We got pretty lucky with Addie. She’s a sweet, loving kid, who has met every major milestone with impressive efficiency. Every time we were preparing for some major undertaking (weaning, moving, potty training etc.), I would spend the preceding weeks furiously researching methods, potential issues, and potential solutions. Every time Addie would sail through whatever the potential issue was with no major problems. After I brought the boys home and realized that Addie wasn’t exhibiting any crazy sibling jealousy or behavior regressions, I let my guard down.
That was a mistake.
I’m not sure what, if anything, caused the recent shift in behavior around here. Sometimes I have a tendency to downplay the sheer volume of life altering changes Addie’s lived through in her three and a half years. Her father was deployed the first year of her life, she’s lived in three houses in three different time zones, she’s said goodbye to friends over and over again, she had to go stay with her grandparents while I was in the hospital, and then came home to two new little brothers. There are adults that would struggle with finding ways to cope with all those scenarios. Addie, however, is a rock star, and meets each challenge she faces with unwavering optimism and good-natured strength. It’s the quality I admire most in my daughter.
Unfortunately, something shifted in the last few weeks. Her emotions are running higher, and her fuse is shorter. She’s listening less, and crying more. After a particularly fraught bedtime battle, I sat on the couch and recognized that something had to change. We were in a stressful cycle of me making a request, her ignoring me (or not hearing me), me getting frustrated and repeating myself multiple times, me finally raising my voice, ending with a grand finale of hysterical tears (hers) (usually).
I realized that I was blaming her for not listening, and getting me frustrated. And, sure, she absolutely needs to learn how to listen more consistently. And of course she needs to learn how to express her emotions in a productive way. But, the key word in those sentences is “learn”. How on earth can I expect her to learn, if I’m not teaching her? I’m the grown-up. It’s my job to break the cycle, not the three-year-old’s job.
I took some time while everybody was sleeping to try to narrow down what I suspected the big issues were.
- Jealousy: Addie seems to have only recently realized that the brothers are a permanent addition around here. She loves them, but she is not loving all the waiting she’s now required to do.
- Distraction: I have a bad habit of leaving Pandora on during the day. That’s a lot of stimulation for a little girl, and I think it’s making it hard for her to focus on what I’m saying.
- Hanger: Addie gets particularly feisty before mealtimes. I get frustrated with constant snacking, but if she’s too hungry to cope, then I need to make sure I have some nutrient-dense snacks available for her.
- Big Feelings in a Little Girl: Addie has a lot of feelings, and she’s still learning how to express them. I’m an adult, and there are times I get so annoyed that I need to walk away from the situation before I lose my temper. I’ve had twenty-nine years to learn this skill, and, if I’m being honest, I still don’t always get it right.
It’s a process, but focusing on these four main issues does make a difference in Addie’s behavior. And, more importantly, they make a difference in Addie’s emotional well-being. That’s the way I have to re-frame the temper tantrums, or stubbornness. This is her way of telling me, “Hey, something’s not right here. I’m confused, and frustrated, and I don’t know what to do.” If I give her the tools to know what to do when she’s hungry or overstimulated, or jealous, or frustrated, or whatever, then I think the behavioral improvements naturally follow.
So, for now, the house is quiet (or as quiet as a house with three kids under four and a dog can be). Addie has free access to certain approved healthy snacks. The brothers have to wait their turns, instead of Addie always waiting on them. I’m naming all my emotions, in an effort to help her recognize her. Instead of gritting my teeth and pretending I’m fine, I’ll tell her “Wow. I’m really frustrated right now. Give me a minute to breathe, and I’ll start to feel better.”
And, you know what? Little by little, it’s working. Yesterday, Addie had a really rough time at a playground get-together. We got home, and I asked her why she thought she might be upset. She responded with, “Mommy, I think I’m just really grumpy. I would like an orange, and then quiet time in my room.” She ate an orange, and promptly fell asleep for three hours.
I’m sure we’ll still have our fair share of rough days ahead, but for the moment making sure I’m being respectful of Addie’s emotional needs is making all the difference in the world.