wreck. I knew I had to try a new tack, and soon, or things were going to get untenable.

I dug through still-packed boxes of books until I found my copy of the Raising Your Spirited Child Workbook by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and re-read it from cover-to-cover twice.

One of Kurcinka’s suggestions in dealing with intense children is to give them a visual demonstration of their anger in the form of vinegar and baking soda “volcanos.” She suggests doing this with the child so he/she can see the volcano bubbling over and make the connection between it and the way they feel when they’re under stress.

I like to put my own spin on things, and since I knew the source of Sam’s anger, I tried doing things a little differently.

I gathered up the vinegar, the baking soda, a glass, and a quarter measuring cup. Then I told Sam that we needed to fill the glass up with “yuckies” — that for each thing that made him sad or mad, we were going to put a “yucky” in the glass. It took him a while to understand what a “yucky” was, but in no time he was on a roll. He missed his teachers, his school, his friends, our old house, our neighbors, our family members, punishments made him mad, our new house made him sad, and he was mad that this house didn’t have a swing set in the backyard like our old house had. Once the glass was full, I added the baking soda, and narrated a pretend (and ridiculous) tantrum — even by Sam’s standards.

“…What! No waffles for breakfast? Sam wanted waffles! Oh no! Sam’s yelling! He’s screaming! He’s thrown himself on the floor and he’s kicking kicking kicking! Oh no! He’s kicking Mommy! He’s kicking John! Now he’s even kicked the dog! Oh no! He’s kicked a hole in the floor. Now he’s kicked the house down! And he’s stomping stomping stomping on the house! And he’s throwing pieces of the house! Now the garage is flying through the air! And Sam’s still mad!”

Sam thought this was hilarious and so we spent the morning making more volcanoes and having more pretend tantrums. Every time we did it, I noticed that his ability to verbalize how he was feeling became more fluent. I knew he had completely caught on when he was playing with some friends, one of whom was getting very frustrated about something, and Sam called to me, “Mommy, Tyler’s glass is getting full of yuckies! Come help him!” Since then, yuckies, full glasses, and volcanoes have become part of our dialogue with each other. Now I can say to him, “Sam, your glass is looking pretty full. I can see you’re starting to get bubbly like a volcano. Do you need a break?”

After I say this, the expression on his face changes.You can watch him thinking about his emotions instead of feeling them, and then he’ll say, “I’m okay Mom. The yuckies are gone now.”

Yesterday, John was being a royal two-year-old pain in the grocery store, and we had to go past the candy aisle at check out. Both boys began begging for candy and I was feeling harassed. So I said to Sam, “Sam, please stop asking about candy. John is not being a nice boy right now (he was trying to leap out of his seat into the basket of the shopping cart) and Mommy’s glass is really REALLY full.” And Sam, to my everlasting surprise said, “Oh. Let me help you unload the cart then.” And he immediately got to work putting our groceries on the conveyor belt.

Please envision how I must’ve looked — absolutely flummoxed — mouth agape — eyes wide in surprise — as my toddler attempted to diffuse MY tantrum. It was quite the role reversal. Sam was able to give back to me what I had apparently been giving him — the incredible relief that comes from knowing that your feelings of stress are understood, that the burden of keeping it together has been lifted, and you’ve been excused for a moment to sort yourself out. All it took was a little understanding, and the weight of the day lifted from my shoulders. I was renewed and back to myself in seconds.

It was a good week for us. We seem to have gotten a grip.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Wow….I love this post, Brittany! What creativity you brought to a very stressful and difficult situation. I am so impressed and inspired!

    Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho) was not a Buddhist, but he drew from Buddhist principles and the quote that you include above is VERY Buddhist. As soon as you create space between yourself and what you are experiencing as stressful (by becoming the observer) you lessen the grip of that stress. I was JUST discussing this very point yesterday with my husband. Every time you experience unpleasant feelings — sadness, anger, stress, whatever — you can observe what is happening and relieve so much (if not all) of that burden. You see it, you name it, and you don’t judge it. You let it go of your stressful feeling about the stress. You let it go and it goes.

    What a powerful lesson to learn — and to share with your child! Wow….so, so cool 🙂

    August 17, 2010
  2. excellent job, brittany. isn’t it wonderful when you find a way through what seemed impossible? my boys, in each’s own way, had a hard time with change, too. my oldest can cope better with it on hs own now, and i regularly work on this very thing with #2. esp now he’s transitioning into middle school, a new school. all summer has been an exercise in feeding him into that, even while he was staying at his dad’s.

    August 17, 2010
  3. mothering creativity at it’s finest. 🙂 i love that you threw the mock tantrum while the volcano was bubbling. he got it didn’t he! that’s awesome.

    August 18, 2010
  4. Very very good post-I am amazed how creativity and motherhood are so complimentary. the way in which one helps to infuse with fun or defuse with love.

    August 19, 2010
  5. Brittany Vandeputte #

    Miranda, after I read your comment I was going to write you back and say something to the effect of “Stepping back and just observing a problem is nice in theory, but how do you keep your cool when your kids are misbehaving and not listening to you (as is often the case with mine),” but I got to thinking about what your response might be and deleted the post.

    Lately, when the boys are starting to “fill my glass” I’ll just say, “Mommy is getting mad because you are doing x when you know the rule is y/because x hurts mommy(your brother, the cat, etc…)/you aren’t listening to what mommy’s saying .” I don’t lose my cool. I feel the anger, and then I tell them about it.

    I’ve been very surprised at how quickly they respond to this. Just now for example, the boys starting jumping on the couch and throwing the cushions on the floor. I told them I was getting mad–that the rule was that the couch for was sitting and Sam said, “I just want to jump.” So we’re going to have a jumping contest right now–in an appropriate location.

    August 19, 2010
  6. Brittany, I’m curious as to what you thought my response would be!

    IMHO, it’s practically impossible to keep your cool 100% of the time when kids are acting like maniacs, not listening, and potentially hurting you and/or themselves. Always helpful to have a general idea of how you plan to deal in these situations, so at least you have a map to work from.

    I do think that your creative behavior management successes build on each other. When you’re like “Wow, that could have ended with me screaming and yelling and the kids crying but instead we’re all having a nice time together” you end up feeling like Superwoman. When the next potential conflict arises, you’re more likely to go for the creative solution again.

    Bottom line is that we can only do what we can do. We aren’t all on the same path as parents or as individuals, of course, but I think we all try out best, even when we don’t meet our own expectations.

    August 22, 2010
  7. Brittany Vandeputte #

    Oh, I just figured your response would be something along the lines of “You need to step back and look at the moment objectively before reacting” or some other intelligent suggestion.

    I have a temper. The boys have a temper. We tend to be really reactionary during stress. So that brief stepping away period to say “I am getting mad because of x” usually is enough to diffuse the situation or at least keep the molehills from turning into mountains.

    August 22, 2010

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