Today my three year old hit me. Out of rage. I didn’t allow him to have a pack of Annie’s fruit snack bunnies after dinner and he completely lost it. Not only do we have a “fruit only” after dinner rule (fruit snacks don’t count as fruit, even he knows that) he also snuck into the pantry and retrieved the snack himself. He’s supposed to ask first. I offered to put the fruit snack in his lunch the next day and he looked at me like I had lost my damn mind and screamed, “No!!!! I want it NOW!!!!” I then plucked the pack out of his hand to return it to its box and that’s when I got walloped. It’s the first time he’s ever hit me (intentionally and out of contempt) and it stopped me in my tracks. I’ve never hit him. No one, to my knowledge, has ever hit him. It was some carnal thing, instinctual. As he lost complete control over his emotions, he went caveman and attacked. He wanted those fruit snacks and was outraged at the injustice.
Three-nagers are the WORST. They have intensity of emotion, are die-hard independents, and they strive for a world devoted exclusively to their every whim and desire. They live in the moment and have little concept of other or empathy. They laugh in the face of self regulation, more often falling into the trap of reactivity.
I suppose there’s that whole issue of children having an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain that helps us regulate emotion and make good, moral decisions), but it still deflates me to see my kid lose it. Neuroscientifically speaking, it makes sense. He feels a threat, his amygdala kicks in (the more primitive part of our brain that causes us to act before we think), and he reacts instead of opting to be rational.
But it still sucks. Underdeveloped brains make for tough parenting. It’s hard to know what to do in a moment of chaos and tantruming. Parenting advice books abound but when I’m in the moment I often want to throw my hands in the air and walk away. I sometimes wonder how it’s possible for the offspring of a set of relatively calm and sound-minded parents could be so beastly.
He’s three. It will get better, someday, but tonight I self- soothed with wine, chocolate (all we had was generic chocolate chips for baking but it served it’s purpose), and a Big Mac. I had originally told my husband to bring home salads for dinner but after the “incident” I called him back and switched my order to McDonald’s. I’m not ashamed to say this is my comfort food. Ok, I’m a little ashamed.
After my kid hit me I panicked. I picked him up and carried him kicking and screaming to his room. I yelled, “We do not hit!”, threw on his pajamas, wrestled him into bed, and turned off the lights. No leisurely bedtime, no books, no nighttime cuddle, straight to bed. If you hit someone, you lose privileges and it’s game over I told him. He was confused, continued to be outraged, and his face was drippy with tears and snot.
I walked out of his room, stood in the hall, and took a deep breath. My inhale restricted as I filled my lungs against the growing knot in my gut. It didn’t feel good to walk away from him. There was no, hah! I’ve beat the three year old at his own game and taught him a lesson. I felt lousy. That’s when I became aware of the irony. Tonight, I am no better than my three year old. Instead of being the adult, I let my own amygdala get the better of me. Not that one should try and reason with their preschooler when they retreat to violence, but there are other ways I could have handled the tantrum. What did my kid learn by being tossed into bed without a proper good-night?
After a handful of chocolate chips I gathered myself and walked back into my son’s bedroom. He was still in bed, crying, no longer angry but just sad. I held him and we talked. He was quick to apologize for hitting me, and I forgave him. We snuggled a bit more. I apologized for being harsh and he returned the forgiveness. We had a serious chat about why it’s never ok to hit and he was remarkably thoughtful, “Because it hurts, right? And we should use our words when we are mad.” Yes, we should use our words when we are mad. “Mommy, I love you. I just love you.” I love you too. I gave him kisses, we prayed, I shut off his light and stroked his hair before leaving his room. Three is complicated but also beautiful. Three-years-olds are quick to lose their tempers but even quicker to forgive and to love. This is something even those of us with a mature prefrontal cortex could learn from.
As I sit here, chasing my Big Mac with a glass of wine, I offer no clinical advice for parenting a tantruming three year old. Read a book if you’re interested, there’s plenty. But I will say, in the midst of our darkest days as parents, when we are completely overwhelmed or we respond to our kids in ways we regret, reflection and a dose of humility is a powerful tool. It’s ok to discipline; it’s also ok to admit when we are more reactive than is helpful or when we’ve been overly harsh. Kids don’t need to believe their parents are infallible; in fact, I think they respect us more when we show our own humanness. Even more important, our kids needs to feel our love. To know discipline comes out of respect for them and a heart for their growth. Not as a result of mom’s short fuse.
At my house, this is a work in progress. It didn’t mean giving into the fruit snacks and failing to provide a consequence for his acting completely crazy. But, it did mean making sure my kid knew why he was being punished, why our family does not tolerate hitting, and why I still love him in spite of his poor choices. It also means remembering he’s three and being sure the consequence matches the action. At this age there is very little he could do that should warrant taking away the very best part of our day and the moment he feels most loved, our bedtime snuggle and good-night. Thankfully, I got a second chance tonight. So did my kiddo. Goodness knows we all deserve second chances.