As I was carrying Philomena to bed last night, in between her hiccups as a result of a major crying session just minutes previously, she whispered to me, “Mommy, tomorrow I will listen and obey. I will!” With tears in my own eyes, I held her closely, caressed her hair, and said, “oh, my sweet girl, I know you will. It is so hard, but I know you will try your best tomorrow.”
So, “the threes” are completely draining my motherly self. Honestly, for us, I think it’s more than just her mere age. The gift of a younger foster brother has taken its toll on her. She was the center of our family and our extended family for her whole life until now. And I know the experience of gaining a sibling is a universal struggle; however, in her case it was even more difficult. All of a sudden, she had a BIG, crawling, rough-housing, toy-stealing baby in her life. There was no gradual transition from a little newborn.
I don’t want to go into too many details, because she deserves a certain amount of privacy from her overly-open, blogging mother. However, let’s just say that her adjustment has been rough. We have had days in which it feels like an alien is inhabiting my sweet girl’s body, and she does and says things that just seem so awful and foreign to her disposition. As much as she truly loves J, she can be terrible to him. And as much as I know she loves us, she has moments in which she disobeys and talks back. Like most three-year-olds, I suppose.
However, added to all of this is our parental guilt that we are bringing all of this upheaval into her life, but J very well may leave us one day.
But! The good news! Things are getting better. So much better. Seriously. We’re far from the ideal, but for the first time in six months, I don’t feel like I have been run over by an emotional truck at the end of every day.
I thought I’d talk a little about how things got better for us. How’s that sound?
I want to be completely clear that is not meant to be an “advice” article. I mean, I am a freaking novice when it comes to parenting. This is my first child at the age of three. Most of my friends have parented through this age at least twice; I wouldn’t dare pretend to have some sort of special knowledge or ability other mothers don’t possess. Because I don’t.
Rather, I am writing this mostly for myself, so on those days in which I want to pull my hair out and just hide in our bedroom whilst drinking wine and watching Netflix, I can remember what really does work for our daughter. It’s to remind myself that disciplined, loving parenting does, indeed, reap results and that virtue is not going to develop through bribing and threats.
In other words, this is a reflection, not an exhortation.
I totally recognize that one, two, three years from now, I will probably look back at this and laugh heartily at how “big” these little problems were. That said, when you’re in it, the difficulties seem almost insurmountable.
This should go without saying, but this is what has worked for us. Every child is a unique creation of God, with his or her own strengths and weaknesses. Thankfully, Philomena’s temperament is naturally very sweet and compliant…she just forgets that sometimes. ;)
[FYI at any given point of any day you could probably find me not following these guidelines. I am also veeeeeerrrrry much a work in progress. Most days I need someone to discipline me.]
1. Eye contact at eye level. Goodness gracious, I can be terrible about this. I have such a tendency to yell at her from another room, or talk to her while I am doing something else, like cleaning dishes or reading on the computer. Nevertheless, when I stop what I am doing, crouch down to her level, and look her in the eye and ask her to do something/stop something/etc. it can make a world of difference.
2. Speak positively. Or, Never say no to something reasonable. This is simple, but Mena really responds to it. For example, I try not to say, “no, I can’t play a game with you right now.” Instead, I replace it with, “sure, I’d love to play a game after J goes down for his nap!” Or, “yes, we can play outside after it cools down later today.” This has salvaged many potential melt-downs.
3. Affirm specifically. Words of affirmation just happen to my primary love language. Ryan and I have a strong suspicion that this is also Philomena’s way of feeling loved. Although we definitely try our best not to fall susceptible to the “good job!” or “you are smart!” traps [see here and here and here and here], we try hard to praise her specifically in the moment. For example, “I really liked how you listened and got on your pajamas right when I asked.” Or, “I know it was hard for you to walk away instead of hitting him when J was pulling your hair. Thank you!”
4. Name emotions and have empathy. We’ve been doing this quite a while. Even before she could say the word, Philomena could do the baby sign for “sad.” However, this has taken on another level now that she is feeling so many new emotions. Now, we’re helping her use more complex words like “jealous” and “frustrated.” Also, we’ve found that for her a little bit of empathy goes a LONG way in learning to control her own emotions. Like, “it is really hard to wait for something! Sometimes I don’t like being patient either.” Or, “it really hurts when J bites me too. I wish he was old enough to know better.”
5. The do-over. This takes a lot of discipline and patience on our part, but we have really seen results. When she misbehaves or speaks rudely, we’ll simply say, “let’s try that again!” or “how would a sweet girl ask for that?” It is definitely easier to give into her whining or just ignore the poor behavior, but it’s not better for her in the long run.
6. Speaking softly and calmly. I will admit that this is probably my numero uno personal difficulty. By nature, I am a yeller. Heck, even my “normal” voice is as loud as most people’s yelling. And yet, I have a very sensitive daughter who responds much better to normal talking than to raising our voices. And like my favorite professor in college said regarding classroom management: “never yell, because they can always yell louder.” The same is true for a toddler.
7. Giving her space for alone time. And Giving her special time with us. Philomena is almost-definitely an introvert, but since she’s been inadvertently “competing” with J for my attention, she was feeling the need to be around the two of us all the time. I could tell this was emotionally draining for her, especially because she doesn’t nap every day anymore. I started encouraging her over and over again to go play by herself in another room. I kept it very positive and made it clear it wasn’t a punishment. I usually frame it like, “it looks like you don’t want J getting into what you’re playing with. How about you go to the other room by yourself for a little bit, so he won’t bother you?” It took a few months for her to really embrace this, but I can definitely see a difference in her disposition when she gets some alone time.
I also try…really, really try [and fail a lot!] not to use the time J is at a visit with his birth family or down for a nap to “get things done” around the house. It is so tempting, because I can’t even empty the dishwasher with the tornado-of-crazy that is our 15-month-old. Instead, I have been making a conscious effort to make really good use of one-on-one time with Philomena by reading her books, playing games, doing art projects, etc. She even feels special when I ask her to “exercise” with me. [This is probably due to the fact that we greatly limit her screen time, so even a YouTube pilates clip is exciting for her. Oops.] For obvious reasons, this kind of special attention has been great for her.
8. Choices. “Do you want to brush your teeth before or after you get your pajamas on?” “Do you want to eat your lettuce or your carrot first?” “Do you want to put away your toys now or in five minutes?” You all know this approach. And it works for a reason.
9. Affection, affection, affection. When she blatantly disobeys us, deep-down she wants love. When she hits J, deep-down she wants love. When she whines and throws a fit, deep-down she wants love. How do I know this? Because that is what all of us want and need. This doesn’t mean we excuse her bad behavior or turn a blind eye to the necessary consequences. Instead, this means that after she has a “do-over” or she apologizes to J, we give her plenty of hugs and kisses. We love her through the struggle. This sounds kind of hippy-dippy and easy, but it’s not. This is because when she needs my affection the most is when it is most difficult to give it. Those moments I just want to scream at her and leave the house are the moments I should be opening up my arms to give her a big hug.
10. Teaching her apology and forgiveness. This is a two-way street. I apologize to her and ask her forgiveness when I lose my temper [which is more often than I’d like to admit]. I expect the same from her. I don’t see this as a lessening of my authority; instead, I see it as modeling humility, which is the true strength.
11. Prayer. This one should have been listed first, but whatever. For months, Ryan and I were praying for Philomena and her difficulties. Then, one day it dawned on me that I wasn’t praying with her about them. So, one morning instead of just mentally asking the Lord for help, I said aloud, “Philomena, let’s pray together that we can have a good day!” I will admit that sometimes she is feisty and says no, so I will just pray aloud for her. Ryan also has been encouraging me to ask our miscarried baby, Gerard, to pray for us: I think this is very beautiful and efficacious. I am convicted that when we added specific pleas during our family prayer time for our relationship with Philomena and her behavior, this is when her actions (and my reactions) turned a corner.
Alrighty, this may be my longest blog post ever…sorry/not sorry? Thanks for sticking with it. What are your thoughts? Any attitudes or helpful tidbits for #thethrees?