My kids are really emotional. Yeah, I know, saying kids are emotional is like saying that the sun rises in the east in the morning, but even though that’s a natural and predictable phenomenon I still contend that if the sun shot up over the horizon all neon pink and sparkly, you’d think it was worth mentioning. Also, if, while you were staring in blank amazement, it suddenly grew dark and began to weep hot lava because the sparkle and pink hadn’t come out exactly the way it planned, that would be a much better comparison to my kids.
So basically, a whole lot of my parenting life has been spent trying to come up with ways to help them control their emotions. I’m not naming names, but they each have a specialty: freaking out over things not turning out the way they planned, or freaking out over things they are worried might happen tomorrow, or freaking out over the itchiness of their shirt and the fact that their food is touching other food. It’s a lot of freaking out.
This isn’t a parenting manual, because, really. This is just me saying that after trying soothing voices and counting and reasoning through things and losing my cool and shouting with varying degrees of effectiveness, one of the things I’ve discovered really helps is distraction. When they were toddlers, a favorite toy might work, but now I have to work a lot harder. Also, when they are worked up they don’t want to be calmed down, so I have to be somewhat sneaky about it.
This is where stories come in.
I’m not talking about “Once upon a time” stories, though that can still work with the five-year-old. The older kids find that to be too much of a non-sequitur and therefore suspicious. I’m also not talking about moralistic tales. “Let me tell you about the boy who cried wolf…” They are too smart not to see that for a lesson wrapped thinly in fiction. Usually this is where I bring out stories from my own life. They only have to be tangentially related to the situation. They really don’t have to be related at all. All they have to show is that one time I felt the way they feel. But I add in lots of details and drag it out so that they are thinking about something other than their situation, and if it’s possible to make it funny along the way, I do. Then sometimes we can actually end up laughing together and all is well. Or at least they are rolling their eyes at me, which is a BIG step up from panic breathing or angry raging. I’ve actually come to appreciate the eye roll. Sometimes.
My husband is really good at this whole distraction technique, and I sort of learned from him and started to do it more naturally as they’ve gotten older. It’s actually a really comfortable way to connect to them when they are feeling vulnerable. Because I DO know how they feel, but they don’t believe me when I just tell them that. Instead, if for one minute I can help them live a little moment of my life with me (especially if it shows how I was embarrassed or how I made a mistake or how I got scared or how I am as vulnerable as they are), we’ve connected. This isn’t a substitute for listening to them. It isn’t a substitute for just hugging them. It IS a substitute for me trying to explain to them how this is just life and everything will be okay in the end because that’s not their reality right then. But I don’t have to say those words at all if I can entertain them while incidentally showing that this has happened to someone else, someone who is now sitting here calm and grown up and okay (mostly).
Recently I’ve read a lot about the science of stories, which actually shows why this works. I’ll share more about that research in a future post because brains are interesting to me, but this isn’t about research. This is about life and connection and…okay, let’s face it, it’s about survival. Because when you live with three neon pink suns, you need all the sunscreen you can get.
(Too far with that metaphor? Yeah, I thought so…)