In February, my husband and I left for a trip to Korea, just the 2 of us. And it was goood... it was very liberating to be free from child-minding duties, when we can wake anytime we want, eat however slowly, eat whatever, whenever. Before we left, we told the kids the usual - behave yourselves, obey the grandparents... especially to K, my oldest, that she's the big sister and she must set a good example for her brother etc etc.
And she did. She behaved so well that her grandparents only had good things to say.
Then we came back to our usual routine and suddenly, she was this sulky, angry, overly-sensitive child that the slightest thing will set her off. One particular day when we were walking back from school as usual, she became all withdrawn and uncooperative. She ended up sobbing inconsolably in the bathroom (after Z went to provoke her) and she just shut down and refused to communicate.
I'm sitting there waiting for her to stop sobbing and an ahha! moment came to mind. Let children be children. Do you hear examples of children who are well-behaved at school or childcare but when the parent picks him up, he starts acting out? The rationale could be that for a whole day in school, the child has held in his impulses. His still-developing sense of control has been walling up all these big emotions and finally when he's out of school and he is in a safe environment with you, he lets it all out. The dam breaks and the tears and tantrums all come flying out and unfortunately, the recipient of that outburst is you. I thought it might be like that for K too. For the past 8 days while with the grandparents, her little 6 year old self has been holding up, being the big girl, the responsible child and now that she's home, she just wants to let all these emotions out. When I got that, I spoke to her gently, "Is it sometimes, you just want to cry like a baby?" It was a surprise breakthrough because she nodded and I hugged her and let her cry it all out. After that, she was back to herself again.
When we are struggling with caring for a second child, we tend to forget our oldest is still a child (maybe only 2-3 years old) and we treat him/her like a grown-up - one who can take care of himself or at least not create more trouble for you. And when our first-born falls short of that (extremely unrealistic) expectation, we sometimes react in very damaging ways. I remember K, at around 2.5 years old once asked me, "Why are you always so angry with me and so happy with didi (little brother)?" I didn't know what to say because I knew it was true, how harshly and unfairly I was treating her. Faced with her meltdowns like this, I now look at it differently. That she's just being a normal child and she has good and bad days and things that bother her. When she doesn't know how to cope, she expresses her frustrations this way. And expressing feelings is a healthy thing.
Some actions to take in the face of your child's meltdown:
- Breathe and keep calm. Your child's meltdown is NOT a reflection of your parenting or you.
- Try to find the reason for the meltdown - sometimes it's hunger, sometimes it's tiredness. Sometimes these reasons may seem small and insignificant but to the child, it's a big issue. You, as the parent, are the best person to suss it out of him or make best guesses.
- Do not shout - I'm definitely guilty here because often, I just want the fastest solution - that is to keep the child quiet. But when we ourselves are in that distressed state, will a scolding or threat of punishment help us calm down? Speaking softly and gently will be the best way.
- Try not to offer bribes or distractions - While it's probably the fastest way to stop the crying, it does not solving the problem. It doesn't help your child learn to deal with his/her emotions and solve the problem.
- Give the child many hugs
Sometimes, even your oldest kid needs gentle hugs and some kind words, and a reminder that it's still okay to be a child. That you're the adult in her life, that you will always be here for her and she will always be your baby. ♪♫