I was getting ready to make myself an omelet when Amy came into the kitchen and asked what I was doing. I told her, and asked if she wanted one. She said, “No, I’m going to have cereal.” After wandering around the kitchen a bit she asked me to get it for her. I took down the box, got out a bowl, gave them to her, and asked her to get the raisins.
She began to be distressed, saying that she couldn’t pour the cereal herself. I calmly assured her I was confident she could do it (she’s done it before), and when she repeated herself, I asked what would happen if she tried and it didn’t work — she said she would pour too much. When I suggested that if that happened she could pour the extra back into the bag, she protested that she couldn’t do that, that then she’d have to pour again, and that she didn’t know how anyway. I said I’d be happy to help her figure that part out if need be.
By now my omelet was ready and I sat down next to her and started to eat. She’d taken the cereal bag out of the box and was playing with the clothespin we use to keep the bag closed. Then she tried to pour, and only a few pieces came out, and she put the bag down and cried. I talked gently to her some more, but she was not ready to try again or to receive reassurance.
I asked if she wanted me to show her how I would do it, and she said yes. I picked up the bag and showed how I would pull the side straight so the bits wouldn’t get caught in bag wrinkles, how I would hold it at the top and bottom to keep it straight, how I would tip it — so that the cereal almost poured out into her bowl — and then put the bag down. She cried again. I reached out to touch her shoulder warmly, and she turned away from me and then got down and ran away.
I followed her to the music room, where she’d wedged herself between two desks, sitting on the floor facing me. The closer I got the harder she cried, commanding me to leave her alone. I kept a little distance and sat down, saying that I wanted to be with her right now. We exchanged similar phrases a few times, then she crawled through the legs of one desk and ran away again. I followed her again.
Now she was back in her chair at the table. She reached for her bowl, looking like she was going to bang it or fling it down, so I gently took hold of her arm and, with my other arm, picked her up to sit on my lap on her chair, reminding her that when she starts to throw or bang something, it’s my signal to hold onto her for a while.
She began to thrash her arms and legs and cry harder — sometimes the crying would turn to grunts of effort while she focused on twisting and thrashing, and sometimes her body would get still as she focused on crying. We didn’t have much to say to one another during this part. I held on, only firmly enough to keep her with me and keep her from hurting me or kicking the table nearby. I focused on keeping us safe and on maintaining warmth and kindness, moving with her movements, stroking her during her more still moments, occasionally moving my head to where she could see my eyes if she wanted to.
After a while she was still and no longer crying — just the little chest heaves you get after a hard cry. I told her I was sorry she’d had a hard time with the cereal. She didn’t cry again or say anything.
I peeped around looking for her eyes, saying “Where are your eyes? I’d like to see them!” First she turned her head further away, but then suddenly turned to show me one eye, closed. “There it is!” I said, gently touching her eyelid. “Where’s the other one?” And “There you are! I was missing you.” “I was here — my eyes were just closed,” she said, smiling.
I asked if she was ready to try pouring the cereal again. She said no, she just wanted to cuddle with me. So we moved to my chair and I held her on my lap while I finished my omelet. After a while, I said I would need to get up soon.
She slipped off and went to her chair. She poured her cereal without a problem. She even got the milk and poured that herself, even though the gallon jug was half-full and heavy. She excitedly told me to see what she’d done, and said she’d had “confidence she could do it,” echoing my words from before. She even poured in the raisins, and when she poured in too many, laughed about it and accepted it graciously.
And this — the metabolizing of anxiety and worry, the restoration of broken connection, the replenishment of confidence and grace — this is what I love about Hand in Hand Parenting, and other gentle non-punitive connection-based parenting resources. The work we did this morning is called stay-listening — the idea is to stay warmly connected when the child is throwing a tantrum or being aggressive or crying hard or expressing upset and disconnection in some other way. You stay safe, you stay close, you stay warm, and without words, or with very few basic words, you support them in their work of emotional metabolism, being the safe refuge where they can fully concentrate on this work and carry it out.
*disclaimer* — Of course it doesn’t always go this smoothly. Sometimes I’m not in a good frame of mind to stay warm while holding her, and I have to separate myself and let her be. Sometimes I don’t get away soon enough and I lose warmth and get rigid. Sometimes I blow up. Sometimes the underlying feelings don’t fully resolve, and she’s still cranky or upset or agitated later. But this kind of session, where it goes well, is becoming more the norm.