Saturday, October 13, 2012

Big Feelings

Every few months Gus has a week or so where he is out of sorts and easily upset.  He has multiple emotion storms (common parent-given label: temper tantrums) a day and it's exhausting for him and for me.  Each time we cycle through this he's a little older and a little more verbal.  This time around he's been able to tell me as he's crying his heart out "Mooooooommmmmy!  I'm having biiiiiiiiig feeeeeellllllings!"

There is a moment during each storm that I can clearly see; the moment between just experiencing those big feelings and feeling afraid of them.  His eyes get bigger and he looks around wildly while taking big gulping breaths.  He can feel his control slipping, knows he can't stop the crying by himself, and he frantically searches for me.  

That is my moment of truth.  Do I get angry and tell him to stop crying over nothing, or put him in time-out so he can calm himself down? 

No.

I sit down close to him, with open arms in case he needs to fall into them (he often does, but not always).  I look him in the eyes.  I stay calm and quiet and resist the very strong urge to soothe him by saying "It's ok, baby. It's ok."  Clearly it's not ok, and telling him so would invalidate those big feelings he's having.  I've tried out a few different things to say, blindly feeling my way towards what felt right.  "You are having big feelings.  I see your tears.  Are those happy tears or sad tears?" or "I'm right here with you."  

I didn't know how to tell him what I was feeling.  I want him to know that I am his safe harbor during these emotion storms, but he's too young to grasp metaphors.  Then I read this post by Leslie Freeman at Real Child Development.  And this paragraph jumped out at me:

“Even when you’re angry, and you call me stupid, it doesn't change the way I feel about you. I love you no matter what – not for what you do but for who you are. My love doesn’t change and I will stay close to you. I am a safe place for you. Your anger is not too strong for me. We can get through it to the other side and feel better together.”

We haven't hit the anger-at-mom phase yet, so I modified this to fit our needs.  When Gus is in the midst of an emotion storm I do all the things above, and I tell him "I am here with you.  You are having big feelings, but they are not too big for me.  I am not scared, I am not angry, I am not sad.  I will help you.  I love you."

These words have worked amazingly well.  Gus responds to them.  He hears me, and knows that he's in a space that is safe enough for him to have those big feelings, with his Mama who is strong enough to be with him while he dispels them.  

It's been a really powerful week.

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