Ask Teacher Lisa: Exhausted and Needing Help

Dear Teacher Lisa,

I’ve been wanting to write you to seek guidance, but it’s been hard to find the time, energy and the words to do it.

Our family is having a real hard time, and I feel like I’ve lost my way with my daughter. I’m finding in my moments of stress or big feelings that my own default is to punish her, shame her, use harsh or unkind words, or yell. Then I feel ashamed or disappointed with myself.

I want so badly to be a gentle, kind, and nurturing parent, but I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to do it. It’s not what I was parented with, and in her new phase as a 3yo, I am really triggered by her behavior.

My child has always been strong willed and opinionated. She wants things badly and doesn’t let go easily. If we add one thing to the nighttime routine, then she needs it the next night, and the next night, and the next and the next. I hesitate to ever give her anything extra because I feel like I’ll have to fight her about it later, if I know I can’t continue to give it to her, or if I may not want to give it to her every time. For example, we have a lemon balm plant and we started having lemon balm tea before bed. She would drink literally 2 sips, if that, but she liked the ritual of it. We ran out of the leaves and she was upset and cried and screamed. Like insanity level. While I know this is normal behavior, it happens ALL THE TIME, with every little thing, and not only is it not always possible to accommodate, frankly, I don’t want to. And it wears on me. It feels like she is demanding things, and the options are give it to her but end up feeling angrier and angrier in the process, or say No and she melts down and screams. Either way I’m not emotionally equipped to handle it, and we both get flooded and flustered.

Another common conflict between us is when I ask for space for my body. Since she was a baby she’s always had pinchy, fidgety fingers. She would always try to roll my skin between her fingers. As she’s gotten older it’s no longer effective to use my physical dominance to separate my body from hers, so I try to tell her she’s hurting my body and I’ll ask her to stop. At this point she pushes back and will do it again, purposefully. I basically lose it when this happens. It is deeply triggering for me when my body is poked and prodded at, especially after I ask someone to stop.

Her sleep has regressed. My partner has taken night duty and I don’t have the emotional capacity to step in, but he is also not happy with it. She can’t seem to go to sleep on her own anymore. She doesn’t want to be alone and would come out of her room 10, 12 15 times. So my partner started staying in her room with her until she fell asleep. After a full bedtime ritual, it takes an additional hour for her to go down. Then she will wake in the middle of the night screaming for dad. It happens 3+ times a week and she doesn’t just fall back asleep when he goes in. He will be in there for an hour or more, in which he loses sleep. Then she wakes up at the crack of dawn and comes into our bed and starts kicking us. She is not getting enough sleep, and does not nap, and we feel pretty fed up with this phase.

I could go on. It has been a very painful time for me, and I am saddened by how I have been parenting. I know she is growing and changing and has emotional needs. I know she is not getting the physical exercise or socializing she needs to thrive and feel good. I recognize all this. And I don’t know what else I can do. I feel exhausted all the time.

If you have any thoughts or advice, please do share. I’m grateful for any guidance you can offer.


Exhausted and Needing Help

Dear Exhausted and Needing Help,

I’m sorry to hear you are having such a hard time. I think this pandemic and the restraints it puts on family life has put normally challenging situations over the edge for many. Both the children and the adults are lacking in the outlets they need to feel engaged, stimulated, fulfilled, to burn energy, to connect with others, and to have respite and a break from one another. The parenting challenges you are describing are not unusual at this age, but they are of course compounded by the current circumstances. It sounds like you have already done a lot of great reflection about your triggers, and about what you think is needed. I think your instincts are good. It just sounds to me like you need help. 

I recall when I was going through difficult periods like this with my sons, and I found that both me and my children were better versions of ourselves when we were around others. I know that it is obviously not possible to do some of the things that we would normally, but I think there are workarounds, and your community is still here for you. I think I would start by creating something small to look forward to for both you and your daughter every day. Since we are about to finalize our tiny school cohort groups, I think you could capitalize on that in August to start meeting up with the other families in your bubble. You guys could meet somewhere like outdoor gardens, the beach, someone’s yard, the Audubon, or some off the beaten trail local nature spots. You all could figure out Covid testing before starting, but then you should really lean on each other to get through this difficult time. I think you will find even one day of getting some time with another parent to vent and exchange strategies, and for your daughter and a peer to socialize, explore and get tired out, may help with all the issues you mentioned below.

I think feeling alone, isolated, depressed, and down on yourself is a common sentiment amongst parents of young children right now–it’s almost like postpartum depression. I’m here to tell you that you are a good parent. You’ll get through this. I think the key is group support and activity. It should lessen all the behavior issues and strengthen your ability and well of energy to deal with those that do come up. When they do, it’s okay to set clear limits about what is okay with you. If you want to make some pictures together with your daughter to hang up (like a red circle with a line through a hand pinching someone), or a make a story about difficult issues or times of day, read books about bedtime or the “hands are not for hitting” book, or even a little agreement rhyme about body space, etc. those might be helpful reminders to reference. And set up a space for you to be able to move away if she has a big reaction to limits. It’s okay for you to tell her that you need to take some space for 5-10 minutes (for both of you) to get your big feelings out. You can go away from her and close the door to your room and try some calming techniques–whatever works for you. You are then modeling for her that everyone gets big feelings and taking space from others to vent and process is okay. 

You could plan some calming techniques in advance with your daughter that the two of you will use when things get hard, so if you feel in control enough of your own anger, you could stay with her and try to move through it together. For example, you could say at breakfast, “I’ve been noticing that when it’s time to stop doing X or Mommy says no more Y, you get very upset. I know it’s hard when we can’t do/get the things we want. That’s hard for Mommy, too. What are some ways we could calm our bodies down when we have a big feeling?” Then maybe the two of you could come up with some strategies like…eating ice, doing a yoga pose, swinging upside down, tearing up a paper, punching pillows, making slime, etc. If you write them down and draw little picture symbols next to each idea and post it somewhere visible, you can reference it in difficult moments. “Oh my goodness. It seems like we need to use one of our emergency calming tools, honey! Which one should we use???” It may take some practice, but she may start to identify calming techniques that work for her. 

Also, if you and your partner are able to give each other a little window of time alone each week to do non-work related things, I think that can also help. You may already be doing that, but just thought I would throw that out there, too. Self-care in whatever ways we can get it is important.

Hang in there, mama!

Teacher Lisa

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