It's "common knowledge" - as my two-year-old son would say - that becoming a parent makes you want to be a better person. Or, as in my case, mercilessly exposes all of your shortcomings, forcing you to endlessly entertain the ways in which you hope your child will be different than you, and will therefore be spared your particular personal struggles. Of course, our children are their own people, who will develop their own individual character flaws that, undoubtedly, will not perfectly mirror our own. But they learn how to be human beings by watching our imperfect efforts at doing so. I think it follows that we should try to do it well.
My most significant self-proclaimed shortcoming is a difficulty dealing with emotions. I was mostly unaware of this before becoming a parent. It's pretty easy in our culture to think your way through life, to spend all of your time accomplishing things, without noticing that you also have feelings.
But there's something about bringing a tiny person into the world that makes your own emotions more evident. Maybe it's the overwhelming love and the accompanying conviction that you would absolutely cease to exist if harm should befall your little one. Or maybe it's the tremendous frustration, bewilderment, and anger that parenting tends to induce. Or maybe, as a close observer of the intensity of emotion that is toddlerhood, we have subconscious flashbacks to a time when our own emotions flowed more freely.
Whatever the cause, when I became a parent, my own difficulty with emotion became painfully obvious. I suspect that I'm not alone in this. We fledgling parents were not raised in a time when children's feelings were widely considered to be legitimate. Despite our own parents' best efforts, the dominant culture was focused on ensuring that children weren't "too dependent" or "spoiled." Not a good atmosphere for developing emotional health.
But the good news is that we can learn this at any age, and learning alongside a small person who has very big feelings might just be the most fertile training ground. Here are a few of the realizations that I've had about accepting my son's (and my own) emotions and teaching us both emotional awareness and empathy.
(I find that when I repeat these mantras over and over to myself while he repeatedly shouts, "No pajamas! No pajamas!," I can acknowledge his feelings without being triggered by my own. I should also add, in case my son reads this someday, that he is a compassionate and determined and lovable child who is really great company and who only periodically becomes upset about pajamas. But also, he's two.)
Try these out if you're having trouble creating space for the big feelings of toddlerhood:
This is not about me, and I am not failing as a parent. I've written before about not taking your child's emotions personally, and I truly believe that it is one of the most important things to remember when parenting a toddler. My son's emotions are just that - his emotions - and failing to recognize that is disrespectful to him as a person. When we interpret our children's emotions as our own personal failures, we cannot allow them to have their own feelings. We stifle their emotions to make ourselves feel better. Not okay.
He is not trying to make me miserable. He needs my help. Behavior that we label as "challenging" is often a call for help. When my son is overtired, or over-hungry, or otherwise overwhelmed, he doesn't have the emotional regulation (or the vocabulary) to articulate that. (Who does, really?) When he collapses into a fit of tears, I remind myself that he's not trying to make my life more difficult. He saying, "I can't handle this on my own yet, mama. I need your help." Interpreting his behavior this way makes it about a million times more likely that I will respond with patience and love.
It is not my job to make him happy. If the job description of "parent" includes "making your child happy," then we take responsibility for our children's emotions and judge ourselves when they express any emotion other than happiness. We try to "fix" their sadness, anger, or disappointment, and send the message that happiness is the only emotion that is okay. Instead of acknowledging and accepting their emotions, we try to manage them. This is a lose-lose situation.
This is normal. He is just learning to regulate his emotions. I'm fairly certain that when my son is twenty-two years old, he will be much less resistant to putting on pajamas. (Sometimes you have to have faith, my friends.) And, in fact, according to science, there are cells in his brain called "mirror neurons" that take cues from my emotional state. This is apparently how we humans learn emotional regulation. So every time I keep my cool during the meltdown, I give myself a well-deserved pat on the back.
It's OK that I'm not (yet) a perfectly self-actualized human being. I sometimes get caught up in the belief that, if I had somehow dealt with all of my own emotional baggage before having a child, I could avoid passing on any of it to my son. And, due to my heroic efforts, world peace would inevitably follow. But it appears that's not how life works. Instead, we're all always works in progress, and that's as it should be. In fact, I'm fairly certain that allowing him to see me struggle (in age-appropriate ways) will enable him to develop self-worth and confidence even when he is struggling too.
Now excuse me while I go choose the wrong pajamas for my son to wear to bed tonight . . .
(An aside: I don't ascribe fully to any parenting "theory" or "method," and I think that, as parents, we should trust our own instincts and do what's best for our particular families. That said, my thoughts about dealing with big toddler feelings have been greatly influenced by RIE parenting theories and articles written by Janet Lansbury. So thank you to Janet. And also to my therapist.)