My three-year-old, Emma, has been pretty explosive of late. You never know what you're going to get when you open her door.
Sometimes she hides under her blanket and waits for me to pretend I cannot see her, so I ask where she is.
Sometimes she calls me in and asks me to read her a book.
Sometimes she engages me in an imaginary role-play where I'm Jackie Paper and she is Puff the Magic Dragon.
Sometimes, well, she really can be a dragon, and when I open the door, she'll breathe fire at me and tell me to get out in the most convincing Poltergeist voice a three-year-old can muster.
When this happens, she is often dysregulated, having a combination of feelings and bodily sensations that she doesn't know what to do with. It gets vomited out and is as unpleasant for me as it must be for her.
One thing that gets to her is when she feels imposed upon, i.e. trying to take her out of her bed when she isn't ready, or, opening the curtains when she wants them closed.
The other day, I went into her room and got the Poltergeist. Her adorable little head was spinning in circles and smoke was shooting out of her ears.
I sat down in the rocking chair in her room and tried asking her if she wanted me to read some books.
"No...no...no!" She screamed.
Then I asked her if she wanted me to sing her some songs.
"No...no...no!" She screamed even louder.
Then I made up my own song to the tune of "Row, Row Your Boat" and started to sing:
No, no, no I don't...No, I don't like that. No, no, no, no, no, no, no...No, I don't like...that! I paused before the second 'that' and said it with some fire, mirroring the energy of her expression.
It was like the evil spirit was suddenly siphoned right of her. She started laughing and then she asked me to sing it again. I did. She asked me to sing it again. I did. Every time I reached that pause at the end, she got giddy and she started joining me.
She had a look in her eyes that felt like an amalgam of joy, being joined, feeling seen, feeling understood, and being given a stick to grab onto when you're sinking in quicksand.
It's hard in those moments not to react, or join in the hysteria, but that's not what our kids need. It's gonna happen, of course, but they need us to help them to digest all of their unprocessed and unpalatable feelings in that moment.
I'm not saying it's gonna work all the time. It won't. It's not about distracting them either. This song was about joining and recognition in a respectful and playful way. It was another form of hide and seek, of saying, "I see you".
Who doesn't want to be seen?
Who doesn't want to be able to have and express their feelings, feel understood, loved and safe even if the feelings feel toxic?
It's just as much an issue in our romantic relationships as it is with our kids.
The next time your little one becomes unhinged, try to take a step back and not react.
Try not to tell her not to cry.
Try to give her space to feel what she is feeling.
If it feels right, join her with a little creativity, like a song, or some stuffed animal puppeteering.
It's important that the tone and content mirror her experience as opposed to imitating or making fun of her.
See what happens.
After all, hide and seek just wouldn't be any fun without eventually being found.
David B. Younger, Ph.D is the creator of Love After Kids, for couples that have grown apart since having children. He is a clinical psychologist and couples therapist with a web-based private practice, and lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, 12 year-old son, 3 year-old daughter and 5 year-old toy poodle.