I have a memory of sitting on the floor with my 4 year-old-son. He was completely losing it because I had turned off the television after our agreed-upon time.
He was hysterical.
I wasn’t far behind.
I was trying to figure out what to do when he was so upset. So far, nothing had really worked.
I had read a book called Holding Time where the author instructed parents to hold the upset child tightly until they calmed down.
It felt awful.
It was only slightly better than putting him in his room and trying to hold his door shut so he would “calm down.”
In case you’re wondering, he didn’t calm down in a room by himself. We both just ended up more hysterical.
So there I was, on the floor of the living room, by myself, with my son who was hysterical, trying to do what I had read about in a book.
It sort of worked. He did eventually calm down.
And he was with me instead of separated from me, so that was an improvement.
But I came out of it with bruises, sore muscles, and thinking that there simply must be a better way.
I can look back on that time now and see so many things. That whole hindsight thing is great later, but it wasn’t so helpful in the moment my son was so upset.
I can see now that he was dysregulated.
I know that within his body and nervous system, he was overstimulated from watching television. I knew then that he had a hard time with the transition, but I didn’t really understand that it was a full body issue. I thought he was just being difficult and just trying to get his way. I can see now that it was much more than that.
I can also see that he needed a lot of support to learn to calm his body and nervous system. I didn’t know how to do that, then. I didn’t know how to calm my own system then, either. So in those moments, we were both flailing in so many ways.
He needed me.
He needed me to be with him in his upset moments. He didn’t need me to judge. He didn’t need to be punished. He didn’t need me to turn the television back on. He needed me to see that he was having a hard time, and to be with him until he wasn’t anymore. He needed me to set more limits with him about the television so he wouldn’t end up in this really upset place.
But the other thing I didn’t see at the time was that he was expressing all his feelings about everything that had been happening, things that had nothing to do with the television. In reality, the end of tv time was the limit that allowed his release of feelings.
We’d moved across the country.
We didn’t really know anyone.
Our routine and all the people we used to spend our time with weren’t there anymore.
His newborn brother had died at birth a few months before, which meant that I wasn’t as present, either. He had an experience of the loss that I didn’t know how to support.
There was so much going on for this little guy.
And the parenting manual that came with him at birth didn’t mention anything about how to handle these things with him. Just kidding. There was no manual.
The bigger issue was that I had no idea how to help him with his feelings.
Eventually I learned how to be with him and his feelings. We learned to co-regulate. We learned to calm down together. Eventually he learned to regulate himself, and he learned when he needed more support.
And we didn’t do it by putting him in a room by himself, putting him in time out, punishing him, or adding to his upset in some way.
It also didn’t mean that he got to do whatever he wanted and that there were no boundaries.
Together, we learned how to make room for the feelings and actually support him through them. The result was that he spent less and less time upset and was able to move through it more and more quickly.
He still gets upset sometimes.
So do I.
But we’re able to maintain our connection, or at least repair our connection when it happens now. We’ve learned how to navigate the storms of life together.
Is it always great? No. Sometimes life throws us curveballs and we have lots of feelings about that.
But we’re working through it together.
That’s what I wanted all those years ago. When he was older, I wanted him to be able to come to me for support, to not feel alone when something big is happening in his world. I want him to be able to express his feelings in ways that don’t hurt himself or anyone else. I want him to be able to cry when he needs to cry.
Because he’s human, and humans need other humans when they’re upset. Humans who have other humans to connect with are able to be empathic. They’re able to understand how someone else might be feeling and connect with them once the upset is over, because someone did it for them.