I'm not 100% sure, but I think that Wednesday may have been the worst day of Marko's life. There was that one day when he was a week old and had a stuffy nose and John had just gone to work and wouldn't be back till Friday ... and that one day when he'd been sick for a week and I exploded a Pyrex dish in the kitchen ... but those would be the only two competitors. I have never seen him throw a fit like this in his life.
I see now what other parents are talking about when they say "tantrums." They don't mean, "five minutes of protest." That was Marko's old norm. This was an hour and a half of ridiculous screaming mayhem. It looked like he was auditioning for The Exorcist. And there was no particular thing that set it off, or anything he wanted, or anything that would cheer him up again.
It started with him being a bit tired and cranky. No wonder, he hasn't slept through the night in about a week. So I was thinking it might be time to try for a nap. I picked him up and carried him into the bedroom. That made him a bit crabbier. I sat down in the rocking chair -- again, bad news. There was wiggling and squirming and protestations of "not tired." But I knew that he was, and was pretty confident he'd be out in ten like he usually is in that mood.
Only he wasn't. First he wouldn't let me sing any lullabies (but screamed if I stopped trying new ones). Then he got really, really, avidly into pulling my hair ... not his usual fiddling but full-on yanking. Between that and the thrashing around, I figured he needed more room to move, so I laid down in his bed with him. That made him more angry and the fussy yells increased. He yanked my hair more fiercely. Then he started trying to kick me in the stomach.
Since I have no intention of letting him kick his baby brother or sister, I said calmly, "I don't like being kicked," and moved off the bed. That's when he went from "crabby protests" to "violent screams." He was truly livid, thrashing and screaming incomprehensibly. I quickly realized that I couldn't even get in range of him without getting hurt, so I left the room. Sometimes that helps him calm down when he's upset. This time, not so much.
I could give you the play-by-play, but it isn't a pleasant tale. I tried everything physically possible, and a few that weren't really (the stroller walk in 30-degree weather actually calmed him down a bit, but we couldn't keep that up). In the end I think he calmed down because he was ready to, rather than from anything I did. Even then, the rest of the day was pretty shaky.
What made it worse for me is that I was coming into the whole thing already not feeling so hot. I'd slept poorly and not enough, just like he had. And I had a splitting headache. And I was having way more braxton-hicks contractions than I like. So the whole time he was throwing his fit, I was thinking, "I can't deal with this! I already feel bad! The only thing that will make me feel better is to relax, and he won't let me!" I started out fairly calm, but after the first 20 minutes I was stewing with my own batch of rage.
It just felt unfair that I have to take kicks, pushes, and hair-pulling from him, and I can't do any of that stuff back. And I'll confess, I wasn't exactly gentle with him each time I hoisted him into his crib, or moved him off of my lap when he was hurting me. I felt like he didn't deserve to be treated nicely because he didn't treat me nicely. Childish much?
So I've been reflecting on how to handle stuff like that better. If, as I think, it's a "terrible two" thing, or just a symptom of his age, it's going to keep happening and I really, really want to handle it better in the future.
Here are a few of the things I came up with, which I think will help me keep a peaceful attitude during an awful day:
1. Occasionally it helps to try to do something else (like read a book) during a stressful patch. Almost all of the time, it's really better not to. When the kid is melting down, it's time to put down my book, end my chat conversation, pull the plug on the sink of dishes, and just accept that it won't happen right now. Trying to accomplish something else while Marko is crabby usually leads to me getting pulled in two directions and feeling angry at him for not letting me get the other thing done.
2. It is not my job to MAKE him stop crying. It's hard for me to accept this because usually I can. But sometimes, I won't be able to, and that doesn't mean I'm a failure. It just means he's not open to being comforted. The time he spends throwing a fit depends on him, not me, and it will not be the end of the world if it goes on all day. It isn't personal. It isn't about me.
3. Conversely, it WILL be the end of the world if I give into my feelings of rage and punch my kid in the face. So that's my goal: not to fix the tantrum in him, but to fix the rage in me. If I maintain calm and do not hurt him, I win. I'm a success. His feelings aren't a reflection on my parenting, but my treatment of him is.
4. I have to focus on being gentle with him at all times. Yelling and yanking him around are somehow what seem to come naturally at times like this. But have you ever known a kid to suddenly dry his tears and give a big smile just because you yelled at him? Or seen a kid who was jerked by one arm out of the grocery store, who suddenly calmed down and said, "Thanks for hurting my arm, Mom -- I feel better now"? Of course not. It usually just escalates the situation.
It feels so unfair to have to absorb his rage and give none back. But isn't that what Jesus did for us? When we were still sinners, he died for us. We never could have learned how to be like him unless he had shown us first, when we didn't deserve it. If I'm mean to Marko till he learns to be nice to me, he'll never learn because he has no example to go on. I don't want to teach him that yelling and harshness are okay.
Of course that sounds like a really high goal. No yelling and no angry, rough touching. And, in fact, given my temperament, it might be impossible. Except that NO words and NO touches are also an acceptable option. I can't give back a gentle answer 100 times out of 100. But I can walk away if I have to. I prefer to keep myself available, and for short tantrums I always do. However, walking away when I'm being screamed at or lashed out at is perfectly reasonable. All it teaches my son is that I have respect for my own boundaries, that he can't hit at me and expect me to stick around and get hit.
On Wednesday, after the first hour, I realized that I absolutely could not continue to be a good mother. I wanted to scream, to kick, to cry, just like he was doing. (Have I mentioned before I'm empathetic to a fault? I can't be around angry people and not feel angry, or sad people and not feel sad. Normally it helps me be a sympathetic mom ... today it was really causing me problems.) So I put his crib mattress back into his crib (it's usually on the floor), put him inside, and left the room. I figured he would at least be safe in there, and I could get the distance I needed.
He just stood in the crib and screamed incomprehensibly for about five or ten minutes till I got back. But just knowing that he was safe and I was not near him was a huge relief. In less than ten minutes, I was up to facing him again.
Some people will say you have to be always ON when a child is unhappy, trying to console him. And if he'd been wanting and accepting my comfort, I probably would have been. But there comes a point when you realize what you're doing is doing the child no good and you a lot of harm, and when you reach it, there's nothing wrong with walking away for a bit.
Well, Wednesday did eventually end, thanks to Daddy rocking him to sleep (I don't think he would have accepted me, so thank goodness John was there). And he hasn't thrown a fit like that since. On Friday, he took a nap and woke up screaming. He wasn't flailing or raging, just plain, simple screaming, which he often does when he wakes up. (Nightmare? Night terror? Teething? Who knows!) I tried to put my ideas into practice. First, I reminded myself that it wasn't my fault he was screaming, that it wasn't my job to stop him from screaming, but just to hold him and rock him while he either calmed down or had a good cry. Second, I relaxed as much as I could and thought about growing tomatoes. I didn't try a million things, because I knew he was sleepy and would probably react badly to being talked to or jostled around. I didn't try to puzzle out the causes too much. I just worked out tomato-staking methods and rocked.
After awhile, he started to pause a bit in his screaming and close his eyes. Would he go back to sleep? No, but he slowly calmed down a lot. So I quietly asked him if he wanted something to eat, and he managed to say yes. I went into the kitchen and got him a cookie (because it was what I had readily available, and because I wanted to give him something he wouldn't argue about ... I am not in the habit of randomly giving him cookies, but it seemed more important to help him pull himself together, so sue me) and sat down with him on the couch. He looked at me, smiled through his tears, ate his cookie, and eventually let himself be coaxed onto the potty, which I'm sure helped him feel better.
The rest of the afternoon was great. It wasn't ruined by 20 minutes of screaming. Maybe it just wasn't as big a deal as Wednesday's fit. Or maybe my calm helped keep his upset feelings from escalating. I have no idea. I do know that I felt a lot more peaceful about this time than the previous time. And that's the goal!
Any other tips for not completely going loony while dealing with an angry child? I need all I can get, because I have no guarantee that this won't happen again!