I think I've reached the light at a very long and dark toddler tunnel.
A couple months ago, we were going through a time slightly akin to a teenage hormonal breakdown with our two-year-old. Everything was a battle, she was screaming and slamming doors and pushing us away for the smallest things; once she even sneaked out of the house in the middle of the night and took our car for a spin. It was bad, y'all. We had gone through some pretty big changes: moving into a new apartment and having my sister live with us for a few months, and then move back to New York. This might not seem big, but Austen is highly sensitive, and it shook her little world. She also stopped taking naps in the afternoon, which shook my little world. A bit of a warning would have been thoughtful. But no, she just decided to go cold-turkey on that ish.
I'd just about had it. I was feeling very alone and dark in this period of motherhood. I had complained so much on Facebook that I'm sure my friends thought I was on the verge of a mental breakdown, caused by a two-year-old. "It's just a phase," people told me. "IT'S NOT A PHASE," I told people. You don't know my daughter! She's always been like this... it's just gotten worse and worse!
I was at a loss. Every ten minutes, all throughout the day, I was listening to ear-piercing screams. That was just how she responded to things that upset her a little. Screaming. The kind that reaches heights of sound you don't know exists, the kind that perks your ears and presses into your skull. It was depressing, to say the least.
And though the fits were not often, how does one respond to a toddler who is in the middle of an Epic Tantrum, who is not responding to all those fancy parenting techniques (empathy anyone?). I couldn't talk to her. I'd try being gentle and responsive, acknowledging her feelings like the book says: "You're so angry. I know you are so upset about not being able to do such and such." But she would just swat at me viciously, like a damn little kitten and scream all the louder. I even tried speaking in a strict, no-nonsense voice, but I knew that wouldn't work because of the kind of person Austen is. I knew it would stress her out even more, and it wouldn't get us anywhere. I was right.
So what happened? What magical parenting formula did I blow in the wind to stop these tantrums, to taper the screaming, to get into my daughter's heart and turn it toward mine?
I have no idea. I can tell you what I think I did, but what I really think happened is she grew up a little. She went from being a very emotional one-year-old who couldn't express her thoughts and feelings and was frankly scared of all the emotion her tiny body could hold, to a very emotional two-year-old who can say just about everything she wants, due to a pretty extensive vocabulary. Before, she couldn't tell me what was wrong. She couldn't express herself in the way she needed. Now she can.
As far as what I did? Here's what I think happened.
I let go.
I let her throw her fits. I stopped responding to the screaming. I put her in her room and told her I didn't want to hear it. I reminded her over and over (every ten minutes) to use her words. I taught her how to ask for help. I taught her how to calm down, that Mommy would always help.
Maybe letting go isn't the answer a distressed parent of a distressed toddler needs, but I think this was a huge factor in Austen's change of behavior.
I don't think toddlers do things for attentions. They're babies. Their brains don't work that way. Read any literature by any psychologist, and you'll see these behaviors aren't only normal, but kind of healthy, too, because through them they are learning how to deal with their emotions in healthy ways. By "letting go," I didn't ignore her behavior and let her get away with it. I corrected what needed correcting, but also understood the limitations of working with a toddler. I can't go into a long lecture about behavior when my daughter is screaming her head off. Toddlers don't work like that. But I do believe that when we freak out about their behavior, that's telling them there really is something to freak out about. Instead of sitting there in despair as she screamed and kicked and swatted at me, correcting her and then leaving the room taught her that her fit-throwing wasn't going to get her anywhere, at least not with me.
I totally understand, Little Girl. I feel you. I know what it's like to be so overtaken by emotion that you just need to let it all out. So let it out, and then come get me when you're ready for a hug and some help.
Now I don't want you thinking all is rainbows and unicorn farts. She still screams... a lot. But it's significantly less. And instead of screaming, she does a lot of talking. And instead of sitting in despair when she throws fits, I kind of laugh them off. (Not in front of her though, because rude.) I know we'll come to many, many challenging times in the future, and there will be times when I will feel just as lost and frustrated. But that's also normal -- I know I'm not the only parent who feels like this from time to time. Or for months at a time.
Austen has taught me once again that not everything works for every kid, and that I don't have to be super mom. Sometimes things just work themselves out. Sometimes they don't. And that's okay. I'm not ruining my kids.