Pulling In vs. Pushing Away
Owen is in the midst of a particularly difficult period. The mitten-based tantrums are one part, but he’s also been struggling to express his frustration in other situations. At school this shows up in uncharacteristically aggressive reactions to friends taking a toy from him, or teary meltdowns over things that didn’t use to bother him at all, like any answer to the question, “What are you makin’ for dinner?”. Being around him is a bit like walking a minefield. You never know when you’re going to step on a bomb.
He didn’t used to be like this. It feels like it’s not really “him”, but I can’t get him to snap out of it.
There are a lot of potential reasons why this behavior might be flaring up right now.
1. He’s 3 1/2. I remember reading somewhere that the “half-years” are often far more challenging than the time surrounding actual birthdays due to developmental leaps and struggles. I remember a chart of a spiral of child development that showed common behaviors for each year/half-year and the year behaviors were often “mastered” and the half-years were “developing”. And, on top of that, there’s the omnipresent dichotomy between being a baby and being a big kid — needing your parents while simultaneously wanting to do everything for yourself. Which is stressful for a kid. So there’s that. And to be honest, maybe I could just stop there. Because 3 1/2 is hard, no matter how you slice it.
2. Emmett. I know he’s been around for 5 1/2 months, but now he’s getting bigger, and cuter, and he’s beginning to do things that Owen does too (like eat food), which might make him seem more like a “threat” to Owen. I almost hesitate to add him to this list because Owen has never, not once, showed any frustration or anger or ill will towards him. He is the sweetest, kindest, gentlest big brother. Even more than I ever thought possible. His bad attitude has never been directed at Emmett. Still, I understand that realizing he is not the center of attention in our family all the time is a long and arduous process for Owen.
3. Increasing/high expectations. Owen recently night potty-training himself. His night pull-up had been dry for 5+ months, but I wasn’t going to pull the plug on the pull-ups just yet, as I’ve read that kids (boys especially) aren’t generally physically ready for night training until 5 or even later. I didn’t want to stress him out. As with the rest of our potty training journey, though, Owen was insistent, and once he decided he wanted to be dry all night, he was. So once we finished up the pull-ups we had in our house, we supported his decision to sleep in underwear. Boom. Done. In the mornings when his magic clock turns green, Owen LOVES getting up by himself, going pee, getting dressed for the day and coming in to our room. It’s glorious, and the best part is that he is so proud of himself. The kid can write letters and wipe his own nose and put his dishes in the sink and work the CD player on his own. He is so capable and eager that we just keep teaching and he just keeps learning. Accepting responsibility. Asking for it. But then sometimes he wants to go backwards. And NOT do all of those things. And it’s confusing for us, and sometimes we push him. “You’ve done it before”, “You know how”, “You’re a big boy”.
4. Illness. Acting out on the outside when he’s feeling bad on the inside has always been a common thread for Owen. It’s generally in retrospect that I can identify that an ear infection was to blame for his whiny tantrum or a brewing virus was behind a hitting rampage. Right before Christmas Owen had a nasty respiratory bug that coincided with the stomach bug. Then he seemed to get better. Then a few days later his fever resurfaced. He complained of stomach pains and a headache. I told myself I would take him to the doctor in the morning, but in the morning his temp was normal and he said he felt fine again. Then over the weekend his temp spiked again, all the way up to 102 even after a dose of Ibuprofen. Doc said if it was still high the next morning to come in. Next morning it was back to normal and he said he felt better. Since then no fever, but he’s still acting under the weather and complaining of his stomach. I know illness can’t account for bad behavior for months upon months, but it’s possible that there’s something going on health-wise that I just haven’t identified yet.
And then of course there’s always the theory that bad behavior is a cry for attention. For love. And that’s probably also the case.
Given that it has felt like these behaviors were getting worse recently, Benjamin and I scheduled a meeting with his teacher and the psychologist on staff at his school. She routinely visits the classrooms and knows the kids and I wanted to get her opinion (reassurance?) on if his behavior was normal or if she thought there was something bigger going on. The bottom line is that both his teacher and the psychologist feel that his behavior is well within the range of normal (which we were relieved to hear). He’s 3. It’s hard being 3.
They both offered solutions for dealing with his behavior, many that I had heard before and that we already use on a daily basis (offer choices, give him power when possible, praise good behavior and don’t give attention to bad behavior, help him verbalize his feelings, etc.). The psychologist also talked a bit about hugging it out, or pulling him in rather than pushing him away when he’s acting out.
It feels uncomfortable to say out loud, but that’s not my knee jerk reaction when my kid is acting like a wild animal. My usual response to that behavior is “I can’t hear you when you talk like that” or “I don’t want to listen to you cry. If you need to cry, go do it in the other room” or “Come back and talk to me when you’ve pulled yourself together”. It’s not necessarily pushing him away, but it’s a general avoidance of his emotional outbursts. To be honest, it’s treating him like an adult who has the capability to pull themselves together without help. Which a 3 year old doesn’t necessarily have. And, while we’re being honest… it’s not really helping. While shutting down and closing the door to him might feel like the right thing to do to me (“I’m teaching him a lesson!”), it might not be what he needs to get through it.
The psychologist made a very strong case for the fact that, during these outbursts, Owen probably wants them to stop as much as I do. He wants to pull himself together. He wants to stop crying. He’s not manipulating me; he’s sad. And he needs help. And when she said it like that… well, then I just felt like a jerk.
So we’ve been trying this tactic recently. Instead of walking away from his tantrum, I take a deep breath and hug him. I just hug. Eventually I talk softly and try to put words to what he’s feeling, but it starts with a hug. (Benjamin is way better at this than I am, but I’m working on it). It’s not all rainbows and unicorns — sometimes Owen REALLY doesn’t want to be hugged. Sometimes it backfires. Sometimes, even when it helps, I feel like I’ve giving attention to bad behavior and it will turn him into a spoiled brat.
So I’m still figuring things out, like when and how to use this. And I’m still learning how to reconcile bringing him in vs. pushing him away. And to make it my instinct rather than something that’s difficult for me to do. But it certainly feels nice to have something in my parenting toolbox other than ignoring my kid until he can get his emotions under control.