All three of my kids could be described as spirited, high need, or intense. So am I, so they come by it honestly.
I have come to believe that my children are my mirrors. They show me, through the feelings I have in response to their action, the work I need to do within myself. Sometimes, this means pushing my buttons to show me where my buttons are, so that I can learn how to shift and work on them.
Case in point: Cole, now 14, was and is my non-sleeper. At 3, he would go to bed, and get up endlessly for hours to ask for a snack, a drink of water, another hug, nursing, had a question, had another question. For a long time, my internal process would sound something like, “What kind of mother would send her child to bed thirsty? Hungry? In need of nurturing? Squelching his curiosity?” So I would attempt to redirect, or distract, or comply, and comply, and comply. In the retrospective wisdom that only hindsight can provide, I see now how my inner waffling (“I don’t want to do this”/ “What mother wouldn’t do this?”) contributed strongly to his tantrums. He felt the energy of my struggle and resentment, and it was confusing and overwhelming to him, as well. I didn’t want to deal with the tantrums. I’d silently resent the hell out of the demands on my time and attention, and was tapped out from my unmet need for alone time and rest. No matter how much I tried to avoid it, most nights ended in meltdowns for both of us before anyone could get sleep. He developed the mistaken core belief of “My role is to get this negative/undue attention”. He acted almost as if his thoughts were, “This is a confusing thing when I push this button. What happens if I do it again? And again? And again?” He was exploring his part in the dynamic as much as I was mine.
At the heart of Attachment Parenting is the knowledge that children are happiest and healthiest when their needs are met. As helpless infants, needs and wants are one and the same. As children grow, a new need – one of learning to live under the same roof in health and harmony as part of a community unit – begins to emerge. When I gave myself space to sit with my own feelings of frustration, and was honest with myself about what my feelings were, and considered what I really needed, I realized that while I was responsible for meeting my child’s NEEDS, I was in no way obligated to gratify every WANT. As a parent, it was going to be my responsibility to teach my children that not every want had to be fulfilled immediately. It was my job to help them learn patience. It was my job to help them learn that they did not need to be in the spotlight, with me at wit’s end, to feel loved and accepted.
I learned (eventually) that it was my work to discover and communicate where my own boundaries were. Otherwise, I would use myself up, wear myself out, give more than I had to give, and be burned out. It was part of the children’s work, as people learning how to function in the world, to be aware of and respect the boundaries of others. They might not like it, but really, they didn’t have to. There is NO RULE that says that children have to like an adult’s decisions. “It’s ok to not like things” is, in itself, another valuable life lesson. Learning to discern the difference between dislike that is A Big Deal vs. dislike that is little enough to let go is another valuable lesson that I could help my children learn, as is the ability express their dislike in a respectful way. I learned to let go of my own expectation that others (including my children) would like and accept my boundaries with no resistance. I learned that someone else’s approval of my boundary was not necessary. I became aware that I could be compassionate to their experience of not liking it, and stay abundantly clear on what I would do. Deciding what I would do, I realized, is the only power I have in any relationship, including my relationship with myself.
My parenting mantra became and has remained “Decide what I will do”.
I decided that it was ok to communicate to Cole that I needed time for rest. My self-worth was strong enough to be firm in meeting this essential need. We were done with today, it was bedtime, there was no more time for snacks (he had a good dinner and a bedtime snack, and going to bed without more food would not harm him), there was no more time for questions (we would have all day tomorrow to talk about every thought that crossed his mind). I was clear that setting the stage for sleep with a good bedtime ritual was in no way bringing him harm, even if it wasn’t his desire. I decided that I would not stand at his door with endless explanations of WHY the answer was no (because I don’t owe him an answer that he likes, and that was just another way of engaging my time).
When I reached this place of clarity in myself, a powerful shift that happened. I was surprised to find that my children responded differently when they sensed that my own internal compass was clearly focused. Affirmations I found myself repeating in my head were “‘No’ is a love word” and “‘No’ is a complete answer”. I never, ever wanted to tell my kids no. To avoid tantrums, I simply avoided saying the word. I was all about “Yes, as soon as…”, or looking for a distraction, or giving a longer explanation about what we would do. I realized that sometimes, I was contributing to the problem, frustrating them, and making it worse, as well as creating the belief within themselves that they could endlessly needle me until I gave an answer that they were willing to accept. It was frustrating to me, and teaching them disrespectful behavior towards others. So, if my inner answer was a very clear NO, I actually started using that word. I learned how to say it simply, without an emotional charge. I realized that “no” was going to be a part of their lives, and that I could teach them with love how to honor someone else’s clear “no”. This is a valuable life skill for the healthy adults (which I hope they will one day be) to have.
In learning to communicate my boundaries with compassion, and sticking to them with love, I could be compassionate to my children without “giving in” and losing myself. I could say, “I understand that’s different than what you’d like, and it’s bedtime now.” I could be firm in the moment of conflict, and talk with them with kindness at neutral times (not in the middle of bedtime resistance!) about what options they had. As a team, we got a lot better at problem solving. Cole learned to go to bed and stay in bed. Though he still needs less sleep than I do, we have harmony in our home because both of our needs are met. Boundary setting with compassion continues to be a successful strategy with Cole to this day, and at 14, our relationship with one another is often respectful and easygoing because we both know that we’re in it together, and we trust that both of us will navigate to have our needs met in healthy and functional ways.
I’m not intending to imply that this is exactly where any other mama is in her own learning. There are no “shoulds” here. I share it because this is the story of the lessons I am learning in my mothering path, and it might resonate with someone else. Blessings on the journey, for us all.