(After "The Pyramid" gets posted...which I hope will have a 2012 birth date...the title to this post will make more sense.)
My adorable angel, MaryAnn (17 months), started hitting...regularly.
MaryAnn is old enough to have a few cognitive hopes and dreams now (looking at books, taking baths, eating treats)...and recognize when those dreams aren’t coming true (when Mom says, "Not now, Dear"). Recognition takes more brain power than she had when she was a newborn. (Yeah for her!)
But it also means the beginning of intense emotional drama.
Recently, the youngest three took turns sitting in a black office chair while Kirsti and Diggy shared in the job of spinning, rolling, and saying, “Keep your arms inside the car at all times. Enjoy your ride.”
MaryAnn observed for several rounds and then bravely stepped forward to join in. She grinned and giggled during her first adventure. She could tell that she was imitating ‘the good times’ she’d witnessed a few minutes before. Happy chemicals (like dopamine) were flowing through her body, and her memory cells worked hard to connect “big black chair” with “happy feeling”.
But then it was time to switch riders.
Kirsti scooped MaryAnn out of the chair and declared that it was Cienna’s turn. Naturally, those happy chemicals stopped flowing and her body went into a state of alarm and protest. She arched her back and squealed as Kirsti plopped her on the couch next to Allison. Still feeling out of balance from this shocking transition, MaryAnn resorted to more physical exertion in the form of her arm whacking Allison in the face. (This made Allison bite her tongue and burst into tears.)
I was in the kitchen when the chaos reached my ears. I stopped what I was doing and went into battle.
“MaryAnn hit Allison,” reported big sister.
By now, MaryAnn had joined Allison in crying.
I looked Allison deep in the eyes and asked if she was okay. I hugged her for a moment and told her I was sorry that MaryAnn had hit her. She continued to cry, but after hearing my empathy, her body relaxed and seemed relieved. I assured her that MaryAnn’s brain is still growing...she’s using what she has right now (like motor skills), but it’s not done developing yet. I made sure Allison felt confident that I could and would help her sister learn know how to handle those hands of hers over the coming months.
Then I went to MaryAnn and picked her up. I held her close and talked softly in her ear. I think I said something about how hitting hurts people. I also told her gently that she’s growing up--she recognizes fun when she sees it. But my main message was that I could tell she was feeling out of control and I knew I could help her whenever she feels that way. She can trust that my brain will show hers how to handle these tricky situations.
The prolonged crying didn’t bother me (like it sometimes does) because I felt fully present...focused on my child’s needs instead of my own. I knew that this was an emotional cloud that would roll on soon. I knew that tears are a good sign that the body is (1) aware of its out of balance state and (2) in need of finding an effective way to release some stress hormone. Tears can do that. I actually gained energy as I thought about how my tenderness in this difficult moment would bond my children to me (including the innocent by-standers) and give me more strength to teach and lead them toward worthy goals (like not hitting) when the storm passed.
I continued to cradle MaryAnn until the crying stopped after several minutes. Then I stayed nearby for several more minutes.
I joined in “the game” to assist MaryAnn in waiting for her turn. I held her on my lap while we patiently waited. I repeated the word “turn” (Allison’s turn...Cienna’s turn...MaryAnn’s turn) lots of times because she’s been soaking in so many word-meanings lately that I knew she’d catch on.
It’ll probably take a few more weeks of practicing for her brain cells to myelinate, or in other words automatically remember that Turn = Fun Coming Soon, but she’ll eventually get it.
This wasn’t the first time she’d hit. Sometimes when I tell her “no,” her emotions get the best of her and she halls off and smacks me while I’m in the very act of consoling her because life doesn't always produce the piece of candy she knows would taste good. Hitting is one of her current ways of communicating, “I feel pretty out of control!” It releases at least some of the negative energy she's feeling. I don’t take it personally. Well actually I do...she’s willing to share her most frantic moments with me...her mother. I’m glad.
Or sometimes when she’s playing with the kids, the game gets wild and she can tell that flailing arms contributes to sibling bonding. She hits to join in with the rough-housing. They laugh. So does she.
I have memories of assuming my child would lead a life of violence if I didn’t zap the hitting-thing with at least a gentle punishment (like a consistent time-out) that would corner him/her into “choosing” more wisely next time. But now I know what’s going on in that little innocent, but ignorant and often out of control brain. I know that some simple following in my footsteps will take care of the ignorance part. And I know that a healthy prefrontal cortex will keep developing in my little one’s mind (which will assist her in taming natural impulses and balancing emotions) if I keep using mine wisely in her presence. And until then, I’m happy to shoulder the burden of her immaturity with her. It makes us both stronger.
By lending her my prefrontal cortex for a few minutes after the “Roller Coaster Chair” incident, I felt a deeper connection to her than before I’d set down my broom a few minutes earlier.
Because of it, I will actually now have an easier time teaching these important hand-slappin' neurological connections:
Smashing Pumpkins = Awesome (at least for now--we'll revisit this topic in a few years)
Fist Bump = Bonding Moment
Drum-Bashing = Future Stardom
Hitting People When Mad = Not Good