Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Bumbo Battle: How a Tantrum Enhanced my Day of Peace and Rest

It was Sunday morning--the day of peace and rest I very much look forward to every week. No deep-cleaning, no school work, no shopping, no scheduled activities (besides worship services), and no technological entertainment to weigh us down or distract us from the pure clarity that awaits to fill us up and prepare us for a new week of busyness. If my mind is still enough to take it in, Sunday is the most refreshing and rewarding day of my week.

I find that my extra hard prep on Saturdays is well-worth the likelihood of feeling that life-giving peace on Sundays.

But some aspects of peace are out of my control.

As I fumbled with cereal bowls and spoons a few Sunday mornings ago, 4-year-old Cienna and nearly 2-year-old MaryAnn dashed to the table and erupted into an explosive establishment of who deserved to be heir of the Bumbo throne that sat on one of our wooden chairs. High-pitched shrills filled the kitchen for more than a few seconds...I felt my prospects of peace rapidly slipping from my fingertips. I sensed my own alarm systems (ie blood pressure) alerting me that chaos was definitely destroying my Day of Rest.

Brent was long gone at early morning meetings before the troops awoke because he is one of the local leaders of our congregation. So...any craziness associated with getting myself and 6 kids "peacefully" out the door for 11 am church rests on my shoulders. After years of experience (and lots of high blood pressure incidences), I expect at least half of us to have a major tear-jerking "issue" before departure.

Might as well get started right after we wake up, I guess.

My stomach used to churn during tantrum moments with my children. I've tried all sorts of tricks, logic, and consequences recommended by oodles of parenting books out there. I cringe thinking about those years. Now I (almost) rejoice when a tantrum erupts...because I'm learning to use those crazy moments to wire my brain into becoming the person I believe God intends for me to be (with His help of course).

Though far from perfect, my body jumps into action with a peacemaking process:

Knowing that my young girls' natural defense systems had been highly activated in order to selfishly (but innocently) dominate each other in The Bumbo Battle, my biggest goal quickly became an attempt to absorb their immature energy that was clearly bouncing back and forth between them so I could use my adult-sized prefrontal cortex (PFC--the brain area responsible for compassion, empathy, and emotional regulation) to change their negative energy that my body had accurately detected into positive energy again. (yikes...that was a mouthful!)

Although a few other parts of my brain offered me immediate tension-relieving solutions like slamming the cereal bowls down or out-yelling my kiddos or calmly announcing that they had just earned an extra chore or sending them back to bed until they could control their own behavior or crawling back into bed myself, I resisted the temptation to manage their negative behavior by grabbing a stick or throwing out a carrot...just so I could feel a little short-term control over the situation. While their screeches were truly ear-shattering and peace-destroying, I knew a 'time-out' for their wild and rude behavior was out of the question...it would only put the burden of changing from war to peace on their young shoulders before they have the brain capacity to do something other than strengthen their personal self-defensive walls with it.

I should explain a little further...

Let's pretend my child's immaturity (or full-blown tantrum in this case) is a ball of negative energy flying right at my face as I stand at one end of a ping pong table. My natural and normal instinct is to protect myself from it. However, a defensive or offensive or absent response on my part doesn't eliminate any negative energy in the room (energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or changed). If I use a reactive response (including an isolating time-out), it may protect me from the negative energy for a moment, but it also deflects the negativeness that we are all trying to cope with back onto my child's side of the net for his/her underdeveloped brain to process again immediately (with more fear or anger or wildness, etc.) or hold onto as a not-so-pleasant-memory-that-will-some-day-need-to-be-unleashed-in-a-not-so-pleasant-way-in-the-future (using "stored" fear or anger or wildness, etc). What we really all need is for someone to grab that negative ball of energy and change it into something positive, which (I think) is the job of a mature PFC...and then hit it back.

In other words, a child who is dealing with stress or immaturity (like a big-ol' tantrum) needs the presence of a peaceful person in whom complete trust resides standing at the other end of the table. Otherwise the negative behavioral energy stays negative...and someone will have to deal with it again. If I want true change to occur in my household, I've got to be the mature one that not only notices negative energy flying around, but is also willing to grab it and sit with it long enough to transform it into positive energy before releasing it back out into the room.

Just thinking about this process makes me breathe a big sigh of relief.

Now back to what happened next in The Bumbo Battle...

<photo taken a few days after the dust settled>

After about 30 seconds of attentive listening to their unsuccessful pleas for space in the Bumbo chair, I gently asked Cienna to give up her ground and move to the blue and yellow booster chair and let MaryAnn sit in the fluffy pink chair this time. Cienna did as I said, but feeling defeated, tears streamed down her face. Keeping the front of my brain as engaged as I could, I knelt down to Cienna so our eyes could meet. She angrily dashed her eyes away from mine as I said something like, "When two people want the same thing, we have to take turns. Thank you for helping Mommy do that. If MaryAnn hurt your feelings with her screaming, I'm really sorry. It's hard to work through these tough challenges. We'll keep trying."

I offered a hand of comfort and Cienna refused it. I didn't 'react' to the frustration that she threw at me...instead I sat at her level for a moment longer and focused my mind on absorbing as much of her sadness as I could without judging her or her actions as bad or good. I felt grateful for the chance to stand as a symbol of peace and transformation. When her eyes finally met mine, I smiled softly and stood up to begin pouring cereal and milk into her bowl. I'd returned the energy she'd flung at me. I'd saved it just for her. Only now it would feel so different to her...much warmer and more peaceful. I sensed relief in her soul. She went on to eat her cereal.

MaryAnn on the other hand is brand new to this whole transforming immature energy thing. As a nearly 2-year-old, she has enough brain development to recognize negative energy (self-centered intents like the Bumbo take-over threat coming from older sister)...rightfully despise it...and ruthlessly defend herself from it (usually in the form of a counter-attack or a major meltdown). This is an important part of child development and I applaud her for making progress in life. But I also look forward to the day when she will be able to couple this key emotional awareness with the prefrontal cortex wisdom of choosing how to respond to it peacefully. For now it looks pretty ugly.

Even though she was triumphant, MaryAnn's body was feeling so out-of balance from her battle with Cienna that she still screamed at the top of her lung's capacity...a natural attempt to re-establish a more tolerable chemical balance. When I turned my attention to her, she screamed louder and flailed her arms and legs (which is kind of hard to do in a Bumbo chair, but she managed). I'm glad she felt safe showing her mother just how mad she was. With her back arched and her feet kicking, her eyes searched my body language for answers about what to do with all these wild and scary emotions.

I showed her what to do by being at peace. I felt my soul open up and reach for her struggles and hold them close to me until we could examine them together in the future...at a much later time when her brain was calm again and ready to comprehend more.

Because she was in the mood to reject my comforting gaze and hands, I respected her wishes and let her wiggle and scream while I bustled around the kitchen. Though I was attending to other children, I kept the experience MaryAnn was having at the forefront of my awareness and continued to soak in her anxiety as she exerted it out into the room. I accepted her unruly behavior as part of who she is right now in life and simultaneously envisioned the mature woman she'll become when her body (and especially her brain) is more complete. My eyes glanced lovingly in her direction many times and I watched for an opportunity to re-connect with her, but that didn't happen before I heard cries for help in the bathroom upstairs--Allison needed the temperature adjusted on the water that was spurting from the tub faucet. Her shrieks showed me that some of MaryAnn's chaos had likely wafted upstairs for Allison to absorb as well.

That's okay. We'll eventually get it all processed.

I motioned for MaryAnn to join me in my jaunt upstairs, because I wanted to show her that I was still very much in tune to her needs. But as I neared her, she increased the volume and intensity of her fit. Most likely assuming I was coming to de-throne her, she clung to the Bumbo chair like her life depended on it, tears streaming down her face. Such confusion she must have felt.

Again (knowing I'd return very quickly), I respected her status as queen of the Bumbo chair and I let her flail in it for a few more moments while I ducked upstairs to settle my 6-year-old. "I'll be back very soon," I gently told her.

When I returned to the kitchen a couple of minutes later, MaryAnn was still going strong with her rageful fit.
Only now she had a bigger audience. Diggy and Kirsti (Kenny was still asleep) sat at the table observing her scene and feeling rather helpless.

"What's wrong with her?" they asked sympathetically. "Why does she keep screaming like that? What should we do? How can you stand it?"

This wasn't the first major tantrum MaryAnn's older sibs had witnessed...but still. They felt accurately alarmed by her tame-less screams. Her high-pitched screeches and twisting body movements threatened their inner peace. I could read my children's minds. I used to feel vulnerable to toddler tantrums, too. (Sometimes I still do.) I remember feeling helpless...and mad...and then helpless again...when my kids were out of control. I remember attempting to stop the madness by plucking them up from their tantrum spot and planting them down in a corner or on a chair or in their bedroom until they "learned to control themselves". I even had the non-emotional 'your-tantrum-doesn't-phase-me' face down. By the time Allison came around, we made her sit in the basement...by herself...until she stopped screaming so she wouldn't disturb the whole household. (oh if I could turn back the clock!)

I'll never forget the looks on our older children's faces when they witnessed Mom and Dad isolating an out-of-control child and then pretending nothing was wrong while she wailed away in despair. I saw their trust in us melting away. I saw fear or coldness or both enter their systems.

So before Allison's brain could develop any further (she was about 24 months old), I changed. I'm a different parent now. I'm learning, by the grace of God, how to give peace during turbulent tantrum times. And I'm discovering that God grants me His peace as I do so. We are all so (with a google o's) much happier!!

But now how could I explain this peacemaking process to my older children, so they, too, could rest their minds and hearts on this Sabbath day?

A thought came racing in:

"Do you remember when MaryAnn was a tiny baby? She did lots of sleeping and even when she was awake she hardly noticed when life around her got complicated? Well, now she's older and more mature. Her brain has more connections now, but she's not completely grown up yet. She's old enough to recognize emotional stress, like a sibling rivalry over a pink chair, and the chaos often engulfs her in darkness kind of like the sun going down at night. She feels lost and confused. She doesn't have enough brains to process the darkness peacefully yet so she seeks for ways to cope temporarily by screaming and fighting. She's in darkness, but she is not the darkness. Do you see the difference?"

They got it.

"If I saw her flailing around and thought her light had gone out forever, how would I likely respond?" I continued.

"You'd be scared. Or mad. Or worried."

"You're right. Is that how you feel?"

"Yeah."

"Sometimes I feel that way, too. It's pretty normal. And sometimes those feelings make me react in a self-centered way so I can settle those unpleasant emotions pretty quickly. But I don't feel scared or mad or worried now because I know MaryAnn is not the darkness that she's feeling temporarily. So, if I know for certain that her lovely sunshine will brighten the world again soon, just like I know the sun will come up every morning, how am I likely to respond to her?"

"You wouldn't be scared. Or mad. Or worried. You would be okay."

"Right again. That's how I feel now. I feel very comfortable and confident that MaryAnn's sun will come up again. I also know that I can help lead her back to that brighter place. Young minds are very willing to follow. So, how can I help her find sunshine again?"

"You could hold her hand and give her a flashlight while it's dark." They smiled at the thought.

"Exactly. At this age, MaryAnn knows to search for light because she can tell darkness is a yucky place to be. But if I leave her to cope with the darkness all on her own, I would feel a little nervous. She may wander towards a light, but perhaps not the brightest and warmest sunshine that she deserves. And she may gather extreme cloudiness along the way which would make it hard to tell when she's standing in daylight again. Instead of expecting her to handle this on her own, I feel very aware of MaryAnn's sadness and confusion right now, so she's not alone. I'm not ignoring her. I'm happy to lend her my light and gently lead her toward True Sunshine again. I think she can feel my light radiating towards her right this minute because I'm in her presence and even though she's still screaming, she can tell that I'm aware of her in a warm kind of way. As she grows, her mind will mature and be able to handle darkness a little more independently. After many years, she'll not only recognize Perfect Light, but because of all our practicing together, she'll know how to get up and move towards it even if I'm not there."

By the time my explanation was over, MaryAnn was listening to my voice tell her siblings that "I love MaryAnn. I know I can help her through her dark times by being a glimmer of light for her to follow," and she was quiet.

It was time to roll out some bread dough. Having soaked in the majority of MaryAnn's out-of-control emotions and having kept them close to my heart as they transformed into peace, I sensed it was time to share them again with her.

Bending down at her level, I asked, "MaryAnn, do you want to help Mommy spread flour all over the counter so we can make bread?"

She sheepishly leaned in my direction, testing her trust in me. I scooped her up in my arms and hugged her tenderly, letting the love flow between us, before setting her down on a chair so her eyes could tower over the beveled edge of our dark grey Corian.
 <It was such a lovely moment, I actually asked one of my older kids to snap a picture.>

Working alongside a present-minded mother did wonders for MaryAnn's emotional balance. Sharing the peace that God has granted me--especially during so many of my tantrum moments--with my sweet daughter in her time of need did wonders for stretching my patience far enough to reach a greater capacity to understand, respect, love, endure, and rest. It felt like climbing a mountain...and making it to the top.

As the morning continued, I could tell MaryAnn's body was still trying to process the residue stress hormone leftover in her brain from The Bumbo Battle. She remained on high alert as simple stress tilted her emotional scale a few more times. I had to stay focused on being steady and strong and patient for her sake as we descended the other side of the mountain. But an hour or so later when I showed her a purple dress she hadn't worn in a long time, she smiled with all the delight of a rainbow coloring the sky as the storm departs.

I basked in the sunshine with MaryAnn and paused to take in the moment's triumphant beauty. I could not have led my daughter to light without having first received light from the Source of all Light myself. Because of the challenges that face my two-year-old as her brain develops, I have a greater opportunity to commune with Deity. What a blessing! Especially on a Sabbath morning.

I sent a prayer of gratitude heavenward.



Epilogue: Just moments before the final mad dash out the door, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror for my usual 2-minute make-up application. All four of my girls surrounded me as they fumbled with makeshift eye shadow brushes and lip gloss sticks. When Kirsten noticed me smearing yellow goop on the dark circles under my eyes, she paused from powdering her face and inquired, "Why do you put on make-up anyways?"

Without the added strength and wisdom I had gained from the yoga-like concentration I'd needed during MaryAnn's tantrum earlier that morning, I'm sure I would have flippantly rambled about blemishes and whale blubber and good impressions.

But because my mind had stretched into a greater place of awareness and peace, I paused long enough to remember that my responses to my children's questions have monumental impact on how they view life...and on how they feel about themselves. I felt my heart and mind fill up with a wisdom greater than my own before I casually relayed the response, "I like the way my make-up highlights the natural beauty God gave me."

I moved on to my eye-liner, but kept my glance on Kirsten as she carefully examined her own reflection and smiled with a joy that melted my heart. Her younger sisters had paused to watch her, too. Having been enlightened, they went back to rummaging through their make-up bags.

And we eventually arrived at church happily ever after that Sunday morning. Luckily "The Bumbo Battle" went down in the history books just in time for the commencement of "The Bench Battle: 6 Kids on a Pew while Daddy Conducts the 70-minute Meeting." All sorts of peace and rest just waiting to come my way again...

1 comment:

Diana said...

WOW! This was a fantastic read on so many levels. I totally get what you mean now, when you wrote on Facebook that you struggle to "put it into words because it's more of a mindset than a method."

I think what I love most of all is that you use the terms Negative and Positive energy. I use that all the time at work and at home. It's something I am really grateful to recognize and I like the challenge of figuring out how to change that negative into positive! I love your ping-pong table analogy. Very well thought out.

And I appreciate your latter end of the post how these principles are similar to Gospel principles. I know I've mentioned the book "Beyond Timeout" to you before, as it was the first parenting book that I read that transformed my way of thinking and parenting. Similar to what you described, the author of this book says that it is very important that the parent interacting with the child is "in control" (or as you would say activating their PFC) as they deal with an out-of-control child. ANYWAY, as I applied these principles, I saw how it parallels very much my relationship with the Lord. There are some moments in my life when I feel out of control but it's typically expressed very internally and all I need is someone who is in-control to love me till the darkness dissipates and I can get back in-control over my emotions again. Realizing this for myself really helps me put it into perspective when I am trying to help my son.

Can't wait to see you!!!