By Megan Harbrow
From the moment you see those two lines appear, you begin to picture exactly who you will be as a parent. You will be patient, you will speak ever-so-gently, you will make every meal from scratch, and you will spend each day cherishing every waking moment you have with your child.
You read all the books (or you google your little heart out), go to the birthing classes, you soak up every ounce of information there is to prepare you for your greatest adventure… that of becoming a parent – pure bliss. The early days may be challenging – feeding, sleeping, teething, development, but you’ve read everything there is and feel pretty well-equipped. Soak up that feeling my friend and bottle it, because it may not last for long!
My son was a dream from day dot. He slept through the night, did not cry all that often unless something particularly upset him, and was a dream to take out anywhere. Then one day he began to develop a little personality of his own. ‘What a beautiful time’ I remember thinking, ‘he will be such a gentle, kind, well-balanced little man’… and then, little by little, things changed. He didn’t speak very many words but we weren’t concerned. Then the head-banging started, and escalated to the point of causing a horrific bruise on his beautiful little forehead ending in a referral to a paediatrician. And so began our journey in managing challenging behaviour at home.
Full disclosure: I am no expert. I have no qualifications that make me an authority on the matter of child behaviour. What I am is a parent, a caregiver, who has been scared, horrified and embarrassed. A parent and caregiver who has tried to ignore undesirable behaviour, reward the positive behaviour, cried both in front of my child and alone, and screamed in sheer frustration. I am not perfect and I sure as heck have made some mistakes when trying to ‘manage’ my now 3 year old’s behaviour. I hope by sharing my own experience, my ‘trials and tribulations’, that you too may be able to find some ideas to address what is now referred to in our home as ‘the meltdown’.
Picture this: you begin your day with a cheeky little monkey jumping into your bed for a snuggle. After a little while you hop up, have brekky, and settle into the day’s routine. Everything is running like clockwork, like one of those Instagram-perfect squares, and then just like a switch was flipped your little person loses it COMPLETELY. Did you cut their sandwich into squares instead of triangles? Did you dress them in the wrong t shirt? Did they not want to get dressed at all? Is their favourite fruit of yesterday now gag-worthy? Who knows?! What I do know from personal experience is this – when faced with a toddler meltdown, here is what NOT to do:
1. Do not join their chaos – yep, easier said than done! I am sure if you have a social media account of any description you will have seen this little quote floating around, “when little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos” (L.R. Knost). Of course it helps greatly if we were calm in the first place, but once I began to experience the meltdowns first-hand I truly understood what this meant. As adults we often react in a similar or mirrored way when people exhibit chaotic behaviour. Someone honk their horn at you today in traffic? Bet you honked back. Husband a bit snippy with you after a long day? Oh now I know you had the perfect one-liner saved up to throw back there on the sly. This principle is best applied to all aspects of our lives, but particularly when interacting with our littles. They do not yet have the life experience we do. They cannot rationalise like adults (mostly) can. Their feelings are big, huge even, and in that moment it is all that matters to them. If they yell, yelling back won’t help (believe me, I’ve tested this theory). Be their source of calm, their safe zone, and you will find that they ride the wave of emotion and come out the other side much quicker than if we were to throw ourselves on the ground kicking and screaming with them.
2. Do not personalise their behaviour – now this is a tough one. “Why don’t you act like this for daddy? What did mummy do to upset you” and the real doozey “why don’t you love me?” Our need for validation from others is often a behaviour learned from childhood. Do something good? You’re heaped with praise. Displease someone? You are met with distance and silence. When our children exhibit challenging behaviour it is far easier to look for a cause or a reason than to accept that this moment in time is just something they go through as part of their emotional development. Your own personal experiences can make it very easy to personalise your child’s behaviour. Don’t. Just don’t do it to yourself. This is not you. It is not because you picked out the pink dress for your daughter today and no the purple one. Little people are not yet hard-wired to be nasty or vindictive… that comes with a fair few more years and some failed relationships under their belt! *kidding!*
3. Do not blame yourself – getting a bit preachy with all of these ‘do not’ phrases aren’t I?! This one rings especially true though. It is time to be a bit more kind to yourself… and I should also take some of my own advice. As we began to delve into the causes and management of the head-banging in our little guy we started to be pointed toward a potential Autism Spectrum Disorder diagnosis. BOOM – self-blame game… maybe his developmental delay was because I had gestational diabetes? Maybe I had too much caffeine whilst pregnant? Maybe it’s because I didn’t breastfeed? Crazy right, but you do it. None of these factors was likely to have had a distinctly detrimental impact on my son’s development. With a family history of ASD and deafness on hubby’s side and cancer up the whazoo on mine, he is pretty much bouncing around in a genetic lottery. Blaming yourself for your child’s challenging behaviour is not only unfair and incorrect, but it is also unhelpful. You can best help your littles by not looking to blame and instead looking at ways to change your response, or the environment, to better assist their emotional development… and run yourself a long hot bath while you’re there!
4. Do not get caught up in the moment – whether you are facing either a long-term issue or a meltdown in the moment, it can be really hard to move on from that once the waves have subsided. Remember when, on the 21st of February 2017 at 8:54am, your husband did the washing but hung the socks the wrong way?? Whilst it is not entirely healthy to dwell on adult ‘moments’, it is of zero benefit to hang on to that meltdown your toddler had this morning. The beauty of a child is that they are truly in the moment. That slide they went down the other morning was the coolest thing they have EVR done, EVER! Until that same afternoon when they rediscover the joy of a toy they had forgotten about, or bust a move to their new favourite song. As they move on it is important we do too. Address each challenging behaviour with a fresh approach and I can almost guarantee you will achieve far better results. This is a behaviour that you will need to practice and that you won’t always get right, but for a better connection with your littles and the ability to help calm their storms more effectively it is always going to be worth the effort.
As you begin to learn how to best manage your child’s challenging behaviour, you will come to learn that the skills you acquire are not for managing it at all. The skills you will learn are based around supporting and nurturing your child through their developmental stages. You will undoubtedly google your little heart out trying to find ‘sure fire’ solutions to helping them through these challenging times, but know this: each child is an individual, and what works for one may not necessarily work for the other… and may not work next week (why is there no manual for this parenting stuff, am I right?!). For us, we are in a trial and error phase. During complete meltdowns we have found the following things have worked at different times and different emotional peaks:
· Physical touch – hugs, back tickles (but only from dad apparently *insert eye roll here*), running our fingers through his hair. For our son, these techniques have often helped to reduce the chaos and/or bring about calm quicker than if he were to let him just lose it until he ran himself out of steam. For some children, a light touch works, for others a firmer touch. Weighted blankets are becoming more common, not too dissimilar to compression jackets for anxious dogs - yep I went there, I compared child raising to pet care… sue me.
· Music – for some little ones (and big ones too) music can have an instant calming effect. It may be a certain type of music, relaxation or meditation tunes, or a certain song that evokes a feeling or brings about a memory. In our home, hand on heart, we have Taylor Swift to thank for calming many a little man’s storm. A song I sang to my son when he was a teeny little newborn, albeit poorly because I am a horrible singer, still resonates quite strongly with him and brings his focus in to rhythmic breathing and an overall sense of calm. ‘Never grow up’ is our jam… thanks Tay Tay!
· Body position – I don’t like people I am not comfortable with all up in my grill, and by grill I mean personal space. Little people can be very much the same. When addressing challenging behaviour, one of the least effective things I have found for us is overshadowing our tall, albeit still ‘little’, child. Whilst the old hockey knees don’t particularly take too kindly to it, getting down low to his level has made a huge difference to my son’s response when he is in meltdown mode. I am no psychologist – maybe it is the feeling of being equal, maybe it is the eye contact, maybe he feels like I am actively listening to him… whatever it is I know it works. If he is not yet ready for physical contact I sit or kneel on the floor at his level just at arm’s length – far enough away that he doesn’t feel crowded, but close enough for him to reach out for instant comfort when he is ready.
If you have serious concerns concerning your child’s behaviour, like we did, it is always a good idea to make an appointment to see your GP sooner rather than later. Having a positive relationship with a doctor you can trust is an extremely useful tool in any parent’s arsenal. We are fortunate to have a doctor who leaves no stone unturned and genuinely cares for each member of our family – it is truly a godsend! Your GP can then refer you on to a paediatric specialist should it be needed. Another helpful point of call for the littler ones is your local Community Health Centre or child health nurse.
Above all else it is important to make sure you are looking after yourself at the same time, and this is one I so easily forget myself as a full-time working mum and wife. As mentioned earlier, it is important to be kind to yourself. Give yourself a break - you are not to blame for, nor are you the cause of, your child’s emotional outbursts. As parents we cannot be their calm, safe place if we are a scattered mess. Whatever self-care means for you, it is imperative you take time to fit it into your day. Maybe it is a long soak in the tub once the kids are asleep with a nice glass of wine? Or a bit of mindless window-shopping on your lunch break? Whatever it is, make it happen. I find my day starts off a little better if I am up before my son. Not always easy to achieve as he can wake anytime between 6am and 7:30am, and I am in no way a morning person, but I am working towards that goal. If you are having more stressed/anxious/bad days than good though, please seek help. In no way, shape or form are you the first person to not enjoy every single minute of parenting, and you won’t be the last. It’s tough in the trenches! Again, a trusted GP can make all the difference in this type of situation, but so can the people you surround yourself with. Open up, share a horror story or two - there is every chance that your friends, relatives and other parents you know have been there too, and are busting to feel like they’re not alone. If you feel more comfortable talking to a stranger, services such as Beyond Blue are there 24/7 to provide you with the understanding and support you need. Beyond Blue can be contacted on 1300 224 636, or via web chat (3pm to 12am) and email (response within 24hrs). For more information, check out their website. You know how the saying goes – ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’.
Do I always remember these tools? Heck no, I am human. But I give it a red-hot go most days, and when I am not so successful I get up the next day and try again. In those moments when I do remember, and it all falls into place, I feel our bond strengthen that little bit more… and I feel like a good mum again.