It is rarely the big issues in parenting that challenge me. I am a girl who likes to plan ahead, to prepare myself and the children and to have what I need in place. I do this because the big-stuff tends to be the predictable stuff. It seems to be the small or unpreditable events and happenings that become the bigger issues. In fact the big issue in my house at the moment is quite literally the smalls: knickers, to be precise!
Each night I lay out clothes for my two daughters. At the alotted time on the next morning, we head up to their room where my six year old dresses herself and my four year old gets dressed with my help. Five minutes and we’re done. Then coats, shoes, bookbags, lunchboxes all piled on in the best Buckaroo fashion and we’re ready to leave the house.
This was until the polava of the pants took hold. Suddenly for my four year old, knickers have become the comfort equivalent of a hair-shirt. The moment they are on her the upset begins. She cries that they don’t fit, that they are uncomfortable, that I have bought her silly knickers and that they are either too tight, too loose, too big, or too small. She does fall between sizes at the moment, being a little too big for age 3-4yrs and a little too small for age 4-5 years. But it isn’t fit that is the problem. And it isn’t just knickers actually! Her tights are also “Not right enough,” her pinafore is “stupid” and her collar and cuffs are folded “all wrong.”
Yesterday morning, as she finished breakfast she told me she was sad, that she knew she was going to shout at me whilst she got dressed and she didn’t want to.
I have realised that I am not witnessing naughty behaviour or defiance from her. Her emotional distress is genuine and the sensation of physical discomfort is quite real. Like most four year olds she also wants everything to be exactly the same as she has experienced it before and if her clothes feel different in some way, such as her cuffs are folded slightly differently today than yesterday, then all she can sense is her detailed experience of discomfort.
Being a mum of only human proportions it has taken me a few days to get to this understanding and empathetic stance on M’s plight! At first I was just cross with her because there are deadlines on a weekday morning. T has to be at school, I have to be at work and society demands that we be dressed in order to leave the house.
Two pieces of information arose this week that helped me to plan and manage the issue. Because once a pattern is set-up, and the small issue has become a bigger, predictable pattern of behaviour, then I can reflect on the problem and my response to it, and find a better way to deal with it. There is generally a better result than the initial shouting, conflict and frustration strategies that come most easily!
The first thing that helped was a coffee-morning with the mums from T’s class. I mentioned the knicker-issue and found that two of them had experience of pants-pandemonium too! The first has a 10 year old daughter and packets and packets of new knickers that her daughter has deemed to be ‘wrong’ in some way and refused to wear. The other has an 8 year old who is only ever comfortable in the knickers that she wore yesterday, and getting dressed becomes a battle most days. These similar experiences also made me reflect on my own knicker-comfort (OMG, I’m talking about my knickers). For years I bought the same style of knickers from M&S. When their lifespan was up, I’d just chuck the lot and replace them with a new but identical set. And then M&S stopped selling them. I tried other types and they were ‘wrong,’ ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘Just not right enough!’ It took about 2 years to find a replacement knicker, and I had to leave the cosy and familiar world of the M&S lingerie department to find them.
To add to my empathy with M, I happened upon a resource whilst I was searching for some new parenting-blogs and materials. I was already in a place of noting that the pattern of behaviour seemed to be firmly in place and knowing that I now needed to do something different in my response. If I kept my response the same, M’s behaviour pattern would remain the same and we’d be in a spiral of conflict. At times when I need to reflect, I pick a book from my shelves at random, read a paragraph or chapter and it stimulates my brain with new ideas and I find a different way. This time, I read the following:
Try this out the next time your child does something that upsets you…
1. First empathize with your child and practice ―non-reaction.
2. Then ask them what they‘re doing.
3. Once they tell you what they are up to, try to understand what they are doing from their point of view.
It then went on to talk about asking what your child’s needs are in these moments, and that sometimes it is necessary to tell them your competing need . So the next morning, as M’s wailing began, I did this, but I also told her that on this occasion, my need to have us all dressed and ready to leave had to have priority. What I gained from the perspective of seeing the situation through the filter of what we both needed was very powerful for me. I could remain calm whilst I told her this and still be loving and kind, but not drawn in to the detail and the drama.
I also saw that her complete focus on the sensory detail of her discomfort was keeping her trapped there. So I offered her the bigger picture with my words. I told her that I understood that she was very uncomfortable and that her clothes felt wrong, and then reminded her that once she has her shoes and coat on she is feeling fine in the clothes currently giving such discomfort. I gently repeated that she’d feel fine when she was fully dressed, and downstairs ready to go and one arm and leg at a time into each garment kept up a running commentary on the bigger picture and the comfort to be found at the end of this distressing activity of being dressed.
As we left for school, I was calm and relaxed and she was chatty and much less tear-stained than on recent mornings. I retained my cool and my empathy and she received understanding and a firm message that her needs couldn’t come first in this situation.