He throws his toddler body against the floor in rage and despair. He’s inconsolable, and my attempts to comfort go unheeded. I feel vaguely responsible, inadequate. What could I have done to prevent this? Have I not sufficiently anticipated the difficulty of transitions today, failing to ease him into the shifts from play to lunch to diaper changes? Have I been less than fully present this afternoon, distracted by the endless list of tasks I’m failing to accomplish?
Since my son’s arrival sixteen months ago, I’ve often struggled with becoming too wrapped up in his strong emotions. It’s hard for me not to take his behavior personally, to not feel that I’m to blame when he’s having a difficult time. I wonder, am I doing too much of something, not enough of something else?
I’m not sure when I started feeling so responsible for others’ emotions, but I suspect that I’ve been carrying this torch for a long time. It’s just more apparent now that I live with a little person whose feelings can be so big. And, as he plunges into toddlerhood, those emotions just keep getting bigger.
The outside world doesn’t help. As new parents, in our vulnerable, sleep-deprived state, we’re bombarded with advice from every direction. No doubt, some of this advice proves helpful. But it also encourages the false notion that if we do it all “right,” our infants will sleep through the night, our toddlers will never tantrum.
We begin to view our children’s behavior as the direct result of our parenting.
Accepting this delusion is not only endlessly frustrating; it can also leave you feeling inept as a parent, when your infant inevitably wakes three (or four, or five) times a night, when your toddler wails inconsolably, banging his head repeatedly against the floor as you look on, bewildered.
Your self worth can become enmeshed with your child’s behavior. Others seem to judge you, and you judge yourself, when the inevitable tantrum ensures. Worse still, you worry that you’re failing your child. A nagging sense of inadequacy ensues.
At least, this has often been my experience.
As with most of the challenges of parenting, this is more about me than it is about him. My relentless desire for a perfection that doesn’t exist. My own difficulty dealing with strong emotions. My yearning to portray my life as much less messy than it actually is. My tendency to confuse caring for the people I love with being responsible for their emotions.
Rationally, I know that my son’s big emotions are healthy and normal. So many things he wants to do are just out of his reach, literally and figuratively. He needs an outlet for his frustrations, and he needs me to be the calm during his storms. He needs me to separate my own discomfort with emotional expression from his experience of life, to not take his feelings personally, so that he can feel loved even when—no, especially when—he’s having a rough time.
Parenting isn’t about acquiring the perfect repertoire of skills. It’s about developing a loving, respectful relationship with another human being. It’s about letting go of the control that you may have never really had in the first place, knowing that your efforts cannot, and should not, prevent your child from experiencing difficulties in this life.
I’m learning to accept that, while my influence certainly matters, my best efforts cannot guarantee a particular outcome. My son is his own person, with his own strengths and challenges, his own path in life to travel. By disentangling my own self worth from his behavior—from who he is—I give us both permission to be ourselves.
When I don’t take his emotions personally, don’t see his behavior as a critique of my parenting, I can love him unconditionally. And he can be fully himself, free to express the intense emotions of toddlerhood and confident that he will be accepted nonetheless.