Even understanding, as I do, that the expression of emotions is normal, healthy and important in the emotional intelligence development of a child, my motherly instincts still seek to offer comfort and support to my children when they are upset.
I want them to know that I am there for them, that I hear them and that I understand. More than that, I want to wrap my arms around them and hold them tight, allowing their tears to soak into my shirt. I want to be able to soothe their cries; be a source of comfort for them in their time of need. I want to stay close to them to be able to dry those tears when the emotional wave they are riding has passed.
But I am learning that when that wave strikes, timing is critical when it comes to being able to offer comfort and in some cases, when they are in the throws of emotional distress, comfort is the last thing they want or need.
Sometimes the emotions spilling over are not a direct result of the main event contributing to the outburst. Sometimes, the hurt goes deeper and further back through the day and sometimes weeks. Sometimes, the child in distress needs to ride that wave all the way into shore before achieving the full feeling of therapy that a good cry can enable.
Sometimes, the comfort we provide them is a like a life raft seeking to rescue them from the depth of their wave prematurely. Sometimes we need to remember that our children do not need to be rescued from their wave, that they are more than capable of riding it through to the end and sometimes this is exactly what they need to do to feel better and move on.
The other day, I followed my distressed 3-year-old, Penny, into her bedroom. She screamed at me to go away, swiped her 'lamby' (security blankey) angrily out of my arms before picking it up and throwing it out her bedroom door. As she then tried to squeeze herself into a small gap between her dresser and her cupboard to get as far away from me as possible, I had to remind myself that there was a valid reason for her once again rejecting my offers for comfort. It wasn't personal.
I have a good relationship with Penny. We enjoy each other's company and have a deep and close connection. In this instance she was upset because her sister had told her she would never, ever, ever be her best friend again, which I get. That's hard to hear. She hears it often as immaturity restricts my eldest from coping with her own disappointments without feeling the need to cause her sister to feel the same hurt.
In other instances, it could be that she has slammed her finger in the sliding door, or dropped a book on her toe or in some cases she could be upset because I have had to enforce a limit and she has had to do something she has not wanted to do. In the latter cases, I can fully understand why she would be angry with me and not desire my comfort, but even in the other moments, she is perfectly right to stop me comforting her.
You see, some of it is to do with her personality. She is quite introverted and likes being in her own company. Her need for personal space when playing with others is usually quite significant.
But, more than this, sometimes she simply wants to cry; she needs to cry. She does not want to risk having something make her feel better prematurely, before she has had a chance to tap into the therapeutic benefits of a good. long cry.
We are used to living with an emotional child. Penny's older sister, Lucy, wears her heart openly on her sleeve. She expresses her emotions clearly, fully and without reserve. There is rarely a question over what is ailing her as there is normally very little delay between when she first feels the emotion and when she has let it out for the world to hear.
Her emotional waves are steep, peaking much like a shallow ocean wave does before dumping down onto the sand below. Lucy usually seeks out comfort from her waves. They scare her and she likes to feel safe and secure whilst she is on the ride. Once the wave has crashed, however, she is over it and you could be forgiven for thinking you had imagined the whole thing, such is the change in her demeanor.
But, while Lucy's emotions come out regularly throughout the day in short, sharp bursts, Penny often sails through the day on much calmer waters. There are small peaks and troughs, but most of these cruise by her without incident. It is not that she does not experience emotion at these times, she just keeps it in check, preferring to store it inside rather than release it as her sister so confidently does.
It is therefore important to Penny that when she finally does get a chance to release those emotions, she is free to do so fully. She has to make the most of these moments. When she hits her emotional wave, it swells bold and wide like the swollen waves you might find in the deep water on rough seas. There is no real peak to speak of and no inevitable crash.
Often, when the end of her wave is nearing, Penny will stop crying out momentarily, distracted by her surroundings, which are now taking over her once clouded vision. She will then desperately try to claw her way back onto her wave, forcing out more cries, loathe to let it end too soon.
The difference between the emotional expression of my two daughters is extreme. While one is happy to release her feelings regularly and seeks comfort, liking to be held while she works through them, the other feels the emotions but keeps them inside. She then waits for an opportunity later to let them out all at once.
She does not want comfort at this time, lest it cheer her up before she has a chance to rid herself of them all. I just need to stay close by and let her know she is understood, but respect her need to cry and accept that her rejection of my comfort is healthy and important for her own emotional healing.
When I know her wave is long gone (normally because she has started to engage in play), I will go to her and offer her my arms. They will always be there for her when she is ready for them. It's all about the timing.
You might also enjoy reading:
Coping With a Toddler's Emotional Outbursts ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
When Extreme Emotions Take Over a Toddler ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
Supporting an Emotional Child: A Step by Step Guide for Parents ~ Kate Russell (Peaceful Parents, Confident Kids)
Braving the Silence (The Secret to Nurturing Emotional Resilience) ~ Janet Lansbury (Janet Lansbury - Elevating Childcare)