Our oldest daughter Livia whose about to turn five was the world’s most easy-going infant and toddler. When she was our only child, we thought, doh parenting is so easy, we should have more kids!
So naive. Because we were given triplets hashtag karmaisabitch.
Triplets upended our lives and made us feel like losers at parenting. Everything was DIFFICULT. The infancy stage was physically exhausting but the toddler stage was both physically exhausting and emotionally draining. They turned out to be the world’s most sensitive toddlers. For a while I even wondered if they had sensory disorders. They cried all the time, they hated outsiders, they didn’t like sand, they didn’t like grass, they felt discomfort all the time, they fought for our attention, they squabbled over toys, they became extremely needy and expressed themselves only through whining. Obviously this was on top of other typical challenges with multiples and having four kids under the age of three.
The period from birth to 24 months old was also one of the lowest times of my life. I was experiencing prolonged denial about having triplets. I felt tired by my day-to-day existence. I was capable enough to manage everything by myself but psychologically I was truly beat. Resentment was slowly building and I was explosive at times to my children and husband.
During one of my emotional outpourings, my friend who sees a therapist regularly shared that her therapist recommended her this parenting book, How to talk so kids will listen, how to listen so kids will talk. So in my desperation, I read it. Three times. I also asked my peers what I was doing so wrong that my children were just so darn difficult. One FB friend’s remark was illuminating. She said, you need to accept them for who they are and stop wishing for a better time. That struck me real hard. I was spending all this time waiting for the nightmare to end on its own.
Things happened in an uneven way the past couple of years so I can’t give a timeline on how to help children recover from continuous meltdowns and tantrums, and sibling rivalries. What I can give however are some pointers – tips I collected from more seasoned parents and articles and books I have read that guided my re-engagement to my children. The reason I am calling it a ‘re-engagement’ is because for the longest time I was truly disengaged. Kid cried and I flipped out. Kid cried again and I flipped out even harder. I was truly detached as I was more focused on myself so tip numero uno:
1. Fix your feelings, discover your triggers and create a more winning environment for yourself.
We all have our specific hang-ups. They probably go all the way back from our own upbringing. Whatever it is, the first step to being an engaged parent is to understand and control your specific hang-ups. I don’t mean things like yelling a lot and having OCD to messy play. I mean truly deep and honest stuff about yourself that you have suppressed for very long. For me it was an acceptance that for as long as I did not have extra help, I wasn’t going to be able to parent to my maximum ability. Something had to give. At that point I was sleeping very little every night because of my dissertation and that loss of sleep was contributing to my inability to be focused on the kids in the day-time. Naturally, being very tired, I snapped at the children all the time.
Sometime earlier this year I decided enough was enough. I wrote to my advisor and told him that I would be withdrawing from my PhD. Obviously he discouraged it. He told me to give it another year. I said to him, I gave it five years and its just not working. In an ideal world where I had an infinite amount of resources and time, sure I would have given it ten years but in reality, I was a lonesome stay-at-home parent of four small children in a single-income household. The night I resigned from my PhD was the best sleep I had in years. I spent two weeks feeling regret and sadness because this was a heart-breaking decision to make, but after those feelings passed, I felt renewed and hopeful for the first time in the longest time. The depression I was fighting lifted just like that. I had other issues obviously, but this issue was the primary one where all other problems attached themselves.
If you are pregnant with a small child, or if you are undergoing other life stresses like unemployment, a death in the family, or financial problems, you can’t parent effectively. You are going to be disengaged because a normal person can only take so much stress. Understanding this is the first step. The next step is to seek help for your specific issue. If you can’t handle being pregnant and having a toddler to care for – get outside help or send your kid to full-time daycare. If its other more complex issues with regard to matters of the heart, get counselling. It really depends what the problem is in the first place. It takes courage to get help and make positive changes. And for whatever reason you can’t find or afford help, then be kind to yourself: put the crying kid down and let them cry themselves tired, postpone chores for another day and climb into bed and sleep, or turn on the TV if that helps the children stop swarming around you for a minute.
2. Stop panicking when children have tantrums or meltdowns.
When you are engaged and see a child behaving poorly, whether it is with regard to hitting their sibling, doing something they shouldn’t be doing, or rolling on the floor crying because they didn’t get what they want, you are less likely to get suckered into their drama. We tend to snap a lot easier when we are are not at a good place ourselves: like if we haven’t gotten enough sleep, or we skipped a meal and feeling hangry. So I cannot stress enough how important it is to be aware of your own triggers. I mean when four children are all angry and crying at the same time, you can really snap quite easily. I had to learn some fou fou breathing techniques to calm myself, or I tell my husband to take over while I wait for my blood pressure to lower itself. Other times I will go to the kitchen, take a swig of Coke Light to give me a hit of dopamine and then head to the kids to help them settle their problems. Figure out what calming techniques work for you and use them when you are confronted with insurmountable stress.
Poor behaviour, more often that not, are cries for help. While our instinct when we hear crying is to put a stop to it immediately, we actually shouldn’t. We should allow the child to emotionally regulate and this is often harder on the parent than the child because the latter cannot bear to see their child feeling pain and suffering. The thing is we are actually postponing their ability to cope with difficult feelings when we force them to stop crying.
So you have two or four children crying for different reasons and you want to help them, what do you do? First and always, find a way to emotionally connect. Its a little tricky when its more than one child so what I tend to do is ask my four kids if anybody needs or wants a hug from me. We do quite a bit of mass hugging and mass sitting on my lap while they cry themselves silly on my body. Sometimes I even lie down flat and everybody finds a spot on my body to hug – a leg, an arm, my shoulders etc. What if you are outdoors: then don’t be ashamed to just plop yourself on the floor, or find a quiet corner where you can allow the children to cry more privately.
When everyone is more or less calmed down, don’t ask what and why. Even if you don’t know what made them cry, you can still help them to label their feelings and acknowledge that they are going through a hard time:
I see you are feeling angry/frustrated/upset.
Your sister took your toy so you hit her because you felt angry.
You are disappointed mummy did not let you ride the toy car.
Admittedly, I wasn’t very good at labelling feelings at first but I got a hang of it eventually. You just have to come from a place of empathy and the words tend to naturally flow. So every time the child cries or acts out, they know they can trust you to help them navigate their difficult emotions. With enough practice, they will soon learn how to cope with bad feelings without needing your help and in fact, use the same ideas and techniques to help their siblings too.
3. No time-outs, punishments or threats
Which brings me to another accompanying point – why we don’t employ time-outs, punishments or threats. Simply because we want our children to always feel secure with us. A lot of parents shared with me that if their child misbehaves, they might slap the kid on their hands or butts so that they can feel the consequence of their actions through feeling pain. Some parents also immediately cuddle and explain to their children why they were slapped so that the child understands. The thing is I have done this before myself and it has never been effective in all my five years of parenting: the kid does feel pain but they never understand why and thus, misbehaves very quickly again and what you end up doing is hitting harder and it just spirals downwards from there. The worst part was, I felt horrible and even more drained out after hitting a child.
Children are learning, absorbing and taking cues from us. When we send them to time-out, punish or threaten, we are effectively saying, I don’t want to be with you when you are behaving badly. The opposite is actually more true: that is the time they need us the most. One friend asked me a very good question: so when is it then ever their fault? To what extent do we spare the rod and let them do anything they want. The thing is we don’t need to set limits and boundaries on behaviour by resorting to punishment and harsh discipline. At the end of the day, our intention is to teach them: to learn to take turns and share their toys, not to wail when they don’t get what they want, to brush their teeth before bed-time etc. Punishing, threatening and time-outs are not effective ways to teach a child their limits and boundaries. There are numerous ways to help a child learn their limits without causing them more pain, humiliation and shame, and the list is too exhaustive for me to write out here so you can either read the books I appended below this blog post, or check out these links: Connect and redirect, 10 ways to guide children without punishment, how to raise a moral and responsible child – without punishment, and parenting without punishment.
4. Fill their happy tank
As one of my FB friends, a seasoned mother of three, Vina likes to point out on how to get cooperative children. I remembered I was often labelling the triplets as difficult, sensitive, shy, and when they were behaving poorly, I chalked it up one moment in a long series of just being difficult children. The problem I was not seeing was my children needs are not fully met – sure they get food, shelter, sleep and lots of outdoor play but they were not getting enough of my attention. Naturally I was tired all the time and kept pushing them away.
After I resigned from my PhD, I stopped pushing my kids away. From morning to night, I attended to their every emotional whim: oh you are crying because a pillow dropped on the floor, let me help you get it; oh you are complaining because your sister said she didn’t want to friend you – there, there, tell me all about how you feel and let me hug you; oh you want to eat noodles not rice, well let’s talk about it. Of course this was exhausting but it paid off immensely. They felt they could go to me when they had problems so they felt more secure in our relationship and stopped being so difficult and became more cooperative.
Children thrive on routine and consistency. When something in their world destabilises, it literally falls apart and they will act out. Many parents reported that their children started biting others or sucking their thumbs when a new sibling arrives, or their once sweet angels became monsters every morning when there was a change in teachers at their childcare. We cannot fix all our children problems and in fact, we shouldn’t but we can be understanding, empathetic and give them a secure environment for them to fail and make mistakes. For our family, when one or more of our kids was experiencing hardship, we devote more time and attention to her: make her feel heard, understood, instead of invisible and invalidated. Once their happy tanks are filled, they typically return to their normal selves.
I could go on and on about this subject, but more or less these are my key points in helping me turn around our desperate situation. I want to thank all the patient FB and friends IRL who listened to me attentively, let me discuss things openly and honestly, and gave me much-needed advice. Below are resources for further reading if you want to get out of your own desperate situation with your children: