I suspect that many of us who have young children in our lives, rather as parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles, even cousins, sometimes forget that being a kid today can be tough.
I don’t mean the fact that our children are being bullied, or harassed, or stolen, or abused, or killed.
I mean just living day-to-day with changes.
Adults are often pretty accomplished at taking all the stress and confusion in their lives and tamping it down, stuffing it deep inside and moving on, or so they think until their anger boils over, or the occasional drinks with friends becomes a nightly, private session, or food takes the place of being present in the world.
Do you remember when you were two, or three years old?
I don’t. Age five is my earliest memory and even that’s fading, but perhaps you were rather precocious, outgoing, attention seeking. Perhaps you were big for your age; tall and strong and adventurous. Perhaps you were a smart toddler, talking early, remembering more than your parents about ten conversations you had and all the places you went during the day. Perhaps you were some or none of those things. Reticent or outgoing, ahead of the curve in size or hugging the ‘average’ percentile mark on the charts. Wherever you were there was one thing that I bet none of you could do.
At two or three, where you articulate enough to put into words all the feelings and emotions that come when your days were turned upside down? Did you know how to tell your parents that enough was enough? Could you speak words that explained the icky way you feel when your space is invaded or your routine is changed up without anyone asking you if it was okay?
My guess is that your answer is a resounding NO. I would also guess that if you were still able to ask your parents if they remember days when you just weren’t yourself, when your usual cheerfulness was replaced by outbursts, or moments when you turned inward…or turned away…, that they would do what adults still do, use the clichés associated with toddler-hood, like that phrase The Terrible Twos.
I have no business claiming that they were incorrect in using that term. Maybe this was a personality sea-change and you had slowly morphed into Satan disguised as innocent and pure and good. Until someone told you something you didn’t like. Then all hell broke loose.
Or maybe those changes weren’t so subtle, because let’s face it, you didn’t start spewing hate, vomiting vileness, and perfecting your tantrums overnight. You grew into those behaviors, if you exhibited them at all.
Let’s assume for this discussion that most of you were relatively well-behaved. Is it fair to apply an overall label of terrible behavior to the occasional outburst or rebellion or sullen stillness? Did your parents/family ever look to other reasons that you suddenly turned into a not very likable person? When your own children (if you have them) turn on their attitudes, do you chalk it up to a developmental phase, or do you look deeper?
My point here, returning to that query about emotions and feelings, is that I don’t know any two or three-year old that is proficient in setting their parents/family down and having a serious talk about why they’re having a bad day, or why they don’t want to leave their toys for a sleepover, or why they put the puzzle piece in the space the way that they did, or why they feel lost when too many changes happen at once.
I’m trying to say that kids, toddlers-preschoolers, simply do not have the coping skills, nor the ability to tell you they can’t cope with stress in their life. Adults often cover it up…the not coping. Young children turn outward, at least until even that doesn’t work for them. Then they turn inward. They grow silent. They shut down. They want to escape yet they can’t. They don’t have the words, even though they desperately want to tell you. And when they have reached the point of silence, of turning inside themselves, that’s when my heart breaks because I know that I’ve missed something.
I’ve missed the signs. I’ve chalked up the screaming, and the yelling, and the series of NO and I DON”T WANT TO and the I DON’T KNOW to that terrible age and not to the real issue. I think I can loosely borrow the adult phrase…eyes wide shut here. What I am seeing and experiencing has a deeper meaning, a hidden cause. I only have to stop, and listen, and watch and the answer slaps me in the face.
If you have young children in your lives and their routines change, or life gets hectic or jumbled or intense, or your own adult stress is bubbling up, please just be silent for a bit and stop talking. Watch the child. Really listen to the child. Give the child some space. Tell the child that you understand that things are wonky. Encourage them to just be silent and still themselves. Stop talking at them and listen to them, even to their silence.
They will learn how to speak, to tell you what’s in their hearts and heads. They will eventually have the ability to help you to help them, but not at two, or three, or maybe even eight or ten.
And while you’re learning to listen to them, maybe you can work on listening to your own emotions and what they’re telling you, and what you’re passing on to those kids.