I stood in the kitchen and watched the water boil. I stared at the droplets as they spun and bubbled and rocketed towards the surface, bursting as they finally reached the top. Only I wasn’t thinking about the water, nor was I thinking about the pot or the stove. I was actually thinking about my daughter, and how closely that roiling liquid matched her emotions a mere three hours earlier.
My seven-year-old beauty… She is an only child, for all intents and purposes. Her three older brothers outnumber her by so many years (at 22, 24, and 26 years of age) they are more like awe-inspiring heroes than arm-slugging, room-sharing siblings. She often laments this fact, pointing out that having a little sister around would make playing so much easier at home. Truth be told, she struggles to find the right balance with relationships that are not family-oriented, and it’s likely much to do with this exact reason. Not that we aren’t aware of it – we are; acutely so. We’ve made extra efforts to find outside social avenues for her for several years now for the sole purpose of giving her more social interaction. And though she is markedly confident in so many areas of her personality – academics, athletics, trying just about anything new – socializing, especially in the untested waters of all things “girl”, is still a struggle.
Don’t get me wrong; my daughter is far from shy. She charges forth with unbridled enthusiasm towards any friend that gives her a second glance. The introduction, itself, is not the problem. Well, maybe it is, in the fact that she is SO forward she sometimes knocks the recipient off guard. See, she is convinced that everyone she meets wants to be best friends immediately, just the way she does. And she’s completely baffled when, for some reason she never understands, they may not. This is where the issues come in; navigating the waters of 2nd-grade friendships when you haven’t a boat or an oar, let alone a team to row with. It’s a tricky business, paddling alone. And she’s constantly desperate to find anyone who will join her. Fortunately she has garnered a couple of good friends in our neighborhood, but they are a bit older and more mature than she is, and there are still times when misunderstandings occur. Unfortunately, they seem to weather these situations much more easily than my daughter does, and she often comes off as the immature odd-girl-out.
Hurt feelings – we’ve all had them, and they suck. I’m 40, and they still sting; at seven, they’re practically world-ending. Take this evening’s crisis: four friends, happily playing, wind up at our house for a brief “breeze-through”. During the stop one of them mentions going to another’s for some always exciting trampolining. Problem: the girl with the trampoline can only have one friend over, per her mother’s instructions. Cut to crickets and silent stares from the rest of the crew, as each of them wonder just who the ‘lucky one’ will be. No need to wait long, as trampoline girl announces she’s already offered the spot to one of the other girls (the girl who happens to be my daughter’s best bud). Drama ensues. My daughter immediately bursts into tears because 1) she was playing with her best bud way before trampoline girl showed up tonight and 2) she never gets to go anywhere and 3) she was supposed to be able to jump with all of them and 4) she is never going to play with any of them again and (the list continues as she melts into a weeping puddle on the chair while the other three simply stare at her). At this point I intervene by calmly stating that it’s close to bedtime anyway, and we have some things to do, and I’m just going to go ahead and keep her home for the night and we’ll just see everyone tomorrow. This successfully redirects her ire away from them and over to me long enough to get the other girls out the door.
But remember the boiling water I was talking about earlier? Well, here it comes; clearly I have forgotten to take the kettle off the stove and it is now screaming at me with a fever pitch. All those hurt feelings of being left out and pushed aside by her friends have now been compounded by being embarrassed in front of them by her mother and forced to stay home like a baby. The kettle quickly morphs into the form of a 50 pound seven-year-old banshee with wailing fists and kicking feet. My daughter is rapidly spiraling out of control, and I am forced to decide what to do with her.
I, myself, am not the bastion of emotional control. I grew up learning that when you’re mad, you scream. When you’re angry, you explode. I’ve spent my whole adult life trying to unlearn this exact pattern. Part of the little kettle has come from the big one, in my house, and that fact is not lost on me. So in moments like this, I have done an immense amount of work to train myself to remember that I have the ability to decide how to act. Learned or not, we all have a choice.
Tonight’s meltdown took every ounce of patience and breathing and courage and momma magic I possessed, but I made the decision to offer a safe space for my daughter. And I will tell you, it was excruciating. I stared at my lovely girl and watched her boil. I watched her heart break for a full half hour; watched her rail at me because she did not understand the hurt and frustration she was feeling. And I had become the target; she clawed at me with her words, hit at me with her fists and kicked me with her feet. Each time I calmly yet strongly prevented the blows and told her, softly, “I will not let you hurt me, and I will not let you hurt yourself. I know you are angry and upset, and that is okay, but it is not okay to hurt people.” I offered her two choices; to get into a warm bath, or to go to her room until she was done with her feelings. I simply kept repeating the same things over and over, like a mantra. I did not fight back; I did not scream at her; I kept her safe, I kept myself safe, I told her I loved her, but I also told her what was and was not acceptable.
She finally stomped off to her room. She did it while screaming that she hated me, but she had finally made one of the two choices. As soon as I knew she was clear, I let down my guard. I didn’t realize how much adrenaline had kicked in until then; I had to breathe through it for about 20 minutes for it just to clear. The tears continued for another 10. I felt like I had just been hit by a truck, both physically and emotionally. But I took a minute to remind myself that I was successful in my decision to hold a safe space for her as long as she needed it. I was spent, but I was proud.
About a half hour later she came and found me; or rather, a flying note did as she hid around the corner. It said she was frustrated that I said those things in front of her friends and made her feel bad. But it also said she was sorry for fighting, and that she loved me very much. She peeked around the corner as I read it, then came to snuggle on my lap. We ended up having a really good talk about what happened, her actions, and what would be a better way to handle big feelings the next time she has them. She’s learning; maybe not right in the moment, but she’s getting there. My girl may have really big emotions, but she has an even bigger capacity for love, as I was so clearly reminded tonight.
You should know this kind of scene is not a hugely common occurrence; these ones only come out with the really big emotions for her. But when they do come out, the water boils over and spills onto anyone nearby. It’s a familiar pattern in my family, and I have long since wondered how much is genetic, and how much is learned. I will probably never quite know the answer. But I do know that I have the ability to change the pattern, both for me and for my daughter. They say a watched pot never boils. I’m not so sure about the “never” part; but I’m fully convinced that if the big kettle gives the little kettle a better example to observe, all that roiling and bubbling can be replaced by much calmer waters.