Baby Talk: Ghosts in the nursery

Last week I found myself raising my voice at the kids over the tiniest irritations. Ya'ir, of whom I expect the most, bears the brunt.

October 25, 2007 12:10
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While managing my three young kids' meltdowns it's not always so easy to keep my cool It's bedtime on a long, busy Shabbat. We had a rough afternoon/evening after a frolicking morning at an oasis near the Dead Sea. No one had a nap and there were several shrieking meltdowns in the early afternoon. Nerves are frayed. I've been singing lullabies to the conspiring two-year-old twins for at least half an hour, trying to settle them in their new beds. Preferring to laugh and play, they make a game out of my increasingly apparent frustration and continuously hand me their pacifiers and water cups, only to quickly ask for them back. Admitting failure, I switch places with my husband and join my big boy in the living room. Ya'ir, who will be four in January, was the most horrible in the later part of the day (for the first time even attempting to bite Yaron), but is calm after spending quality time with his father. Happy to be with my more mature son, I read Ya'ir another story and have a pleasant conversation about it afterwards. We brush his teeth and I begin to lead him to a kids' futon we keep in our room for times like these. Suddenly Ya'ir asks to eat a marshmallow or a cookie. I tell him it's time to go to sleep; we've already brushed teeth; and besides, we don't have any cookies or marshmallows. He says, pointing his index finger at me and scowling, "That not what I said. That not how it goes. You not listening to me." I reiterate my objections and he starts screaming hysterically. And I snap. And I shout. And I make him lie down on the mattress, slap him lightly on the hand while yelling at him to stop crying and shut the door behind me. Ten paces and light years of shame later I wonder, "What's wrong with me? He's just a little dead-tired kid who wants to spend time with his Mommy and have a treat." A treat he semi-regularly receives (after the twins go to bed) for being a good boy in our afternoons together. Before I could go back to apologize, he fled to his father in the nursery, where all three kids quickly fell asleep. And I sat down to rethink my life. LAST WEEK I found myself raising my voice at the kids over the tiniest irritations. Ya'ir, of whom I expect the most, bears the brunt. Child psychiatrist Dr. Alan Flashman has helped me gain a fresh perspective in the past, so I again turned to him for help. I present him with two concerns: 1) preventing Ya'ir from thinking he's the one calling the shots and throwing tantrums when he doesn't get his way and 2) me not taking my frustration out on him. Flashman started by asking me to try to remember my own life at Ya'ir's age. I am the third child of four (and the only girl), each born on average two years apart. I cannot imagine it was easy for my parents and I do remember a lot of yelling. One of the places I should go to find out about what's happening now is my experiences then, says Flashman, and see whether I am dealing with what is called "importations." He references the work of Selma H. Fraiberg, who wrote The Magic Years ("the single best book written on early childhood," according to Flashman). Are there ghosts in the nursery? "The drama between you and Ya'ir is echoes of unresolved experiences. We must bring them up on stage again and try to do something different with them," says Flashman. "Your rage has to do with the ghosts. Having a boy acting like your father, being ambushed with possibly the same words you say to him and were said to you; that kind of rage is an expression of helplessness." Flashman suggests this behavior is multi-generational and advised speaking to my father about the yelling. "There were definitely a lot of tempers in our family, spanning several generations," says my father thoughtfully in his Indiana home. "I think there's something to that inter-generational conduct. Hopefully it's dissipated at your level; it was already less at my level, and probably my mother received less than her father. "I don't think I did a lot of yelling at individuals when you all were young, but there was definitely a lot of yelling at the aggregate." My job with Ya'ir and his siblings is to make a final turning point in the family, says Flashman. I need to completely stop the cycle and put the ghosts to rest. IT ALL BOILS down to the bottom line, or at least having a bottom line mentality, says Flashman. When I am trying to impress my will on Ya'ir, he naturally sees it as a power struggle and digs his heels in. "What experiences does he need to feel both respected and listened to?" asks Flashman. He cites the work of Daniel Stern in The Present Moment and the notion of "co-creation" as the moments in which growth takes place. Like Martin Buber's I-Thou philosophy, Stern says that in meeting deeply with another person and creating something together, we become ourselves more. When Ya'ir is having a temper tantrum he is essentially saying, "I will not give in and be erased," says Flashman. "The bottom line is not where people grow. It is a struggle for survival. People at their best grow; at their worst, survive." It seems that "my way or no way" is a lose/lose proposition: I have to find a way to relate to Ya'ir that doesn't trap us both in the bottom line. The good doctor suggests having a talk with Ya'ir during a calm moment, saying, "You and I will listen to Ya'ir, and you and I will listen to Mommy. You know Ya'ir, your way is this way and my way is this way, and we'll work hard and find our way." RETURNING TO what I've been calling the "Marshmallow Incident." Flashman helped me realize that according to Ya'ir's timeline, he thought he had been a good boy: The whole time we'd read the story and prepared for bed had been very pleasant. Therefore in Ya'ir logic, he deserved a treat. (Mental note: stop bribing son with sweets.) Therefore I needed to listen to that need and create something we could do together to fulfill it. Flashman suggests saying something like, "Of course you want something sweet, but let's think of something better we can do together, like a sweet hug." "Would that appease my raging son?" I ask, missing the point again and asking a "bottom line" question. We're not working towards appeasement, Flashman rebuts. "You're helping him grow up. Don't see it as tricking/manipulation. It's a different process where he's a full participant." And it works. Since speaking with Flashman, I have employed his tactics and potential meltdown moments have turned into fun games. "Sometimes you get stuck on the bottom line. Just look at Hamas and Israel," he says. "Try to think of something different in a love relationship. We're not at war with our children." The writer is the mother of two-year-old twins and a big boy approaching four.

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