"Fine. If you're going to pee your pants again, then you can't sit on the couch anymore tonight."
I said those words to my 4-year-old daughter last night. She's been potty trained for over a year now, but it's been a bumpy road. Things had been going really well for a few months, and then the accidents started again just over a week ago. I'd been doing my best to stay patient, but it all fell apart yesterday. Thanks to a bout of insomnia, I was functioning on two hours of sleep. And by functioning, I mean not at all. Quite frankly, I was a mess.
My little girl cried; the couch is her preferred spot in our living room. I was conflicted. I felt terrible about how upset my daughter was, but I was at the end of my rope and I felt like I needed to make a point. I needed my daughter to understand that there are consequences to her actions.
She looked at me through her tears and said, "I wish you wouldn't get angry at me, Mommy."
It took everything I had not to burst into tears myself, as I knew that would upset my daughter even more. I also knew I had done the wrong thing, but I wasn't sure how to fix it.
I decided we all needed a bit of a break and I needed some advice, so I let the girls watch a TV show while I did some research online. As I read through the various parenting websites and mindful parenting blogs, I was reminded that change happens through connection. When my relationship with my daughter is suffering, when she feels unsafe emotionally, and when she can't come to me for help, she gets stuck. She feels scared, sad, defensive, and worried.
None of us can change our behavior when we feel that way.
My daughter is dealing with a lot of changes right now. Her baby sister is potty-training, which is shaking up the family dynamic. Pre-school is ending for the year, and my daughter is saying good-bye to a teacher she adores and a number of her best friends who are going away to kindergarten next year. I had been thinking about all of this in the context of her accidents, and I knew there was a connection, but to be honest, I didn't take it too seriously. I made the problematic choice of focusing on her behaviors rather than what she was trying to communicate to me with them.
She's been trying to tell me that she's struggling, that she's scared by the all of the changes that are happening, and that she needs more from me.
As the child of multiple divorces, many new schools, and dozens of moves over the years, I've lived a lifetime of beginnings and endings. They're hardly a blip on my radar anymore. My daughter is four. This is the only preschool she's ever been to, and this is only her second year there. She's been with the same teachers and same friends for nine months. She has no idea what's coming next. These transitions are earth-moving for her. My daughter needs to be reassured that I will keep her safe through whatever comes next.
That's what the peeing is about. I knew it all along, but I didn't really get it.
This morning as I was driving my little girl to her last day of preschool, she complained that her stomach hurt. I asked her if she was hungry or had to go to the bathroom (after all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar). She said no. Then I told her that sometimes when my tummy hurts, it's because I'm worried about something.
"Mommy, I'm going to miss Meghan so much. She's my favorite teacher ever. I really love her."
Finally we were getting somewhere.
We talked about how sad it is when we have to say good-bye to someone we love. Then we made a plan to take a picture of the two of them together and put it up on the wall in my daughter's room so she could look at it whenever she wants. She liked that idea.
She didn't have a single accident today.
I don't expect that the accidents are done for good, but we're heading in the right direction. It's tempting to treat annoying behaviors as problems that need to be solved. When we do that, we risk missing a chance to strengthen our connection with our children. More often than not, they are trying to tell us something. They need us to look beyond the accidents or tantrums or whatever else is going on and draw them close. They need us to speak the words for the experiences and feelings they can't yet verbalize. They need us to remind them that we are still here when everything else is changing, that we love them no matter what they do, that we will keep them safe when the world seems scary, and that we will understand how hard it can be to say good-bye to a favorite preschool teacher.
The last day of pre-school.
This post first appeared on PsychCentral's Mindful Parenting blog.