The ear of my daughter’s favorite stuffed elephant was bright red with blood.
She was learning to walk and just as she approached the stairs she lost her balance, tumbled straight into them, banged her mouth, and cut her lip.
I scooped her up, grabbed the elephant, rocked and soothed her. “Mama’s right here with you.”
Toddlers. They are a lot of great things. But they are not great yet at physical coordination. It’s why we call them toddlers—they toddle. And then they fall. Their developmental work is to work out physical tasks. But in the beginning? The kind way to say it is that they are physically clumsy. (The more accurate way might be to comment on their resemblance to a miniature drunken sailor.)
But over time they figure it out and as they head towards the preschool years they are running and hopping and…
…falling apart emotionally.
A broken plastic plane? 20 minutes of meltdown.
A “no” to their request for the shiny object that caught their attention in the toy aisle? Public tantrum.
A “it’s time to leave the park and go home for lunch”? They look at us, look at the car, look back at us, then turn and sprint in the other direction.
Welcome to emotionally clumsy. A phase of life that begins after physically clumsy (and lasts….well, when was the last time your middler school fell apart? Or your high schooler lost it?)
These are the years when a child is physically able to do a task, but not yet emotionally prepared for it. It is a hard time as a parent, because all we can think is “Are you kidding me?” or “We’re doing this again?” or “You need to follow my directions. NOW.” And it’s hard because the emotional fall is internal–we don’t see it coming, all we see is the aftermath. And it’s hard because instead of hitting the ground, our little munchkins often hit us.
So what do we do? How can we help them? And how can we help ourselves?
By choosing to be on their team.
When a toddler falls over, we offer support, love, a kiss, sometimes even a band-aid. We are with them in their distress.
But when a physical fall turns into an emotional one? We often turn away from them. Instead of being with them, we want to win. “Stop crying, now.” or “Listen to me this instant!” Or “Do what I am telling you to.”
What would it look like if during these years we flipped it? What if our parenting mantra became: not win, but with.
Broken plane? “Oh, sweetie. You are so sad the plane broke—I can see it on your face.”
No toy? “I know it was super fancy. I can see what you loved about it and understand your frustration at not getting it.”
No more park? “It’s disappointing to leave when we’re having a great time. Transitions can be tough.”
In other words: Mama’s right here with you.
We aren’t caving or capitulating or giving in. We’re simply acknowledging their truth.
And what comes next? “Let’s”. Let us. Let’s do _____. Let’s go _____. Let’s be _____. ‘Let us’ says: I am on your team. I’m here with you. We do hard things together. You can count on me.
It shows a child (no matter their age) that in their distress, they are not alone. We see them, hear them, value them, help them.
We may think the plane was junk, the toy ridiculous, the park overrated. It doesn’t matter. We’re don’t have to agree with their emotions, we need to empathize with them. That’s what it looks like to join their team. And doing that reduces the number of tantrums, minimizes the length of meltdowns, increases the times they follow directions.
Being with a child when they are emotionally clumsy, from preschool through high school, keeps us connected. No matter how far they fly away when they leave the nest, being on their team means we are with them. Always.
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