Our evening was going really well. I was hanging out with G(5) and D(2) for the night, as I have for the past several Fridays. The slime we made was cleaned up and put away for next time, the pizza was in the oven, and we’d even set up an obstacle course in the living room, complete with a wiggly bridge, jungle vines, a river filled with crocodiles, rocks to jump over, and a cave at the end.
The boys were having a blast and were playing really well together. Everything was perfect...until it wasn’t. While G5 was walking across the “wiggly bridge”, he slipped and hit his arm on the windowsill. Typically, when he is sad or hurt, he will cry for his mom. If she’s not home, he calms down pretty quickly with the promise of an ice pack and/or bandaid. When she’s home and available, he is like a professional soccer player trying to get the referee to hand out a yellow card (overly dramatic and LOUD).
When she’s home and NOT available...? Well, that’s something I experienced today for the first time.
My boss has been ill for the past few weeks, and, like many working moms, has been trying to push through and pretend like everything is fine so that life doesn’t come to a screeching halt. This particular evening, however, she found herself too sick to go out and too sick to continue “momming”. She asked if I could please keep the boys as quiet as possible and away from her room so that she could take a heavy dose of meds and try to get some much-needed rest.
Of course, the boys knew that she was home, and of course, G5 had no interest (or ability, to be honest) to put her needs before his own. He was hurt and sad and he NEEDED HIS MOMMY.
He ran to the door of her room, realized it was locked, and started screaming/crying and jiggling the handle. I went over to him, told him “Mommy is resting, love”, and waited for him to remember that we were supposed to be keeping the noise to a minimum. He was NOT having it. Mommy was on the other side of that door, and she was GOING to hear him, darn it! I told him that if he couldn’t use a quieter voice, I was going to have to pick him up and move him away from the door. He called my bluff. I braced myself for the backlash, picked him up, and carried him into his bedroom- all the while he just kept screaming over and over “I WANT MOMMY! I WANT MY MOMMMMMY!”
I hear you, buddy. I kinda want my mommy right now, too.
*(Anyone remember the scene in the movie The Nanny Diaries where the little boy is screaming and crying for his mom and the nanny is like “What the heck do I do now??”. It was pretty much exactly like that.)*
At this point I’m trying desperately to stay calm so I can help him calm down, and I’m saying “I’m here. I can see that you’re very sad. Your body is shaking. How can I help?” And he stops crying just long enough to take a breath, and proceeds to scream like a teenage girl in a horror movie. Like, rapid fire screams. Balled up fists, red faced, foaming at the mouth screams. He is doing literally everything he can to get his needs met in that moment, and I am NOT what he needs.
I am the antithesis of what he needs. I am the barrier between him and the one person he trusts to help him calm down.
I am not Mommy. I am one of his 3 nannies and he’s seen me just twice a week for the past 2 months. I am not his “safe person”...yet.
Finally, the screaming begins to rattle my eardrums and I start to feel my heart rate elevating. Up until this point, I have remained calm and composed, but I feel myself starting to become triggered. I hear my ego say “How dare this kid act this way towards me! I do everything for him when his mom isn’t home! What an ungrateful turd. And now I’m going to be in trouble for letting him disturb her because I can’t “make” him stop screaming! ARRRGGGGGG! This is so not fair!”
And then I remember to breathe, and I tell myself, “This is not an emergency”.
I think, “Share your calm; don’t join his chaos.”
I remind myself that he’s only been on this earth for 5 years, and that he doesn’t even have a fully functioning prefrontal cortex yet.
I model deep in-and-out breaths.
I breathe in through my nose and audibly breathe out through my mouth.
I calm my body and my mind so that I can be present enough to help him do the same.
And he keeps right on screaming. He is 0% interested in calming down. He has a goal in mind and being calm and quiet is NOT going to get him closer to that goal. In his 5 year old mind, the only thing he can do is continue sounding the alarm until his mama realizes that he’s in danger and comes to rescue him. It’s instinctual. It’s primal. It’s SO. DANG. LOOOOOUUUD.
Between screams, I remind him that “Mommy isn’t available right now” and also that screaming is not how we get what we want (which I swear I could hear his little voice inside his head saying ‘That’s funny...are you sure? It’s always worked before!’)”.
I ask him if he’d like to try:
*breathing with me
*punching a pillow
*squeezing his stress ball
*listening to music
*drinking some water
I want to hug him tightly (which always helps with my own 5 year old), but I know not to ask. A tight squeeze may help some children, but it will not help this particular child. He’s not a hugger.
“Never been a snuggly kid,” his dad said.
“He doesn’t like to be touched when he’s upset,” says his mom.
He’s screaming even louder now, which I expected. I’m giving him all of the options except the one he wants. I’m starting to worry that my boss will wake up, and I’m starting to think about rethinking this whole “gentle caregiving” thing. Is this worth upsetting my boss over? Is it worth her potentially thinking I am incompetent (after all, she can’t see what we’re doing- she can only hear her son’s meltdown)? Is this worth getting fired for??? And just like that, I am triggered.
My brain begins to go into “fight-or-flight”...
“If you don’t stop screaming, you won’t get to watch the movie tonight”, my brain says.
But how does that help him NOW? It doesn’t.
“Look at your brother! He’s 2 and he doesn’t act like this! You’re FIVE. This is ridiculous behavior!” Is this a helpful comparison? Nope.
“Hey! Look over there! I see an airplane out the window! I wonder where it’s going? Maybe Disneyland! Do you like Disneyland?!?” Sure, distraction might help, but what does it teach? Not a darn thing.
I look down at his face and hear my inner voice say “He isn’t GIVING me a hard time- he is HAVING a hard time”. Then I take a deep breath, get up, grab two tissues, and come back to sit next to him. I tell him “I’m still here. I’m not going anywhere. But I’m feeling a little anxious so I’m going to use one of my tools to calm down”.
I take one of the tissues, tilt my chin up, and lay it over my face. I take a deep breath in, and forcefully blow it out. The tissue dances up into the air and floats back down to my hand. I do it again. And again. And one more time for good measure.
I offer him the other tissue, and he waves it away. “That’s ok,” I say, “it’s right here if you need it”.
A few more deep breaths, forceful exhales, and dancing tissues, and his curiosity finally gets the best of him. “Whoa! Look how high mine went that time!” He giggles and asks if I want to try blowing his tissue. I do, and it lands on his head. Peals of laughter fill the room, and the memory of his hurt is beginning to fade. The feelings are still there, but they are muted now. We are breathing. Calming our nervous systems. This is co-regulation in action. We are doing it!
We did it.
And we will do it together next time, and the time after that, and the time after that, because this is how children learn.
While being shown grace and loving kindness.
This is respectful care. This is what I have been practicing and messing up and retrying.
It’s not easy, that’s for sure! But it is important, and rewarding, and so, so necessary.